Ivory Coast need a change in fortune
Background image: Warren Smith
For the past few years, the Elephants of Cote d'Ivoire haven’t quite been the trunk-blowing, orange and green stampede of African football that most expect. A disappointment-riddled 18 months tarnishes their reputation.
Players such as Didier Drogba, Kolo and Yaya Toure and even Wilfred Bony forged that reputation. The new generation can't live up. After winning the AFCON in 2015, the pressure on the successors weighs too heavily.
Ibrahim Kamara was appointed after the dust settled on Marc Wilmot's failure to qualify for Russia 2018. The Belgian was tapped by the IFF to restore the Elephants' majesty, make them a force at major tournaments once again.
A quarter-final exit from the AFCON wasn't acceptable even as Kamara tried to rebuild the squad. His veterans didn't produce. The youngsters couldn't grasp the opportunity. There is no Laurent Pokou in this squad, no one to emulate the legend who scored five in a match at the AFCON almost a half-century ago. Kamara's side managed three victories. All were laboured, lacklustre and uncreative. No CAF defences felt much pressure from the group.
The manager is stuck in a rut, as well. Rather than shake up his tactics, he stays with the tepid 4-3-3 while rotating personnel.
Captain Serge Aurier is back after missing most of the summer tournament through injury. As a leader, Aurier can bring to bear the 11 trophies won while at Paris Saint-Germain. Of course, Les Rouge et Bleu played with a stacked deck in Ligue 1. It's different in Africa. Still, the Spurs man must yield what influence he can with the youngsters.
Nicolas Pepe joins him on the flight from Heathrow, North London rivals free to be comrades again for a fortnight. Thus far, his national team experience is much like life with Arsenal.He struggles to prove himself. Often benched, the Gunners' record signing now targets three consecutive appearances for the Elephants, a long run for him. Pepe displayed his awareness to score against Congo DR.
Seko Fofana’s inclusion is a testament to change. A Parisian by birth, the Udinese midfielder earned his first call-up in 2017 but remained unselected until October’s international break. He legitimised his inclusion with a goal against Tunisia and contributed spirited performances in his other two caps this year.
Similarly, Yohan Boli was given a chance two years ago then dropped. He resurfaced in September, doing enough to keep his place through the November qualifiers.
A loyal servant to Czech league football, Ibrahim Traore won his first invitation into the squad this year, such is Kamara's willingness [or desperation] to find the right mix.
Long-serving regulars Johnathan Kodija, Wilfried Bony and Mamadou Bagayoko have all been asked to stay away from the national setup. Kamara’s courage in excluding the Aston Villa and former Swansea and Manchester City man demonstrates his faith lies in form and fitness rather than familiarity.
Kamara’s new formula must now stand the test when balls are kicked in anger. Niger and Ethiopia aren’t traditionally big players but CAF is following UEFA's lead in making the AFCON more accessible to minnows. Both will be eager to prove they deserve the opportunity. The Elephants must trample their hopes.