Neil W. Blackmon
Soccer history is chock full of “golden generations”, whose biographies include tremendous triumph (Spain, present day) and ignominious failures (Holland, 1970’s, England 2000’s). The stories on both sides provide ample, compelling drama. What soccer history is not full of is “African golden generations,” and as the African Cup of Nations kicks off this week in South Africa, the lone country with a group of players who’ve worn that weighty label will, in the stoppage time of their careers, take one final shot at glory in the form of silverware. Once again, the Ivory Coast are the clear favorites to capture the African continental championship and with it a berth into this summer’s Confederations Cup in Brazil. One last time, Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers, Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zokora and Boubacar Barry will attempt to redeem the label thrust upon them nearly a decade ago: most talented team ever to come from Africa.
Simply put, there is no reason not to favor the Ivory Coast. They boast a group of players even beyond the golden generation core above that any manager would love to have. Gervinho, Cheick Tiote, Salomon Kalou and Wilfried Bona, the top scorer in the Dutch league this season, will all figure prominently in the proceedings over the next couple of weeks. But make no mistake: it’s the golden generation of players, the ones who have failed over the past five tournaments to deliver any hardware at all, who will be lauded if the Elephants finally succeed and lambasted if they again fail to deliver. They know it, despite Drogba’s protestations that there is little pressure this week. Their coach, Sabri Lamouchi, knows it, indicating to the press this week that “there has been a mental block by past failures,” but insisting that “the pressure does not scare us.” We’ll see.
Heartbreak has trailed these footballers at every turn. Last year, there was Drogba’s shocking penalty miss in the final against heavy underdog Zambia. In 2010, an offensively-challenged Algeria side dumped them out of the tournament in the quarterfinals. In 2008, Samuel Eto’o, playing the finest football of his life, spelled doom for the Ivorians, and in 2006, it was a relatively strong Pharaohs side from Egypt that did the trick, although the Elephants were favored in both matches. Making matters worse, this was all sandwiched between a World Cup exit in 2006 that featured only a meaningless win in the final fixture against Serbia and Montenegro, and their last tournament effort in South Africa. Dubbed by at least a few outsiders as genuine contenders to win the first World Cup held on African soil in 2010, they were cruelly dropped into the tournament’s “Group of Death” where they again won only their final match, and again did so when the group had already been decided. If the future success of a golden generation were available on an exchange, this group would have been a terribly disappointing investment. And that’s a terrible shame, because this team, this core of players, is remarkably likeable.
Unless you wear Chelsea-hater blockers, Didier Drogba is one of the most likeable figures in soccer over the past decade. Drogba encouraged his own country to pursue peace in the build-up to World Cup 2006, donates money to a national soccer academy for orphans at home in the Ivory Coast, and has a personal story straight out of Oliver Twist. African player of the year Yaya Toure may have left benevolent hegemon Barcelona for the darker green pastures of Manchester City, but he delivered a championship to the Eastlands and with it donated an enormous chunk of his new PUMA endorsement deal to pay for football boots and equipment in his home country. Emmanuel Eboue’s charity, “Education for All” focuses not simply on improving educational infrastructure at home but providing simple things like clothing and soccer kits for students, with extra rewards for exceptional academic achievement. The story of ASEC Mimosas, a private soccer academy bankrolled by many of these players, was featured on ESPN in 2010 and is doing great work for unspeakably poor children at home.
We could go on, but the point is this is not only a group of players who play, when at their best, a stylish, lovely brand of football but also a caring, giving and humble group of players proud of who they are and where they came from. This distinguishes them, in a way, from “golden generations” that have failed in the past. The England of the 2000’s featured pure class in the form of David Beckham and Steven Gerrard but also claims John Terrry, who would likely change Will Rogers’ mind regarding meeting folks he didn’t like. The 1980’s Argentina sides played stylish, attacking football but were hardly likeable—brash, unapologetic and hard-partying, one wonders what they would of accomplished had they been more focused. Holland of the 1970’s failed due to in-fighting—a product of too-large egos or simply too much time together on the great Ajax teams, depending on who you ask—but a hubris evokes tragedy case in point nonetheless. None of that seems to apply to the Ivory Coast. It’s hard not pull for them to finally breakthrough. And there’s little reason, outside of mental demons, why they should fail.
The key pieces from 2012 and 2010, by and large, return. Gervinho is playing terribly at the Emirates, when he plays, but he did deliver a double against Bob Bradley’s Egypt in the final tune-up this week, suggesting there may be a bit of Gio Dos Santos in him- Clark Kent for club, Superman for country. In addition, Salomon Kalou is playing regularly and as noted, Wilfried Bony is having a massive season in Holland, so there are attacking options outside of the aging Drogba. The midfield will be the class of the tournament with Toure in the middle, and unlike in 2012, where bad weather and unpredictable pitches were part of the tournament’s driving narrative, the South African stadiums are just three years removed from the World Cup, and pitch conditions should be pristine, which tends to favor the team with more quality. Certainly the Elephants will need double pivot Cheik Tiote to have a large tournament playing behind Toure, but he’s more than capable of doing so against this field and shouldn’t be prone to the large quiet stretches he often is guilty of in England. The backline has plenty of depth, and while Kolo Toure hasn’t played much this season, he’s still one of the best defenders in Africa and is more than capable of marshaling this back four through this tournament given how much of the ball the Elephants should have in the group stages and the early knock out round. So yes, on paper, this is a side that again seems destined for glory.
At home, the pressure is again immense. The Ivory Coast government contributed a national record 10 million dollars to the side for their preparation in 2012, only to see failure. At 31, Kolo Toure senses the finality of it: “Most of the team are in their thirties…we need to now win this tournament. That is the only thing missing in our record, and has been for quite some time.” Toure is correct—if not now, when? Brazil will be a tall order regardless of group placement for any country not from South America or the Iberian Peninsula, and it’s another year down the road. Nothing is guaranteed. South Africa will have great motivation as the hosts, but there’s no odd twist of destiny involved, as was the case with Emmanuel Mayuka’s Zambia and the plane crash a year ago. Plus, there’s the added incentive, empirically proven in soccer history that sometimes you just have to prove you can win something before you make a genuine breakthrough. Perhaps victory on the continent will unlock the blueprint to achievement in Brazil. Beyond that, there’s the pride a country still recovering from two civil wars would and could take in the one consistent unifying team finally delivering a championship.
In a way, it’s a shame (though unsurprising) that the first African “golden generation” arrived at a time its own country was in complete disarray. Beyond lingering racisms on the European continent, economic and social misery at home have long held back the full potential of African sides. Things at home, and through much of the continent, are, of course, slowly improving. Like most the continent, the Ivory Coast’s demographic is changing: the country is getting younger, more socially connected and increasingly urban. Coupled with the national soccer academy and other training facilities the golden generation have helped to finance, there will be other golden generations that emerge from Cote D’Ivore and elsewhere on the continent. And, to paraphrase Simon Kuper, who marveled at the sheer number of games within local communities after visiting Cameroon, Africans are good at football because they play a lot. It is the central unifying force within their culture. The quality and the cultural want-to are preexisting. Many, including Pele, were simply waiting for a “golden generation” to deliver. Ivory Coast were supposed to unlock the key. Perhaps over the next month, in South Africa, they will.