Team: Ivory Coast(*)
Schedule: June 14 vs. Japan; June 19 vs. Colombia; June 24. vs. Greece.
World Cup Record: 2-4-1 (Qualified last two World Cups; failed to advance each time.)
Qualifying Form: Defeated Senegal over a two-leg playoff to book its spot.
Manager: Sabri Lamouchi, a 42-year-old former French international. This is his first head coaching post.
Player to Watch: Yaya Toure. The big Ivorian is on the short list of best all-around players in the world. Perhaps Americans don’t appreciate how impressive it is for Toure to endlessly run and influence matches at his (in soccer terms) humongous 6-foot-3 frame. There isn’t exactly anyone else at his size with his level of skill on the ball. Toure scored 20 goals for Premier League champion Manchester City this season — many on free kicks. That could be his best asset in a tournament like the World Cup. Less of an asset? The on-going drama swirling over his birthday snub from Manchester City and potential move back to Barcelona.
Tactics/Style: This is still Didier Drogba’s team. How much the 36-year-old has left shouldn’t be as much of a question as the potentially shaky Kolo Toure-led defense. For three games should Drogba should be able to coax a few runs and movements in the box to trouble opponents. Flanked by the reborn-at-Roma Gervinho and Salomon Kalou, he’ll get plenty of chances to finish. Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony looks like the ideal late-game substitute to spell Drogba, as he certainly isn’t cut out for three 90-minute performances in the span of 10 days any more. Yaya Toure and Cheick Tiote (subpar at Newcastle United this season) form a solid spine in the midfield, meaning opponents aren’t going to be able to run through Les Elephants.
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WAG of Note: Anedie Azael, Miss Haiti 2011, was formerly link to Kalou.
Reason to root for: If you’re sentimental (on the Internet, ha!) it would be nice to see Drogba & Co. do something positive at the World Cup level considering how the draw screwed them in both 2006 and 2010. (More on that below.)
Reason to root against: Rooting for the Ivory Coast, by extension, feels like you’re rooting for Chelsea.
Odds of winning: 125-to-1
(*)Ivory Coast or Côte d’Ivoire: Let’s collectively go with whichever option Bob Ley uses on ESPN.
Miscellany: Gervinho is known to most English-speakers for his indifferent spell at Arsenal. He was reborn at Roma this season, but caused a stir in April when he attended an event (gasp) wearing “women’s shoes.” … Unlike 2006 and 2010, the Ivory Coast enters the World Cup without having played in the African Cup of Nations in January. Call it a boost to fitness/fatigue if nothing else. … Boubacar Barry remains the Ivory Coast No. 1 in goal, despite spending most of the past decade playing for small clubs in Belgium. He’s only 5-foot-11 — something to watch on crosses and set pieces.
Golden Generation: In conjunction with the rise of Drogba, the Ivory Coast assumed both the “Golden Generation” and “Best Team in Africa” tags for the last decade or so. On the good? The nation qualified for its first two World Cups in 2006 and 2010 but each time were handed brutal draws, failing to advance from the group stage. First finding itself lumped with Argentina and the Netherlands, followed by a group with Brazil and Portugal four years later. All the Ivory Coast has to show for itself is a pair of runner-up finishes at the African Cup of Nations in 2006 and 2012 — the latter featuring a loss to unheralded underdog Zambia. If anything, it’s another example that the “Golden Generation” tag proves to be more of a burden than anything else.
Last word: The Soccer Gods smiled on Drogba & Co., handing Les Elephants a reasonable draw. That said, this generation of Ivorian players have wilted under the pressure — notably in the African Cup of Nations. They’ll know this is their last window to put their (small) stamp on the world, but could those expectations cripple them given their history? Drogba’s sheer force of will might not be enough any more.