Ode to les Éléphants

FIF_NewCrestI didn’t want it to be a penalty. It took about 10 views before I allowed myself to see that yes, Giovanni Sio committed a foul on Georgios Samaras in the box. Greece beat the Ivory Coast fair and square, but I so deeply wish they hadn’t. Les Éléphants were a lively presence in this World Cup, showcasing the skills of Gervinho and Yaya Touré and the percussion talents of their supporters. This sport can be horribly cruel sometimes, and it’s been sadistic for the better part of the past decade to the Ivorians. Blessed with more individual talent than any African side in history, fate and circumstances seem to have conspired against them.

At 36, this was Didier Drogba’s last World Cup. It is difficult to overstate what he has meant to his team and his country over the past decade. He towers over it all. One helpful metaphor: within four minutes of his substitution against Japan, the Ivory Coast scored twice to take a 2-1 lead. Another: he helped to bring about a truce in the Ivorian Civil War after les Éléphants qualified for the 2006 World Cup. Drogba is the national team’s all-time leading scorer, a legend for Chelsea, and a national hero for reasons that extend far beyond the pitch. It is a damn shame his international career ends on a stoppage-time penalty, never having escaped the group stage of the World Cup.

But Drogba wasn’t and isn’t alone. As he was entering his international career, so too were Kolo and Yaya Touré. Kolo has played in the Premier League since 2002; Yaya has emerged as one of the world’s best midfielders in recent seasons with Manchester City. While they represented their nation in Brazil, their brother Ibrahim lost a battle with cancer this past week. One can only imagine the thoughts running through their heads during yesterday’s game.  Along with Drogba, Didier Zokora, and Arthur Boka, this was Ivory Coast’s golden generation. They have nothing to show for it. 

Months before playing in their first ever World Cup, the Ivory Coast looked to coronate this generation in the African Cup of Nations. But after a scoreless draw in Cairo, they lost to hosts Egypt on penalties in the final. Egypt defeated them in the semifinals in 2008; Algeria in the 2010 quarterfinals. For whatever reason it wouldn’t happen for the Ivorians. In 2012, they reached the final, and were favored against Zambia. But penalties did them in again.

In 2006, their first World Cup, the Ivorians had to share a group with Argentina and the Netherlands. After consecutive 2-1 defeats to the group’s powerhouses, they recovered from 2-0 to win 3-2 and restore pride in an otherwise meaningless final game, but it wasn’t enough to advance. The 2010 World Cup pitted them against Brazil and Portugal, and once again they failed to escape the group. It was supposed to be different this time. I wish it had been.

This World Cup might very well represent the end of an era for Ivorian football. Didier Drogba is expected to retire from international play. The Touré brothers will be 37 and 35 by the time Russia 2018 comes around. There is talent among the squad’s younger players, but no signs yet of stars on that level. The last eight years are littered with what-ifs for Ivorian football. I hope les Éléphants can finally provide answers in the future.

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