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Ivory Coast’s distinctive orange shirts are sold out in Germany. It is just one of the signs of how the Elephants have been taken to heart after nearly upsetting Argentina last weekesend.
But however well they played, the players are aware that anything less than a victory on Friday against the Dutch in Stuttgart would leave them in a perilous position in this so-called “Group of Death”, whose fourth side is Serbia and Montenegro.
“We have a knife at our throats,” says Henri Michel, the journeyman coach who with the Ivory Coast is on his fourth different country at a World Cup finals. “What we lacked against Argentina [in a 2-1 defeat] was experience. There are not a lot of regrets, maybe a few small mistakes. But we know we can compete against the strongest teams at the World Cup.”
At stake is far more than a football triumph but also a valuable and rare display of national unity and the small matter of African pride.
Centre-forward Arouna Koné, never hard to spot with his bleached white hair, comes across as one of those quietly intelligent sportsmen that often seem in too short supply.
When he says “what we want to show to the country is that we can play as a team”, it may come across as trite until you realise how divided Ivory Coast is.
Once held up as a model of African progress, it is now a nation almost literally split in two. An armed rebellion in 2002 has divided the country between northern rebels and southern militia loyal to president Laurent Gbagbo. Violence has been extreme and United Nations peacekeepers have been drafted in to try to calm the situation before elections forecast for later this year.
The team’s players come from both regions, so perhaps their most important task in Germany is to present a united front.
“Our goal is to win the match but also to serve as an example to our country,” says striker Bonaventure Kalou. Nevertheless, as 22-year-old Koné notes: “We are football players not politicians.”
Moreover, they are players with no football ties to their country. Unique among all 32 teams in Germany, Ivory Coast have no player that plies his trade domestically.
Instead they play throughout Europe with a focus, naturally given their Francophone background, on France. But their two stars, Didier Drogba and Kolo Touré, both play in England, for Chelsea and Arsenal respectively.
This exposure to the European game has helped the team and given it an advantage over sides with heavy domestic constituencies.
“The European scouts concentrated on the Ivory Coast heavily and that means we have a much stronger national team,” says Koné.
He has reason to know today’s opponents better than most as he plays for PSV Eindhoven. He says the two teams are highly similar, and gives the odds at 50/50.
“They are a team of young people just like us but we are not afraid. We could have been afraid against Argentina because they had so much experience, but not here,” he says.
Ivory Coast will have been heartened by Holland’s almost total dependence on winger Arjen Robben in their opening victory against Serbia and Montenegro, and the Dutch look to have more chinks in their armour than Argentina.
Michel, who has previously coached France, Cameroon and Morocco at the finals, struck a bullish note yesterday, saying the team had not come to make up the numbers.
“If we lose the game against Holland we have to go home, and we didn’t come here to Germany to be eliminated so soon,” he says.
The second large external factor for the importance of Ivorian success is African pride. Previous World Cups have seen African sides make an increasing impact on football followers around the world, first through Cameroon and then Nigeria and Senegal. All three of those teams, however, are watching the tournament on television, having failed to qualify, and the African sides in Germany have yet to record a victory.
Their success, or lack of it, is not just important for this World Cup, but for the next one, too, which is to be held for the first time on their continent, in South Africa.
Koné acknowledges the worries, and the extra expectation regarding his team, who were finalists in this year’s African Cup of Nations. “It is a big problem. Everybody has concentrated on Ivory Coast and it would be better if we were all at the same level rather than us ahead. Each time a team doesn’t do well it’s a big shame for Africa.”
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