It took a stunning goal from Rachid Alioui of Morocco to confine the Elephants of Ivory Coast to the dust bin of history as the defending champions who failed to win a single match in the group stage of the competition they won two years earlier. This reality was not due to lack of personnel or knowhow – more traceable to the long limiting attitude of the average Ivorian ‘superstar’.
Not a few occasions in recent past when the Ivorian team had been tipped to go far from one competition to the other. Even at the FIFA world cup in 2006; Africans had a lot of hope in the Elephants believing they could cause a shock and make the continent proud. Unfortunately; the West Africans seem to thrive in the rings of flattery without substance of delivery.
They strolled into the semifinals of AFCON 2008 like peacocks showing no regards to the superpower of African football at the time; the Pharaohs of Egypt. And oh my, they did play with what is now known as swag – misplacing simple passes and showing ineffective skills against a much more mature, disciplined and focused team. At the end of 90 minutes, they were taught a bitter lesson and ended up conceding four goals to exit the tournament at that crucial stage. I remember the celebration that trailed Kedu Keita’s screamer that reduced their deficit to a goal. They were still celebrating when Egypt scored the third goal just four minutes later to put the match to bed.
An African proverb says that ‘thunder doesn’t strike the same place twice’ but that does not resonate with the Elephants as they threw away one opportunity after another. They lost to an average Algerian team in the quarterfinals in 2010, capitulated in penalty shootouts against the Chipolopolo of Zambia in the finals of 2012 and were taught a bitter lesson in respect of the opponent by the Super Eagles of Nigeria in the quarterfinals of 2013. All these happened when they had the best collection of individual stars that Africa had on offer.
The appointment of the humble and simplistic Herve Renard in July 2014 culminated in the first triumph at the AFCON in 2015 since they last held the trophy 25 years ago. Ironically; the Black Stars of Ghana defeated by the humble but determined Elephants of 1992 mirrored the egocentric stars in parade by Cote d’Ivoire today.
Herve’s single focus on result through hard work and respect of the opponent had earned him a solid reputation on the continent. No wonder the authorities in Yamoussoukro went all the way to hire him after he bested them in the finals of 2012. He succeeded in instilling discipline and respect in the team that had mega stars like the Toure brothers and Didier Drogba.
Having imbibed the ‘rules of life and success’, they defeated a very talented Black Stars team through the penalties kicks that produced the champions in 2015. But that was then!
As I watched the Elephants yesterday against Morocco; I marveled at how a team could play with such laxity in a match that was the determinant of their continuous quest in defending their championship. It suddenly dawned that what Renard taught had once again been overtaken by arrogance disguised as confidence and it did them in when Rachid Alioui was allowed to pick a perfect shot to beat their goalkeeper who was off a yard not in anticipation of any danger.
Unfortunately and at this level of competition; you must always anticipate danger and be deferential towards what your opponent can do. I guess that is not the way the Elephants are set up and on that I humbly rest my case!