15 June ~ The head of the Ivorian football federation calls their opening match with Portugal "the final" for his team. It should at least go a long way to deciding who qualifies alongside Brazil. For Ivory Coast, the big question in the build up-has been whether captain and talisman Didier Drogba will play after fracturing his elbow in a pre-tournament warm-up match – FIFA have confirmed he will be allowed to wear a cast. Drogba has been one of the most prominent faces in advance of this first World Cup on African soil, but the first half of the qualification process was nonetheless done without his help.
With or without Drogba, another question is whether Sven-Göran Eriksson has found the time to forge a team that can live up to the reputation of its individual stars. The evidence from recent friendlies has been mixed: a draw with Paraguay, a win over Japan and a draw with Lausanne. A victory against Portugal, though possible, would be unprecedented; Ivory Coast enjoy regularly thrashing the minnows of African football but have yet to pull a surprise over a big name. That day will almost certainly come – they came close to defeating Germany in a November friendly, and at the previous World Cup put in good performances against Argentina and Holland.
Expectations aren’t high in Abidjan, the Ivorian capital, though if the celebrations that greeted Ghana’s victory at the weekend are anything to go by, the party would be huge if the Elephants win. The Africa Cup of Nations in Angola in January left a sour taste for many supporters. Entering the tournaments as favourites, the team were eliminated in their third group match against Algeria. In public, Ivorians put on a safe pessimism regarding their team’s chances, though everyone secretly hopes for something remarkable.
The defence took a lot of blame for the defeat against Algeria, and it’s difficult to see who’s going to be stopping Cristiano Ronaldo. Eriksson has been trying out defensive midfielder Didier Zokora alongside Kolo Touré, a move that has looked solid so far – the two played in the same positions together during their club days with ASEC Mimosas. Goalkeeper Copa Barry is a worry – he can look good, but he’s one of the smallest goalkeepers out there and has struggled to get even reserve team games this season in Belgium. With attacking football on both sides, many have this down as the pick of the first set of matches. Much depends on whether we see the Portugal that drew with Cape Verde, or the one that thrashed Cameroon. John James