Sports Soccer

It's an old World Cup story for Ivory Coast

Team is experienced and talented, but 'They are the country that will always let you down'
Didier Drogba, at 36, remains a dangerous striker
Draw is more favorable than in past World Cups

Experience can be a good thing.

Or bad — depending on the experience.

Consider Ivory Coast's World Cup team, for example. Coach Sabri Lamouchi could start as many as six players over age 30 in Brazil, making his team among the oldest and most experienced in the tournament.

That's good.

But as a group, the team has experienced mostly failure, failing to get beyond the group stage in its only two World Cup appearances and failing to win the last five African Cup of Nations despite entering among the favorites each time.

That's bad.

"People would like to see that generation winning something," says forward Salomon Kalou, a spry youngster in Ivorian terms at 28.

Individually, the players haven't done that badly. Midfielder Yaya Toure has won the last three African player-of-the-year awards and forward Didier Drogba won two before that. Plus Toure helped Manchester City win two of the last three English Premier League titles while Drogba almost single-handedly won a UEFA Champions League crown for Chelsea in 2012.

Back in Africa, though? Not so much.

And that has drawn criticism even from opposing players.

"I never trust them," Tottenham striker Emmanuel Adebayor, who played for Togo in the 2006 World Cup, told the Daily Express. "They are the country that will always let you down.

"They have got the best striker in Europe in Didier Drogba. They have got the best midfielder today, Yaya Toure…..[But] there's no togetherness. Everyone wants to be the hero. Everybody wants to be the one to finish on a high so the folks remember them for what I have done, not for what we have done as a generation, nor for what we have done as team.

"Everyone wants to be like a hero and that is what is killing Ivory Coast."

The World Cup in Brazil figures to be the last chance at a resurrection for Drogba, 36, Toure, 31, and Toure's 33-year-old brother, Kolo, a Liverpool defender who was named to the Ivory Coast roster Monday despite a case of malaria.

But although it would take a miracle for Ivory Coast to win the World Cup, making it through to the quarterfinals probably would be enough to restore the golden generation's luster.

And that's well within reach for this team. Because although Drogba, who has a national-record 64 goals in 100 international appearances, has begun showing signs of age, he is still dangerous, says his coach.

"It's not complicated. Didier Drogba propels Ivorian football and the Ivory Coast team," Lamouchi told Reuters. "He is an icon, not only in … the country but also across Africa. He can be a big factor."

While Drogba is counted on to do the finishing, Toure, a physical box-to-box midfielder, does much of the prep work, allowing the rest of the midfield to concentrate on defense. Yet the biggest factor in whatever success Ivory Coast enjoys this summer could stem from last December's draw for group play.

In the 2006 World Cup, the Africans were grouped with Argentina and the Netherlands, losing to both. Four years ago, Ivory Coast was matched with Portugal and Brazil and couldn't beat them either.

This year it would appear Ivory Coast has drawn a much gentler group alongside Greece, Japan and a Colombian team now without star forward Radamel Falcao, who was left off the World Cup roster Monday after failing to recover sufficiently from knee surgery.

And although its legacy is secure and its accomplishments will be remembered as a turning point in the country's — and the continent's — soccer history no matter what happens in Brazil, Kalou says Ivory Coast's golden generation deserves to go out on a high note.

"Ivory Coast had never qualified for a World Cup before that generation. I think they have done brilliantly for the country," he said. "We have one dream and that is to win something together. Because we've worked so hard to get to this level, it would be important to achieve something together.

"It's so important for our generation and also the country."

WORLD CUP PREVIEW

GROUP C

COLOMBIA

FIFA World ranking: 5.

Last World Cup: 1998.

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (1990).

How qualified: CONMEBOL round-robin runner-up.

It's a fact: To celebrate Colombia's first World Cup appearance in 16 years, residents of an Andean village organized a soccer match last Sunday between trained herds of sheep. The sheep representing Colombia beat those playing as Brazil, 4-3.

The skinny: Colombia has been the surprise of South America under Coach Jose Pekerman, who led Argentina to the quarterfinals in 2006. But its chances in Brazil were dealt a blow Monday when Radamel Falcao, who led the team with nine goals in 13 qualifying games, was left off the World Cup roster. Falcao tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in January and though he has been training with the team he isn't fit enough to play. In his place Colombia's attacking 4-2-2-2 formation will look to midfielders James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado and striker Jackson Martinez.

GREECE

FIFA World ranking: 10.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Group stage.

How qualified: Beat Romania in European playoff.

It's a fact: Professional soccer was not played in Greece until 1979. Eleven years later the national team qualified for its first World Cup.

The skinny: In two previous World Cup appearances, Greece has lost five of six games and been outscored 15-2. But the defense-minded Greeks should fare a little better this time around. Ranked 10th in the world, they're coming off a solid performance in the 2012 Euros, where they reached the quarterfinals. They have little margin for error, though, so mistakes from a backline anchored by the Olympiakos pair of Dimitris Siovas and Sokratis Papastathopoulos could be deadly given Greece's limited scoring ability.

IVORY COAST

FIFA World ranking: 21.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Group stage.

How qualified: Beat Senegal in African playoff.

It's a fact: In Ivory Coast's three World Cup appearances, only two of its players — both backup goalkeepers — came off teams playing in the country's Ligue 1 .

The skinny: The highest-ranked African team on the FIFA world table, Ivory Coast has mostly disappointed recently, going 22 years since winning its last major title in the 1992 African Cup of Nations. The athletic, physical Ivory Coast squad won't outsmart or outmaneuver too many teams but they can outrun and overpower most opponents. The aging — but still lethal — Didier Drogba (36) will be assisted up front by Roma's Gervinho (27) and Swansea City's Wilfried Bony (25) while an old backline and 34-year-old keeper Boubacar Barry will benefit from the elasticity of end-to-end midfielder Yaya Toure.

JAPAN

FIFA World ranking: 47.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2002, '10).

How qualified: Asian Group B winner.

It's a fact: Japan was the first team to qualify for each of the last three World Cups.

The skinny: Given the makeup of the group, the biggest obstacle to getting out of group play could be Japan's frustratingly inconsistent play — since October it has tied the Netherlands and beaten Belgium but also lost to Serbia and Belarus. The squad Coach Alberto Zaccheroni has chosen for Brazil is the most experienced in the country's history, boasting Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa and Milan's Keisuke Honda, among others with a European pedigree. Japan qualified for the last five World Cups but never won a game beyond group play. The pressure is on to end that streak this year.

SCHEDULE

June 14: Colombia vs. Greece in Belo Horizonte; Ivory Coast vs. Japan at Recife.

June 19: Colombia vs. Ivory Coast at Brasilia; Japan vs. Greece in Natal.

June 24: Japan vs. Colombia at Cuiaba; Greece vs. Ivory Coast at Fortaleza.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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