Tuesday May 18th, 2010

This, as you've probably heard mentioned, will be the first African World Cup. There is a sentimental belief that an African team should do well in an African World Cup, and given Ivory Coast are the African side with the greatest glut of players familiar to fans from the Champions League, the assumption seems to be that they will somehow achieve great things in South Africa. If it does, Sven-Goran Eriksson is a far greater manager than he was ever given credit for in England.

Actually that probably is the case, if only because he was the designated scapegoat after England's pitiful showing at the 2006 World Cup, when it reached the quarterfinal but only by playing football of the most soul-crushing tedium. But still, the task facing anybody taking over the Ivory Coast is monstrous if it is to live up to the expectation that sees it 10th-favorite for the tournament with the bookmakers.

To start with, let's look at this idea that African sides will be favored by playing in Africa. There is, admittedly, a mood of pan-Africanism that means that black South Africans are likely to support other black African teams at the tournament. This is something on which everybody connected with the World Cup organization from the CEO, Danny Jordaan, to the former South Africa captain Lucas Radebe has commented, and I've seen a similar phenomenon at several Cups of Nations (the most extreme example came in Ghana, where I watched fans in a bar in Sekondi cheering for Guinea against Morocco, even though a Morocco win would have almost guaranteed Ghana's passage to the second round).

That may be some advantage, but it doesn't mean that conditions in South Africa will favour, say, Ivory Coast. Its last World Cup game, for instance, was played in Munich, which is a little over 3000 miles from Abidjan, where Didier Drogba was born. Its next World Cup match will be played in Port Elizabeth, which is also a little over 3000 miles from Abidjan. And Drogba anyway moved to France when he was five; most top west African players have been based in Europe for several years.

But the Ivory Coast's problems run deeper than that. This Ivory Coast generation is arguably as good as any generation ever produced by any African nation. Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Didier Zokora all play at a high level in Europe, and yet the sense is increasingly that -- like so many groups hailed as "the golden generation" -- they will remain forever unfulfilled.

Vahid Halilhodzic, who was sacked as coach after Ivory Coast's quarterfinal exit in the Cup of Nations, has spoken of the "fear" that has gripped the side and the dreadful "sense of obligation" the players feel to their nation. It can only increase the sense of tension that in the last three Cup of Nations they have declined from finalists in 2006 to semifinalists two years ago, to quarterfinalists in Angola. A tough draw that grouped Ivory Coast with Argentina, the Netherlands and Serbia-Montenegro, could be blamed for the team's first-round exit four years ago, and it has been almost as unfortunate this time, drawing Brazil, Portugal and North Korea. Even worse, it plays the most obviously winnable game -- against North Korea -- last; as in Germany, it may already be out having lost to the group's two more favored teams.

Talk of misfortune with the draw, though, is to miss glaring flaws in the team itself. Ivory Coast has a nucleus of fine players, but they all prefer to play in central areas, and all of them have games based on power rather than subtlety, and that makes the team predictable. Gervinho, the Lens forward, is supposed to provide spark, but the only impact he made in Angola was with his haircut, which is apparently modelled on Snoopy's ears.

A lack of creativity is a common problem in west Africa, but it is compounded in Ivory Coast by the deficiencies in its back four. Kolo Toure, fine player than he was, looks past his best, and he is not helped by having alongside him at center back the hapless Sol Bamba of Hibernian.

Even more problematic is the goalkeeping position, where Boubacar "Copa" Barry endures despite a string of gaffs. At under 6-foot, he is short for a goalkeeper, and generates absolutely no confidence. Since the Cup of Nations, he has played eight games for Lokeren in Belgium, conceding 25 goals. Selective statistics like that are often unfair on goalkeepers, but nothing in Barry's play over the past few seasons has done anything to suggest they should be interpreted sympathetically. When Algeria eliminated Ivory Coast 3-2 in Angola, it seemed all it had to do to score was to float a cross to the back post.

After that defeat, which came despite Ivory Coast taking the lead in the final minute, Halilhodzic admitted that it was "unacceptable."

"If a team does that to itself it doesn't deserve to win," said Halihodzic. "Two years of work have gone in a minute." What was worrying was not merely the defensive inadequacy, but the lack of gamecraft. This is now an experienced side and, frankly, it should know better.

The "tragedy," as Halilhodzic said the defeat was regarded in the Ivory Coast, was then compounded by the decision to sack him. For all their flaws, that was the Ivory Coast's first competitive defeat in two years, which is indicative of the general problem international managers face, that tough competitive matches come round so rarely.

In Angola, he at least was with the squad for three weeks, lived with the players through the trauma of the attack on the Togo team bus near Cabidna, where they were based, and coached them through three games, in which they were deserved winners against Ghana before producing poorer displays against Burkina Faso and Algeria. Halilhodzic, at least, could have been expected to have an understanding of his squad and so be able, as far as possible given the players available, to address its weaknesses.

Eriksson is arriving cold. His first scheduled game as coach is a friendly against Paraguay on May 30, 15 days before Ivory Coast begins its World Cup campaign against Portugal. Were this a European team he were taking over, that would be hard enough, but he has never coached in Africa before, has no experience of the difficulties of infrastructure or the stifling politics of the football federation.

Being England manager has been regarded as "the impossible job" since Graham Taylor first dubbed it that. Eriksson may find being Ivory Coast manager even harder.

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