MALABO, Equatorial Guinea -- There are some moments in soccer that stay with you, snippets of action that seem to represent a wider trend. One such came in 2008, in Kumasi, Ghana, in the semifinal of the African Cup of Nations. Côte d'Ivoire, with one of the greatest generations of players any African nation has ever produced, faced Egypt, the team who had beaten it on penalties in the final in Cairo two years earlier.
The expectation was that Côte d'Ivoire would have its revenge, but having fallen behind to Ahmed Fathy's early goal, the game was essentially decided in the 61st minute. Amr Zaki, the muscular, oddly hunched center-forward, slightly miscontrolled the ball as it arrived at his feet just outside the box to the right of goal. It was enough to lure Kolo Toure in for the challenge, but as Zaki recovered with some surprisingly deft footwork, Toure hesitated. Suddenly he was in an awful position, almost side-on to the forward. Whether Zaki feinted is impossible to tell, but Toure set off to his right, ran three, four paces. Zaki stood still, and then gratefully strolled through the space Toure had vacated before firing in Egypt's second. Egypt would go on to win 4-1, and beat Cameroon in the final to retain its title. Two years later, Hassan Shehata's side became the first team to win the Cup of Nations three years running.
In the Pharoah's four years of success, it's that moment in Kumasi, when Kolo Toure ran the wrong way, that sticks in the mind. It was a bizarre moment: a defender might shift his weight to the wrong foot, but to run a number of steps the wrong way represents an astonishing misjudgement. The only explanation is that Toure, returning from a groin injury, was uncomfortable turning, and so, to protect the deficiency, went early, guessing -- or reading a feint -- that Zaki would drive directly for goal.
Either way, the goal felt symbolic. Toure has never been quite the same again. Egypt's victory on home soil in 2006 always felt slightly tainted by the intimidatory atmosphere in the stadium in Cairo -- and by the abysmal refereeing in its semifinal win over Senegal. Here, though, was proof it could win abroad -- only once, previously, had a North African team won the tournament on West African soil -- solid evidence that it was the best team in Africa.
But it also suggested something about Côte d'Ivoire. Two years earlier it had been unlucky in Cairo; in Kumasi it just seemed complacent, surprisingly vulnerable against a cohesive team that attacked it. It was a similar story in Angola in 2010. Imperious in the group stage, only to come unstuck in what its coach Vahid Halilhodzic described as "three minutes of lunacy" in the quarterfinal against Algeria, going 2-1 up in the final minute, only to let in an equalizer and, still apparently dumbfounded, to leak another goal to a header from a set-piece early in extra-time. Algeria timewasted dreadfully, it's true, but there was also a weird lack of fight about Côte d'Ivoire, as though it had accepted its fate long before it was inevitable.
The problem seems as much mental as anything else, as Côte d'Ivoire's coach Francois Zahoui admits. "We've got a big problem in Côte d'Ivoire," he said. "We don't respect opponents so we go to each Cup of Nations as favorites and come back disappointed."
Once again, Côte d'Ivoire is favorite, and understandably so. The forward line of Salomon Kalou, Didier Drogba and Gervinho combines pace, power and technical ability. The midfield three of Yaya Toure, Jean-Jacques Gosso and Cheik Tiote bristles with purpose and physicality. The back four isn't quite in that class, and there are the usual doubts about Boubacar Barry in goal, but player-for-player this is the strongest team in the tournament. Even Arsene Wenger last week described them as "an incredible team and hot favorites".
The Elephants, though, seem to have been weighed down - like so many nations before them -- by being dubbed a "golden generation" before they'd actually won anything. Angola was said to be its last chance, but in all honesty most of this squad is likely to be in South Africa in 12 months as the tournament moves to odd-numbered years. If they are drinking in the last-chance saloon, they're enjoying an extended lock-in.
But the pressure, the sense of opportunities slipping away, is very much present. "This is the third time that people say we are favorites so I think 2012 will be the year of Côte d'Ivoire," said Yaya Toure. "We have a fantastic squad and I think we have a chance of going far. After the losses we have had at the Cup of Nations, I believe the squad now has the experience and right mentality."
Côte d'Ivoire was unspectacular in its opener, beating Sudan 1-0 on Sunday. The humid conditions meant a slow pace and, once Drogba had nodded in Kalou's cross to put the Elephants ahead, there was a clear sense of them reining themselves in, not overextending. The effect was to encourage Sudan, Mudathir El Tahir twice drawing good saves from Barry either side of halftime. Yaya Toure, having begun high up the pitch, operating almost as a second striker behind Drogba, fell back, and Côte d'Ivoire was able to keep Sudan at arm's length. "In the first half I played in the hole," he explained. "In the second I went a little bit back to try to control the game, because it was very important for us to protect our goal, and I think we deserved to win today. The weather was hard and this is a fantastic result."
The real tests, though, will come in the knockout stages, and there was one obvious warning sign for Côte d'Ivoire -- or two, if you include the sloppy period in which the Elephants allowed Sudan back into the game. Creativity has long been the Ivorian problem. It can batter teams down, can overwhelm opponents with pace and strength, but, in tight games, the question has always been whether it has somebody who can unlock doors. Gervinho, at 24 much younger than the core of the golden generation, was supposed to be the player who could offer that, but his decision-making, while improved from two years ago, remains unconvincing; a series of Drogba shrugs and eye-rolls suggested how frustrating he found it.
Still, a win is a win, and Côte d'Ivoire won't care that, in many ways, it's victory came in the least entertaining game so far. It's learned too often in the past that impressive victories on the group stage mean little.