By Jon Pickstone and Ben Franklin, SI.com
Over the next four months, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with Ivory Coast. Click here for the full archive.
Such is the stature of Didier Drogba that, in the Ivorian locker room, even his kit is revered -- the rumors say that no one, not even fellow players, will touch the Chelsea star's gear out of respect. Not only is Drogba one of the world's best and fastest marksmen, but the striker and Ivorian captain is also fiercely loyal to his national team. Coming from a deep position, Drogba outmuscles and outpaces defenders, but he's also adroit at meeting a cross with his feet or, as he showed against Ghana in the African Cup of Nations group stage, with his head.
Drogba's Ivorian record is simply outstanding, having scored in more than two-thirds of the games in which he has worn the national-team jersey. Fittingly, the 31-year-old scored the goal that booked les Éléphants a berth in South Africa.
There's plenty more quality on display. Drogba's Chelsea teammate Salomon Kalou provides heady speed from the midfield, though perhaps not always composed creativity. Gervinho has shone in Ligue 1 with Lille and, as well as providing probing panache, is just one of several players adept at playing in a variety of positions, offering Ivory Coast great fluidity.
Gervinho can play on the wing or up front, while Yaya Touré and Emmanuel Eboué are competent in both defense and midfield. Siaka Tiéné is a midfielder, yet is presently keeping long-term incumbent and Bundesliga star Arthur Boka out of the team at fullback. On the pitch, this helps the Elephants adopt a versatile, fast-moving style, often swashbuckling forward.
What to watch for
Powerful and domineering, Ivory Coast has arguably the best talent of any African team at the World Cup. As soon as it qualified, many tipped the team to advance to the quarterfinals -- a feat attained by African teams only twice (Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in '02). Some are even going so far as to suggest the Elephants can go even further, especially in this, the first World Cup to be hosted in the African continent.
But the Ivorians' shocking elimination in the quarterfinals of the African Cup of Nations was a warning: Don't buy the hype surrounding Ivory Coast's chances of hoisting the trophy just yet. Much of the adulation is stoked by the fact that the team boasts several European superstars. On closer inspection, many have failed to show consistency. Kolo Touré's form has been suspect since joining Manchester City, mirroring that of his last days at Arsenal -- he's no longer the world-class center back he once was.
Touré's younger brother, Yaya, has been benched regularly by Barcelona, as has Eboué by Arsenal. Last summer, Honduran Wilson Palacios displaced Ivory Coast's most capped player, Didier Zokora, at Tottenham Hotspur, prompting the veteran's move to Sevilla. Furthermore, Eboué's red card for a two-footed lunge against Ghana in the Cup of Nations was the latest incident that raised questions over the team's temperament.
Still, Drogba, Kolo Touré and Kalou spoke to SI.com's Grant Wahl during the Cup of Nations about their desire to win something together. That disappointment in Angola means they're running out of opportunities, and could give them the extra incentive to prove the doubters wrong this summer.
Key match in group stage
June 15 vs. Portugal. After finding themselves in the '06 World Cup "Group of Death" with Argentina and the Netherlands, Drogba & Co. have been paired in Group G with Brazil and Portugal. Given the Elephants are unlikely to get anything from Brazil, a result in their opening fixture against Portugal is vital to their chances of proceeding to the round of 16.
Celebrity scouting report: Amos Zereoué*
It's the second time in a row we're in the Group of Death. Even if we get past the first round, we'd probably have to play Spain! No breaks. ... That first game against Portugal is a very big game, and facing Cristiano Ronaldo should be motivation enough to get it done. Then the next game is against the best country ever to play in the World Cup. But to be the best, you have to beat the best -- that's how I look at it. ... We have the individual talent, but can we play together? One of our main problems in the past is we have played 86 minutes instead of 90 minutes of football. We have lapses, but you can't do that against World Cup footballers. That's been the difference when the African teams go up against European teams. They take advantage of our errors. ... In 2006, it was gut-wrenching to watch. We dominated games against Argentina and the Netherlands, but we could not capitalize. Did we learn from those games?
* The former NFL running back is a native of Ivory Coast. He's now the owner and sometimes chef at Zereoué, a West African/French fusion restaurant in Manhattan. As told to Richard Deitsch.