The Africa Cup of Nations has always been one of my favorite international tournaments, and for the first time it's possible for fans in the U.S. to watch every game live easily and legally, thanks to ESPN3 picking up the rights. One of the biggest storylines is whether a remarkable generation of Ivory Coast players -- Didier Drogba, Yaya and Kolo Touré, Salomon Kalou, Gervinho and others -- can finally get over the hump and win the tournament after falling short in each of the past four occasions.
"We were so close last year," Kalou said over the phone last week from South Africa. "We won five games out of six but lost the final on penalties [to Zambia]. It's a bad memory. But if we keep the positive side in mind, we didn't concede any goals, and we scored a lot. We have to take that part of it and hope this can be our year. We've been running after that trophy for a long time, since 2006."
For years now, Ivory Coast has been considered the most talented team in Africa. But Les Éléphants have been drawn into the Group of Death at the past two World Cups, and their AFCON runs have been cut short for a number of reasons, from lack of defensive discipline in some instances to purely bad luck (last year). For Kalou, who won the 2011-12 Champions League in his final game with Chelsea and now plays for France's Lille, the lessons of previous tournaments can help this Ivory Coast team.
"It's not always the best team or the favorite that will win the tournament," Kalou said. "It's the team that will fight hard every second of the game and not rely on their technical ability but on their team spirit and their capacity for working and fighting together. That's the team that will win.
"We're a group of players that have been together for so long, we don't even have to play together to know each other. We know how each other plays, how each other wants the ball. But we can't just rely on that. We also have to work hard as a team. Sometimes that has been the question about us."
Ivory Coast kicked off the 2013 AFCON with a 2-1 win over Togo and a 3-0 victory against Tunisia on Saturday. The big drama is yet to come, of course, in the knockout stage. But you can be sure that it'll be worth watching. Fans of European soccer may wonder why it's worth losing their top African players for a month during the middle of the club season, but national team play has a huge importance in Africa. That's why the stars keep going.
"You can be in big clubs and winning trophies with them, but back home this tournament is the most important thing for [the fans]," Kalou said. "They want to feel like as long as you give your best representing your country, they're proud of it. For us, playing for our country is the most important thing as a footballer, when you hear the national anthem of your country. It's a special feeling."
It's hard to believe Kalou is still only 27 -- he started playing in Europe for the Dutch club Feyenoord when he was just 18 -- so he'll have more chances to play in future AFCON tournaments. But the same can't be said for every star on this Ivory Coast team, and Kalou knows that as well as anyone.
"We just want to win the trophy," he said. "A talented generation like ours cannot go through a decade of tournaments and not win a single one. This year can be our year. I believe we have the team and the ability to do it."