They are the highest-ranked African side in world football according to FIFA; their roster of recognisable, big-money players means they’re a favourite for every Cup of Nations they enter. Their profile is such that pundits and fans who have little or no familiarity with African football can name much of their squad; they are the closest thing on the continent to an internationally fashionable side.
And yet Ivory Coast have won absolutely nothing of value since 1992—the first and only time they won the Africa Cup of Nations. They have gone as far as the semifinals three times since, yet even their Golden Generation has not been able to deliver that elusive trophy, to allow themselves to retire from international football in peace.
The managerial merry-go-round has been partly to blame. Since Henri Michel took Les Éléphants to the World Cup finals in 2006 the Ivorian Football Federation has been through seven managers, some who quite nearly delivered silverware (Francois Zahoui) and some whose tenures were as brief as they were forgettable (Sven-Göran Eriksson).
In the run-up to the 2012 Cup of Nations Zahoui, who would eventually take Ivory Coast to the final, told reporters, “In Ivory Coast we’ve got a big problem: we don’t respect our opponents.” And while the then-49-year-old came as close as anyone to remedying that the pressure of the moment proved too much for his players. Didier Drogba missed a penalty during normal time and both Gervinho and Kolo Touré failed to convert their spot-kicks during the penalty shootout, allowing Zambia to claim the title.
But they haven’t lost a game since. The defeat on penalties in last year’s final was Ivory Coast’s only loss in 13 matches during 2012, and they played well in a 4-2 win over Egypt this week in the build-up to the competition in South Africa.
Kolo Touré, who spoke to the BBC after the match, said the victory was “important” for Ivory Coast’s preparations, and that the manner of the win gave him and his teammates “a lot of belief.”
They’ll need it. Ivory Coast are part of the most difficult group at this Cup of Nations, and progression to the quarterfinals is by no mean a given. Especially after so many shortcomings.
Following is a look at Groups C and D. Preview of Groups A and B appeared in this space last week.
Group C: Zambia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia
Zambia in a sentence: They may have lost three successive warm-up matches before playing to a 0-0 draw with Morocco last week, but manager Herve Renard has 2012 heroes Kennedy Mweene, Christopher Katongo and Emmanuel Mayuka back in the fold and claims his side are even better prepared this year than last.
How they got here: They struggled to see off Uganda over two legs in qualification and once again required penalties—and a decisive spot-kick from Stophira Sunzu—to achieve their objective.
Scouting report: As a 21-year-old at the 2012 Cup of Nations Emmanuel Mayuka scored the only goal in Zambia’s semifinal win over Ghana and finished among the tournament’s top scorers with three goals. He’s not a big forward, but his showing in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea helped propel him from Swiss side Young Boys to Premier League outfit Southampton during the summer.
Hot seat: Herve Renard. The 44-year-old manager coaxed the very best out of a group of players that were not expected to contend a year ago. Expectations are enormous heading into the 2013 finals, where anything other than another berth in the final will be seen as a disappointment.
Forecast: Second in Group C.
Nigeria in a sentence: You’re never sure what you’re going to get with Nigeria, but after missing the 2012 Cup of Nations following five semifinal appearances in the last six tournaments the Super Eagles are looking to get back among Africa’s elite—which typically where they see themselves, no matter the results.
How they got here: Beat Rwanda 2-0 at home following a scoreless draw in Kigali and then hammered Liberia 8-3 on aggregate, Chelsea’s Victor Moses leading the way with a brace in the second leg.
Scouting report: Ahmed Musa was one of the stars of the 2011 U-20 World Cup in Colombia and also helped Nigeria to the 2011 African Youth Championship, where the Super Eagles defeated Cameroon in the final in Johannesburg. A quick, tricky winger who likes to cut inside the full-back, he hasn’t exactly lit it up since joining CSKA Moscow a year ago and will be looking to rediscover some form over the next few weeks.
Hot seat: John Mikel Obi. This is essentially his team, and his performances will be vital to any success Nigeria enjoy. Recent instalments of the Nigeria squad have been an absolute mess in the centre of the park, and he will need to keep his head and relish his leadership role for the Super Eagles to live up to their nickname.
Forecast: First in Group C.
Burkina Faso in a sentence: The Stallions have been semi-regular participants in the Cup of Nations over the last 17 years and have enough decent talent France, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe to give Zambia a run for their money in Group C.
How they got here: Got a hat-trick from Auxerre striker Alain Traoré and a successful penalty from national icon Moumouni Dagano as they best Central African Republic (who had already eliminated Egypt) over two legs.
Scouting report: Bakary Koné is Burkina Faso’s stud defender but has been struggling for playing time at Ligue 1 leaders Lyon this season due to the success of the Milan Bisevac-Dejan Lovren pairing. Still, he’s only 24 and still developing as a centre-back. At his best his size, strength and ability in the air make him an imposing defender to play against, but he has yet to consistently deliver on the sum of his parts.
Hot seat: Charles Kaboré. There are goals in this Burkina side, but like Nigeria they need someone to take control of things in the centre of the park. Kaboré has played 17 times for Marseille this season and will be charged with keeping things organised and springing the likes of Traoré and Dagano with the occasional through-ball.
Forecast: Third in Group C.
Ethiopia in a sentence: Back in the Africa Cup of Nations after a 31-year absence, Ethiopia are also top of their group in World Cup qualifying and will be a tough out in Group C if their 2012 form can be maintained.
How they got here: Slipped past Benin on away goals and then shocked the world by overturning a 5-3 aggregate deficit against Sudan into a 5-5 victory on away goals.
Scouting report: Adane Girma, who plays his club football for Addis Ababa side Saint George (winners of 10 of the last 14 Ethiopian Premier League titles), scored Ethiopia’s crucial away goal against Benin and also bagged two goals over two legs against Sudan. He’ll be his side’s go-to striker in South Africa.
Hot seat: Sewnet Bishaw. The Ethiopia manager, now in his second stint with the team, was hailed as a hero when he guided the Waliya Antelopes into the Cup of Nations and is under significant pressure to restore Ethiopia to the place among the continent’s elite it once held. His side will play a simple, short-passing game in South Africa and is made up of mostly domest-based players.
Forecast: Fourth in Group C.
Group D: Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Algeria, Togo
Ivory Coast in a sentence: The Golden Generation of Drogba, Zokora, Barry, Eboué and the Touré brothers is coming to an end, and this competition is likely their last opportunity to win a major title together.
How they got here: Beat Senegal 4-2 in Abidjan and were leading 2-0 in the second leg (thanks to a pair of Didier Drogba goals) before the match was abandoned due to rioting at the stadium in Dakar.
Scouting report: Cheick Tioté has never scored for Ivory Coast. Not that finding the back of the net is how either he or manager Sabri Lamouchi measures his performance. The 26-year-old is this team’s midfield hard-man and will play alongside veteran Didier Zokora, now at Turkish side Trabzonspor, creating a shield in front of the defense. Ivory Coast did not concede a single goal at the 2012 Cup of Nations, and responsible midfield play was a big reason why.
Hot seat: Didier Drogba. He’ll be 36 at the next Cup of Nations, so this is likely it for him. If he doesn’t lift the trophy on February 10 he’ll never be able to forget the missed penalty against Zambia.
Forecast: First in Group D.
Tunisia in a sentence: The 2004 African champions played some of the most attractive football at last year’s tournament before bowing out to Ghana in the quarterfinals—a stage they have not progressed beyond since lifting the trophy at home nine years ago.
How they got here: Struggled to a 2-2 draw away to Sierra Leone and then managed only a draw in the return leg, earning progression on the away goals rule.
Scouting report: In 2011 Zouheir Dhaouadi finished joint top-scorer as Tunisia won the African Nations Championship—a competition for domestic-based players. Now at Evian in France, the 25-year-old winger will operate on the left-hand side of Tunisia’s attack at this Cup of Nations with either Evian teammate Saber Khelifa or the country’s all-time top-goalscorer Issam Jemâa to his right.
Hot seat: Issam Jemâa. He scored only once at the 2011 Cup of Nations and will have to bag a few more goals if Tunisia are to contend in South Africa. He is his side’s top international goalscorer by far and played five years in France before transferring to Kuwait SC in 2012.
Forecast: Second in Group D.
Algeria in a sentence: Manager Vahid Halilhodžić ommitted the experienced trio of Karim Matmour, Rafik Djebbour and Madjid Bougherra from his Cup of Nations squad and will struggle to take offensively-challenged Algeria out of the Group Stage.
How they got here: Eased past Gambia in the first round of qualifying before beating rivals Libya 3-0 over two legs in the second round.
Scouting report: Faouzi Ghoulam played his U-21 football for France but was talked into declaring internationally for Algeria by Halilhodžić. He has yet to earn a senior international cap but has made 15 Ligue 1 appearances for Saint-Etienne so far this season and played 33 times in 2011-12 as the team’s first-choice left-back.
Hot seat: El Arbi Hillel Soudani. The 25-year-old striker plays his club football in Portugal for Vitória Guimarães and has a phenomenal goalscoring record for Algeria. He’ll play up top alongside Islam Slimani at the Cup of Nations and will be heavily relied upon for goals over the next few weeks.
Forecast: Third in Group D.
Togo in a sentence: Togo withdrew from the 2010 Cup of Nations after three of its personnel were killed in an ambush in Angola, but despite returning to the international stage The Sparrow Hawks are back in the press for the wrong reasons, with all-time top-scorer Emmanuel Adebayor saying Togolese football is “sick.”
How they got here: Eliminated Kenya on away goals before ousting 2012 co-hosts Gabon 3-2 on aggregate thanks to an Adebayor winner.
Scouting report: Serge Gakpé has played much of his professional career in France and represented Les Bleues at every underage level before declaring for Togo in 2009. He scored the only goal of Togo’s win at home to Kenya in the first round of qualifying and will push for minutes up top in South Africa, especially if manager Didier Six falls out with Emmanuel Adebayor.
Hot seat: Emmanuel Adebayor. His feuds with the Togolese Football Federation are well-known, and just recently he was quoted as saying the FTF was “in need of medicine.” That said, he’s only in this Togo squad because FTF president Gabriel Ameyi overruled manager Didier Six and named him in it. Given that, it will be curious to see how the Spurs forward and Six get on over the next few weeks.
Forecast: Fourth in Group D.