COMMENT: While the finest selection of African talent made its curtain call in cruel circumstances, the international game's great overachievers march onBy Robin Bairner in Fortaleza
It came down to a refereeing error – the latest in the catalogue that have hit the tournament, though arguably the one with the most profound consequences to date.
Giorgios Samaras kicked the turf as he attempted to sweep home a late cross, yet Ecuadorian official Carlos Vera saw it as a trip by Giovanni Sio. From the spot, the Celtic striker smashed past Boubacar Barry, and the golden generation of Cote d’Ivoire was slain, beaten 2-1 by Greece.
The Africans were on the verge of finally realising their potential and qualifying for the last 16 of the World Cup. Instead, they were issued a stark reminder that all that glitters is not gold, with the nation’s most promising generation of players left eliminated due to a defeat against a wizened team who have claimed the spot seen as being destined for Sabri Lamouchi’s side.
Just as the Africans have arguably been international football’s great underachievers over the course of the last decade, their European counterparts have overachieved in equal measure and showed the kind of killer instinct that has helped a group of seemingly average individuals to unanticipated heights.
Fernando Santos, the wily Greece coach, insisted in his press conference prior to the match that there would be no alterations to his tactics in a must-win match. Sceptical glances were cast towards the Portuguese, yet his strategy could not be faulted as his side progressed to the elimination stages of the competition at the expense of much-fancied opposition.
Cote d’Ivoire have already shown a tendency for critical lapses at key times in Brazil – Serey Die made a vital error against Colombia – and again Lamouchi’s side would implode. This time it was Cheick Tiote’s carelessness that presented Greece with an opportunity, one that was impressively punished by Andreas Samaris.
Greece certainly won few neutral hearts with their style, but Cote d’Ivoire were barely any better for long periods, mustering a first-half display that bordered on soporific at times just when they needed to be at their liveliest.
Didier Drogba was named in the starting XI for the first time in Brazil, but even the nation’s most decorated player failed to make much of an inroad in the typically robust back four of the Greeks. For a player of his magnitude to see surely his final World Cup evaporate in such a manner was, nevertheless, a painful experience.
There was no lack of desire, certainly. But it was as if the Africans had been drained of their energy. Prior to the game, Lamouchi commented that after flooding in the country, this represented an opportunity to lighten the mood back home, yet Cote d’Ivoire played as if burdened by this, while Yaya and Kolo Toure, who both featured bravely from the outset less than a week after losing their brother to illness, understandably had their own distractions.
Ultimately, though, it was a performance undeserving of knockout football.
Greece play the kind of football only an insomniac could love, although they did improve having scored the opening goal, now bestowed with open space to attack quickly into. They have reached the knockout stages of the World Cup having scored only two goals –an achievement in itself – and yet they rarely looked troubled by their opponents.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that it was this team of career overachievers that so dashed the hopes of Cote d’Ivoire’s perhaps not-so golden generation – although not in this unjust manner.
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