The Elephants of Cote d'Ivoire are dead set on getting their second African trophy after the one they won in Senegal in 1992.
AFCON Appearances: 17
AFCON Titles: 1 (1992)
The Ivorian national football team, also known as the Elephants, easily qualified for their second World Cup in a row after their first experience in 2006 in Germany. It was also marking the eighteenth time they made it to the Continental stage.
This will mark another occasion where the Elephants will seriously be vying for continental supremacy, and of course they will be considered as favourites, thanks to their star-studded squad and impressive style of play.
National Team Manager Vahid Halilhodzic has been given the task to reiterate the 1992 Senegalese AFCON feat when the Elephants beat the Black Stars of Ghana in Dakar and brought back the African unity trophy to Abidjan after an epic penalty shootout.
Road To Qualification
Cote d'Ivoire was in Group 7 of the second round of qualifiers during the joint qualifiers to the 2010 African Cup of Nations and 2010 World Cup. The group was completed by Madagascar, Botswana and Mozambique. They easily led the Group and finished undefeated with three victories and three draws, earning themselves twelve points. They were followed, respectively by Mozambique (8 points), Madagascar (6 points) and Botswana (5 points).
Qualified to the third round of the qualifiers, Cote d'Ivoire was in Group E with Guinea, Burkina-Faso and Malawi as the other teams. Once again the Elephants remained undefeated with five wins and one draw out of their six games, topping the group and getting to their second World Cup in a row with two match-days remaining. The Ivorians took in sixteen points and were followed by an impressive Burkina-Faso side who managed to pull in twelve points. Malawi and Guinea closed the standings with four and three points, respectively.
In the African Cup of Nations finals, Cote d'Ivoire will be in Group B together with Ghana, Togo and Burkina-Faso once again.
Vahid Halilhodzic was appointed on May 11th 2008, a few months after the Ghanaian African Cup of Nation's disappointing outcome for the Elephants, who came fourth overall. He replaced Gerard Gili who himself took over Uli Stielike when the German technician left the squad to go by his ill wife's bedside.
Yugoslavian Halilhodzic has made a coaching career for himself mainly in France after having been a beloved player at Nantes and Paris Saint-Germain. After coaching Lille for four years, he took them from second division to the Champions League in three seasons, landing himself a job with his old club, the more prestigious Paris Saint-Germain where he managed to bring them back to the Champions League by finishing second in the 2004 season.
Known for his particularly hard training regimen and zero tolerance policy when it comes to his athletes' extra-curricular activities, the technician has always had excellent results wherever he has been but reaches a point of saturation when the players do not respond to the boot-camp-like techniques he frequently uses.
Halilhodzic seems to be the right man at the right time for Cote d'Ivoire to finally take their talent and potential to the next level. With his experience taking limited talent to the extreme high of their potentials, everyone is expecting him to make miracles with a team that is considered by many to have the most talented African squad ever, at least on paper.
Halilhodzic has managed to make them a force to be reckoned with by stripping the glamour and frivolity out of their game. Cote d'Ivoire has not lost a single official qualifying game during the last two rounds and have created a style attractive enough to make them the African team every heavyweight wanted to avoid.
Some might argue that anyone would be successful with such a team, chock-full of talent that it is. But Vahid has managed to put his stamp on the Elephants and is even evolving as a manager to have a more spectacular way of playing, closer to the way he used to play himself than to the way he used to ask his players at Lille and Paris to play for him.
A true African Superstar, alongside Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o Fils, is having a one of his best seasons so far. The giant had scored thirteen goals in the Premiership by December 16, which is his combined total for both the 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons. Carlo Ancelotti's influence has been flagrant to anyone following the blues lately.
As the captain of the Elephants, Drogba has been much more than just a football player. An ambassador for peace in his country, Bono-like involvement in keeping the Civil War down as well as charitable work throughout the continent make him a symbol across Africa, much like George Weah a decade ago.
Drogba has been having a great qualification campaign, scoring seven goals throughout the phase and assisting twice. A leader on and off the pitch, the ex-Marseille player will have to step his game up this winter to ensure himself a title with the national team. They fell short and lost to Egypt in 2008 (a humiliating 4-1 defeat to the two-time consecutive champions) but this whole generation's last shot at greatness will be in Luanda.
At nearly 32, Drogba won't be playing at this level much longer and has stated so in several interviews. His lucidity will help him and his teammates stay grounded and hopefully stay away from any lack of humility, the way they did in 2006.
Gervinho, Gervais Yao Kouassi (Lille OSC)
The 22 year-old midfielder and winger is becoming a starter on the team. Being a proud product of the Jean-Marc Guillou ASEC Mimosas youth academy, the young phenom did the usual trip done countless times by Mimosifcom products, leading him to KSK Beveren in Belgium before moving to another side.
Spotted very early on by Le Mans recruiters on Didier Drogba's advice, he was bought and left the Belgian club only two seasons later in 07 to play for Le Mans UC72 in the French Ligue 1. This season, after two campaigns with the Sarthian club he was bought by Lille OSC to replace new Brazil international Michel Bastos and he's been impressive to say the least. After a few necessary games of adaptation, Lille seems to be running through opposing teams like the Barcelona of France, having scored four goals each time in their last four league showings.
Thanks to a stellar Gervinho (seven goals already this season) Lille has been dominating the French Ligue 1 of late. His involvement with Lille and his good results cannot leave his national team manager Vahid Halilhodzic indifferent. After coaching Lille so long, Vahid is very keen on making him the second striker on the team after the untouchable captain. And so far Gervinho hasn't disappointed and even scored his first double as an international in the last qualifying game in the campaign against Guinea.
Gervinho will be another player to watch out for on an Ivorian team that counts many superstars.
The title, plain and simple. This is arguably the best African team at the moment and their manager's head is on the line. After falling short in 2006 and 2008, the Elephants will have to step their games up and avoid choking the way they did in 2008. With a great defence, a star-studded midfield and offense, Cote d'Ivoire can beat any team in the tournament and will have to, if they want their second continental crown.
The chances of Cote d'Ivoire not making it at least to the semi finals are slim. Even though they are in the "Group of Death" alongside Togo, Burkina-Faso and Ghana, it is fairly certain the Black Stars and them are a smudge over the rest of the group. They are the favourites the way they were in 2008, but this time their coach will be there the whole time and hopefully for him (and him if he wants to coach at a World Cup), they'll be able to make their way to the top of African football.