JOHANNESBURG, January 11 – Every month FIFA compiles African rankings and Ivory Coast have been top of the charts for so long it appears they have exclusive rights to the highest rung on the ladder.
It is a deserved position as the ‘Elephants’ from the western seaboard of the continent win many matches, draw some and lose rarely at competitive or friendly level.
They have a squad that must make rival coaches envious with the Toure brothers, Kolo and Yaya from English Premier League champions Manchester City, and long-serving captain Didier Drogba just some of the stars.
But for all the strength and skill of the Ivorians, the ‘golden generation’ have never emulated the team of 1992, who brought the Africa Cup to Abidjan for the only time after winning a marathon shoot-out with Ghana in Senegal.
Ivory Coast come to 2013 hosts South Africa as favourites to win the January 19 to February 10 tournament despite a challenging first-round group that includes former champions Algeria and Tunisia plus little-to-lose minnows Togo.
They were also favoured to win in 2006 when they lost on penalties to hosts Egypt and in 2008 when they were too confident and took a 4-1 semi-finals pasting from the Pharaohs in Ghana.
Come 2010 in Angola and nothing had changed — this time the Elephants would trample all before them — but someone forgot to tell Algeria, who snatched a last-minute equaliser before winning a quarter-final thriller in extra time.
The same scenario unfolded in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea last year with Ivory Coast the team to beat and although no rival succeeded in doing that, the gold medals eluded the ‘golden generation’ once again.
Usually deadly spot-kick taker Drogba blazed a regular-time penalty over the crossbar against dogged upstarts Zambia, who survived 120 often torrid minutes and won on penalties.
This must have been the most heart-breaking of all the failures for ageing Drogba and the Toures after five victories and a draw and not one goal conceded during 570 minutes of action.
South Africa represents a final chance for China-based Drogba and once again they are the choice of the pundits to win the final on February 10 at Soccer City, a Soweto stadium which is the largest in Africa with a 93,000 capacity.
“This Africa Cup is undoubtedly my last,” the striker, who will bow out of international football at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil if Ivory Coast qualify, told an Abidjan newspaper.
“I want to pour my whole heart and strength into this Africa Cup. We have come so close to winning the trophy twice, but that does not mean we should slow down. We have learnt from our failures and are returning to win the title.”
While many stars have survived the last seven painful years, the coaches change after each tournament and inexperienced Tunisia-born French citizen Sabri Lamouchi is the latest saddled with fulfilling the great Ivorian expectations.