How do you weigh a golden generation? Is it a count of their trophies or is it the individual talents contained in the crop?
Sadly for Côte d’Ivoire’s footballers there was no harvest of glittering crowns. Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora and Boubacar Barry did not fulfil the promise of medals.
True, there was consistency - finals in 2006 and 2012, quarter-finals and semi-finals. But the first Cup of Nations trophy since 1992? Nada. Nichts. Nothing.
Ironically, the heirs to these unfortunates are in the semi-finals and playing the pragmatic football that might bring them the elusive prize.
It would be a case of glory delayed for Côte d’Ivoire. And ultimate victory would be received wryly. Hervé Renard’s Zambians foxed the Elephants in the final in Gabon three years ago. There were otherworldly forces at work that night in Libreville but in the cold light of day Renard has brought change.
“This is not a Côte d’Ivoire side playing beautiful, flowing football,” says Jonathan Wilson, editor of the football magazine The Blizzard. “And maybe the problem they had with the golden generation is that they overplayed at times. They perhaps felt the responsibility to always take the game to the opposition. Renard had the Zambia team and they played defensively but you thought, OK it’s Zambia so of course they’ll play that way. This Côte d’Ivoire side is doing exactly the same and so far it’s working for them.”
Successful only insofar as they are into the last four against Democratic Republic of Congo. But at least they are there. Tournament after tournament, the Ivorians entered the Cup of Nations as the team to beat even when the Egyptians were in their pomp. Algeria had that stamp at the 2015 competition. But in a pulsating quarter-final, Côte d’Ivoire came through against them. And the Ivorians were anointed with the old sign rather to Renard’s chagrin.
“I don’t know why the pundits change their mind now. A few weeks ago we were like my Zambia team – underdogs. But football is like that: quick changes of opinions. To be honest I’m not interested in outside expectations. We have our own expectations.”
Followers of Renard and his roster of close-fitting white shirts will know that his expectation is number one.
“I’m only interested in that,” he added. “I’m not satisfied with the rest.”
Success for the 46-year-old will reestablish his reputation. After leading Zambia to their trophy, they returned in 2013 as defending champions and suffered the indignity of going out in the first round in South Africa. A move into club management in France ensued. But it was a rapid fling with Sochaux as they were relegated from the French first division.
His appointment as Côte d’Ivoire coach was logical. The man who had engineered one of their biggest setbacks was now at the helm. Here was also someone who could look the big stars in the eye and say: “You may be a top, top player but I’ve won something you haven’t.”
Egos beware. Veteran keeper Barry – approaching 100 caps – has been replaced by Sylvain Gbohouo. Wilfried Bony has stepped into the shoes of Drogba. Nobody is yet arguing with Yaya Touré.
Renard says the Ivorians are a force of nature when going forward but are still too porous at the back. Algeria exposed those defensive deficiencies during the quarter-final in Malabo but could not score.
Renard’s inherently cautious tactical approach is perhaps the stabilising factor the team has yearned for.
“Renard has learned that you have to be pragmatic in tournament football,” added Wilson. “And at times you have to temper the desire of your players to attack. What Renard has been saying about Serge Aurier has been interesting. Aurier is having a great tournament but he had in his head that he was an attacking full-back but Renard has had to convince him that his job is to defend and if he can get to go forward after that - great - but the first job is to keep a clean sheet.”
That shut-out has only happened once in the tournament – in the 1-0 win over Cameroon in the final Group D game that helped them to advance as group winners. The semi-final in Bata will be against a DRC side which put four past Congo in 26 minutes. Dieumerci Mbokani was muscle and bustle while Yannick Bolassie was tricky speed at its most scintillating. DRC have the pace and power to punish the Ivorians. The match will show if they have the poise.