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Familiar frailties remain for Elephants

Posted: 21 November 2013 Time: 09:34

Cote d’Ivoire became the second of Africa’s sides to claim their spot in the World Cup following a successful double-header against Senegal on Saturday. 

A nervy 1-1 draw in Casablanca was enough to see off the Lions of Teranga and guaranteed that the Elephants will advance to their third World Cup.

The euphoric scenes of relief and gratitude that greeted the final whistle were testament to the scale of the scare the Elephants suffered.

Brazil may be confirmed, but the Ivorians will not be marauding across the Atlantic as the all-conquering giants we have grown accustomed to.

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Senegal largely dominated the second leg; they were stronger and faster than their more-illustrious opposition and approached the clash with a ferocious intensity. Alain Giresse had clearly convinced his troops that qualification was not beyond them, and the Senegalese were expansive and bold as a result.

How different things could have been had it not taken them 72 minutes to break the deadlock. By this point, as Moussa Sow’s penalty hurtled past Copa Barry, it was always going to be too little too late.

In truth, Cote d’Ivoire shouldn’t even have let things get this far. As I wrote in my second leg preview, the Elephants had all but killed the tie in Abidjan, before Papiss Cisse spoiled the day in the game’s dying seconds.

The Newcastle man’s goal added a shade of doubt to the bout and gave the Lions the belief, just a flicker mind, that qualification could still be on the cards.

It was this nascent, fragile aspiration that sent Giresse’s team flying into the second leg with such vigour and such single-minded determination that the imperious Elephants looked unable to cope with them.

Ultimately, they held firm. Didier Zokora, a wholly underrated footballer, was at his best and persistently threw his body before shots, surreptitiously blocked off attacking runs and frequently anticipated the strikers’ next move to perfection.

With Senegal pushing forward in the dying minutes, desperately seeking the goal that would send them through, Salomon Kalou broke forward and fired home. His goal killed the tie and shattered Senegalese hearts. It sent both sides crashing to the tuft, Senegal in bitter despair and the Ivorians in shuddering relief.

Despite the swagger and the bravado, this Ivorian side clearly have doubts about their abilities and fear of failure certainly festered within nervous orange hearts during this contest.

While, on one hand, it seems remarkable that such an outstanding generation of players, one that has achieved so much as individuals and at club level, can crumble and abdicate the initiative like they did against Senegal.

Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Salomon Kalou; these are men who have graced the pinnacle of the sport and who have earned considerable individual praise. They should be confident in their ability to defend a two-goal advantage against Senegal and ought to have the nous and the composure not to shrink into anonymity once the opposition increase the intensity.

However, considering their collective past, it is perhaps not surprising that when playing for the national side, these figures take on such emotional burdens and display so many signs of outward psychological scarring.

Had their collapse been completed against Senegal, it would not have been a one-off. Rather, it would simply been the latest choke in a long line of big-time missteps by the fabled Golden Generation.

Despite being favourites at every Afcon but one over the last decade, they have never managed to raise the continental championship. They were defeated by Egypt on penalties in 2006 and were bested 4-1 by the same opposition in the semi-final in 2008; both defeats must have been galling, but it was their unlikely collapse against Algeria in 2010 that attention began to turn towards the players’ mental state.

The collective were never the same after goals in injury-time and then extra-time dumped them out of the tournament in Angola.

Two years later, the team vowed to relax at the 2012 tournament and avoid the stress and tension that had undermined them so frequently in the past. However, during the final, an anxious affair against the unfancied Zambia, a litany of missed chances, not to mention a fluffed Drogba penalty, only racked up the pressure on the Elephants and made nervous wrecks of them all.

Gervinho, not a player known for his tough mental fortitude, was particularly vulnerable; his missed penalty in the shoot-out left a dark shadow over the player for an extensive period – it took a move to Roma for him to rediscover his belief.

The former Arsenal man was present against Senegal, and as the Lions of Teranga begin to grow into the contest, he retreated further towards the touchline, away from the crucible of the action.

He typified how, quite remarkably, this most excellent of African generations risk ultimately remembered as lacking the mental tenacity to cope with the truly elite end of international competition.

I had hoped that the integration of fresh young players such as Serge Aurier, those not tarnished by the memories of previous failures, would improve the mentality and begin a gentle renovation of that creaking collective. The evidence of the Senegal game suggests they have a fair way to go yet before any of those ghosts are exorcised.

Following the 2013 Cup of Nations, I prematurely heralded the end for the Golden Generation. Their ultimate triumph over Senegal affords Drogba and Co one final chance to leave a lasting legacy at a major international tournament.

Perhaps the reduced expectation that will accompany the team to Brazil may have a beneficial effect on the side; maybe in the global arena they will be allowed to flourish and express their supreme talents without the typical hysteria and subsequent pressure that are normally their bedfellows.

This time there will be no second chances.

@EddyDove on Twitter

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