Cote d’Ivoire stars have attracted more attention than they bargained for in Brazil – now king Drogba leads the charge as they prepare to face Colombia
By Julian Bennetts in Sao Paulo
He poked his head between the leaves of the tree, glancing nervously to either side.
To his right was the Ivorian team hotel, to the left their training pitch. Directly beneath him was a 25-foot drop if the branch he was standing on failed to hold. As he glanced left Gervinho lashed home a fine volley and Yaya Toure, who was on the opposing side in the training session, lambasted his team-mates.
The Japanese journalist smiled, took out his notebook and jotted something down.
The strangest thing about that scene is that it is a far from isolated incident.
Ivory Coast’s build-up to the tournament has been dominated by subterfuge and incidents, principally with the Japanese media desperate to glean information ahead of their game last Saturday.
It clearly did them no good, as Didier Drogba inspired a 2-1 victory for his side in a fine match.
But it teaches us about the Ivorians and the way they are perceived over here in Brazil. They are, in short, kind of a big deal.
This, after all, is the tournament where they could finally make their mark on the major stage, and certainly it is the last chance for many of their team to do so.
For a start, Drogba, Kolo Toure, Didier Zokora and Boubacar Barry – who have 413 caps between them – are all aged 33 or over and are unlikely to have another chance to shine on the biggest stage.
But there is talent below them. Yaya Toure’s qualities are clear, while Wilfried Bony and Gervinho are coming into this tournament off the back of hugely impressive seasons at club level.
Still, though, Drogba is the king. He is desperate to perform at this tournament after two previous World Cups ended in bitter disappointment. True, they were in fiendishly difficult groups – they were in the same pool as Argentina and Holland in 2006, before being paired with Brazil and Portugal four years later – but they failed and this is the opportunity for redemption.
Drogba’s start to the tournament – Ivory Coast were a goal down when he came onto the field in the 62nd minute and a goal ahead four minutes later – is nothing short of inspirational.
And as they face Colombia on Thursday it is clear his team know the value of their talisman.
“For us, Drogba is more than a captain,” explains manager Sabri Lamouchi. “We take advantage of his experience, his professionalism. He is an example for young people who arrive in this team.
“When you see his name, the fact that he is an icon, not only as an Ivorian but also as an African and globally, the Japanese perhaps saw his entry as an additional weapon.
“Others were able to find more space and we took advantage. I did not expect anything else. He is a champion, a competitor. I know it, the squad knows it. We need him, he needs us.”
But even champions know they cannot defeat time. Drogba’s performances in his latter years as a player have still been extraordinary – think Chelsea’s Champions League victory in 2012 – but he will not get another opportunity like this.
So, does that mean extra pressure? Not according to Kolo Toure.
“There is no more pressure on us,” said the Liverpool man.
“There are experienced players here. We are very concentrated and will play each game without regrets.
“It is the third time we have been in the World Cup so we know now that if we play a better team we just have to play (and make sure we have no) regrets.”
To do so they will need Kolo’s brother, Yaya, at his very best. He has struggled with knee and hamstring injuries and was a huge doubt for the opening game. The 90 minutes were exhausting.
“I would have liked to have relieved him of a few minutes in the last game,” said Lamouchi.
“Unfortunately the result didn’t allow me to. He finished tired with pains everywhere. This is normal. These are his first 90 minutes after trying all the efforts he has provided to recover from his injury.” That was obvious from spending a couple of days at their training base in the rainforest around three hours north of Sao Paulo.
It is completely isolated, the nearest town’s greatest claim to fame being that it provides mineral water to the rest of Sao Paulo state.
It also offers a number of extreme sports options, and while I was there two paragliders circled overhead during training.
Security, growing suspicious, scurried around trying to discover who they were.
But the overall feeling was one of calm, of an acceptance that the time for talking is over and Ivory Coast must prove that their golden generation really is as good as we have all been told.
They have started well, and if they continue to do so they will face either Germany, Portugal, Ghana or USA in the last 16. Then we will fund out what they are truly made of without having to resort to climbing trees to do so.