COMMENT: The Cote d’Ivoire captain has endured numerous near-misses over the last decade and has the chance to finally lift the Africa Cup of Nations trophy in Sunday’s final
By Peter Staunton
When Yaya Toure reaches for that famous orange shirt before the Africa Cup of Nations final on Sunday, he will look around and see that the dressing room is a very different place to when he first appeared on this stage in 2006. Then, he was the spirited young buck, with the bulk of Cote d’Ivoire’s fabled, yet cursed, “Golden Generation” about to step out of the shadows and express themselves on the world stage. Among the starters that day and this were Yaya and his brother Kolo. All others have shuffled off the scene after a decade of underachievement.
“Ivory Coast has always had good players but we didn’t do it,” Yaya said. “For years now we’ve been chasing this trophy, the Africa Cup of Nations, but we’ve not got it. This year is going to be the time again to do it. I hope at long last with my national team we can do it.”
Yaya, Kolo and Boubacar Barry, the reserve goalkeeper, are the only players left from that 2006 campaign that whispered a promise to the football world that has yet to be fulfilled. Yaya is the centre-piece of this Ivorian team under Herve Renard and is the man in possession of the captain’s armband. That armband festooned the biceps of Drogba for many lean years before being passed on to Toure. At 31, it shall be his destiny, and not Drogba’s, to finally get his hands on the Africa Cup of Nations.
“Since I’ve been young, I’ve always dreamed of lifting lots of trophies and now I’m very happy with all I’ve done in my career,” Toure said. “But I think this Africa Cup of Nations has always been my target as an African and for African football it’s very, very important for your country as well. I hope one day, maybe not now, totally I hope I will lift this trophy because it’s very, very important.”
Toure has played six Afcon tournaments – reaching the final twice – as well as three World Cups. It is one of the great contradictions of international football that the four-time African Footballer of the Year has had such a modest impact on his national team. He played no part in the penalty shootout in 2006 when Egypt won on home soil. He was substituted late on in the piece. It was a similar story in 2012 when Zambia beat les Elephants on penalty kicks. That final rammed home the notion that names alone would not be sufficient. “More hunger, more desire,” would be required in Toure’s assessment.
Ivorian fans had been feasting on caviar for years, quipped coach Herve Renard, so it is time they got used to semolina. The Frenchman’s mandate upon taking the job, following another dismal World Cup, was to finally purge the old guard and pave the way for a new generation. The Cote d’Ivoire are really looking towards 2019’s Afcon under the current management but are well ahead of schedule. The recall of Kolo, as well as the captaincy of Yaya, demonstrates that there remains a place, however temporarily, for the survivors. This is a team in transition; 2006 meets 2019 with the Toure brothers the bridge. It’s too late for the 2006 team. Too early for the 2019 one.
Yaya’s reign as captain has been, thus far, modest. He led the team at the World Cup where Drogba was mostly summoned from the bench. They bowed out, again, at the group stage. However, there are mitigating circumstances to Toure’s muted displays in Brazil – the tragic and untimely death of his brother Ibrahim during the tournament.
Since then, under Renard, Cote d’Ivoire and Yaya have picked up steam. Their Afcon qualification campaign was erratic. They shipped 10 goals in four qualifiers before Kolo was summoned back. Yaya came in for acute criticism for the perceived disparity between his performances for City and the national team.
There were even question marks coming into the tournament. Yaya received his ceremonial shirt celebrating 100 caps in the warm-up friendly against Cameroon but a century of appearances alone did not excuse his performances from scrutiny. He appeared sluggish and did not seem to be enjoying his football. He was hauled off by Renard twice in the group stage but has gradually got to grips with the occasion.
There are still fans at home who resent the fact that Toure is the captain while Drogba kicks his heels on the Chelsea bench – as if a victory without their great talisman is somehow diluted. However, he began to win them all over with that swing of his mighty right leg in the semi-final against DR Congo.
“I hear a lot of people saying things about Yaya Toure in Africa, but he’s a big player,” said Renard. Toure has been playing deeper for Renard than he does for City but he found his place on the edge of the box to lash home a stunning half-volley and set Cote d’Ivoire on the road to Bata.
Renard’s methods are finally beginning to tell. The switch to a three-man system in defence, with Kolo being flanked by newcomers Wilfried Kanon and Eric Bailly, has allowed Serge Aurier to flourish at wing-back. It also demands that Yaya cover more ground as a defensive midfield player. He has done so diligently; not too big a character to muck in with the rest of them. That is to his credit.
“Ivory Coast is not Manchester City,” Renard said. “The potential of the player is not the same. Manchester City have so many top-level players to defend, to build play very well, and Yaya can play further forward, behind the front two. We have to ask Yaya to do a different job, to play further back. But he is a professional, he will do as I ask. I explain what I want and he does it.”
And the pay off, for nearly a decade of service and a century of caps, is close. On his sixth try, an African title to go with his four individual ones beckons. Toure has a keen sense of succession; the need to pass the baton to those coming through. The failure of many national teams, and not just Cote d’Ivoire, has been the refusal of the senior cadre to take their leave. That will not be a problem for Yaya. He has grown into his armband.
“Drogba said for him it was the right time to let the young lads continue,” he said. “For my part, one day I will retire from the national team because we need to give the responsibility to the young lads coming through and give them their space and their place to play because we’ve been there sometimes it’s difficult for them to make it. But I think we need to leave a good example.
“One day you have to step down. At the moment I’m full of energy. I want to continue far. I don’t know until when. For the moment I have an ambition – my ambition I’ll keep to myself, I don’t want to say that – I’m not finished yet and I have a few trophies to lift again and I hope God will help me to lift this trophy.
“For me, I have a few things to fight for and I think, definitely, I’m prepared for it and I’m working very hard to have the cup. I hope one day to lift it.”