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DURING ITS FIRST WORLD CUP FINALS, IN 2006, IVORY COAST DREW INTO THE GROUP OF DEATH. THE ELEPHANTS WERE THE WILD CARD, THE TEAM LEAST LIKELY TO ADVANCE FROM a pack of powerhouses—Argentina, the Netherlands and Serbia—and indeed they exited with two losses and a win. Four years later, after romping undefeated through qualification, Ivory Coast is again in the toughest group, having drawn Brazil, Portugal and North Korea. The difference this time: The Elephants are favored to advance to the knockout round. Which raises the question, Can Ivory Coast handle the hype?
On paper this team may boast the strongest collection of attackers in African history. Sekou Cissé, Aruna Dindane, Didier Drogba, Gervinho, Salomon Kalou, Bakari Koné and Boubacar Sanogo all contribute to clubs in the top European leagues. But so far they have failed to combine their strengths effectively on the international stage, as demonstrated by their early exit from the Africa Cup of Nations (ACN) in Angola in January. In that tournament Ivory Coast drew 0-0 against an overmatched Burkina Faso team, avoided Togo (which had withdrawn) and advanced on the strength of a 3-1 win over Ghana. Then, in the quarterfinals, the Elephants bowed to Algeria, which overcame a 2-1 deficit with two headers in injury time.
That type of late collapse typified the team mentality that then manager Vahid Halilhodzic bemoaned in 2008 when he referred to a "culture of laxity, individualism and egoism." Halilhodzic was dismissed on Feb. 27—Sven-Goran Eriksson was hired a month later—but the question remains: Can this team overcome infighting, strong egos and, especially, the memory of the ACN collapse?
If anyone can carry Ivory Coast out of that muck, it's Drogba, the emotional leader who displayed his greatness last October when his team needed only a tie in its second-to-last qualifier, against Malawi. After the Elephants fell behind 1-0, Drogba came on as a 65th-minute sub and only three minutes later buried the equalizer (his sixth goal in qualifying), sealing the World Cup bid. But it will take more than Drogba for Ivory Coast to prove there's merit to the hype that comes with having outscored its opponents 29-6 in a weak qualifying group. Before the ACN, Halilhodzic said of his team, "This generation will be playing for high stakes.... We lose all or we win all." In South Africa the stakes couldn't be higher.
This roster is stacked with talented center forwards, so Kalou, a teammate of Drogba's at Chelsea and a two-goal scorer at the 2008 Olympics, gets pushed wide, opposite Gervinho. The Drogba-Kalou chemistry, which fueled the attack under Halilhodzic, should play a large role in South Africa. But whoever the new coach is, he'll face the same issues Halilhodzic did, in particular what the coach called Chelsea's overuse of the 32-year-old Drogba, who showed up at the ACN with injuries.
Physically imposing Yaya Touré, one of the world's strongest midfielders, mans the left, in front of his older brother, Kolo. That pair will be crucial in controlling, for example, Brazil's Kaká on June 20. Offensively this group, with Romaric and Didier Zokora, lacks a playmaker. Defensively it too often cedes the midfield to opponents.
Weaknesses abound despite a physical back line of Kolo Touré—the figurative grandfather of the team—Emmanuel Eboué, Arthur Boka and Siaka Tiéné. That group is too often beaten around the flanks, and it exhibited a serious aerial vulnerability in allowing two header goals in its most important game of '09, against Algeria. Goalie Boubacar Barry is short (6 feet) for his position.