Ivory Coast's new Golden Generation can succeed where Drogba & co. failed
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Ivory Coast's 2024 squad may not have the same star power as the country's fabled "Golden Generation" but, on the eve of their Africa Cup of Nations semifinal against Congo DR, they might have the resilience and momentum to succeed where Didier Drogba and co. failed.
The Ivorian generation between 2006 and 2015 was the most star-studded collective ever assembled by an African nation: Yaya Touré, Kolo Toure and Salomon Kalou were all UEFA Champions League winners; Didier Zokora, Gervinho, and Emmanuel Eboue all featured for some of Europe's biggest clubs; and Wilfried Bony was once Africa's most expensive player. With a supporting cast including Aruna Dindane, Kader Keita, Arthur Boka, Cheick Tiote, Romaric, Siaka Tiene, Guy Demel and Cyrille Domoraud, Ivory Coast boasted a depth of squad that none of their rivals could match.
They once prompted a ceasefire in the Ivorian Civil War, paving the way for reconciliation, while in Drogba they had a talismanic African great who shaped the modern identity of the modest West African nation.
This squad ended the country's wait for World Cup qualification, reaching three consecutive editions, but successive failures to reach the knockouts ultimately led to a sense that their international potential hadn't been fulfiled.
Things were even more stark at AFCON, as the Elephants flattered to deceive on several occasions. The Golden Generation were eclipsed by Egypt (2006 and 2008), Algeria (2010), Zambia (2012) and Nigeria (2013), and Ivory Coast ended their wait for a second continental crown only in 2015 after Drogba, Zokora, Eboue and other stalwarts had stepped away from the international scene.
Ultimately, Drogba -- for all his successes with Chelsea -- ended his career as one of the finest African players never to get his hands on the continent's biggest prize.
Max Gradel made his international debut in 2011, midway through those golden years, and he and Sèrge Aurier are the last remaining links to that glorious side.
With more than a century of caps to his name, Gradel has gone from being one of the squad's rookies to its most seasoned head -- a veteran of nine major international tournaments. While this side doesn't possess the star power of years gone by, the 36-year-old believes the players a thread of continuity with that golden era.
"Every generation lives its time, and it's clear that the Golden Generation wrote its own story," Gradel told ESPN. "We are the continuity of this same story, but the current generation is writing its own as well.
"It's the same thing, the same family. There's no difference [between us and them]. We are the family of Elephants. The generations may be different, but the story is the same. That's what's important to remember."
Another member of the Golden Generation, Emerse Fae, now finds himself -- most unexpectedly -- as the national team's interim head coach, having been appointed after the Elephants' disastrous 4-0 group-stage defeat by Equatorial Guinea that precipitated the exit of erstwhile manager Jean-Louis Gasset.
Fae, who was previously part of Gasset's backroom staff, has never before held a head coach role, but he has already overseen remarkable victories in his two matches to date -- eliminating holders Senegal before his 10 men triumphed over Mali with a 120th-minute winner.
The 40-year-old, who made more than 40 appearances for the national side between 2005 and 2012, knows as well as anyone how the West Africans endured regular AFCON heartbreak when they had appeared destined for the title.
"I never had the fortune to lift the AFCON as a player, with my country, for my country," Fae told ESPN. "It's not just a motivation for me, it's an obligation. I am demanding myself to bring home one AFCON. It won't be as a player, that's clear, but it can be as a head coach, and I'll work to do just that."
Fae played in the 2006 final, when the Elephants were defeated 4-2 by Egypt on penalties -- with Drogba missing his spot --- and was present when the Ivorians, as favourites, were humbled 4-1 by the same opponent in the 2008 semifinals.
Two years later, he played off the substitues bench as the Elephants -- again favourites to clinch the crown -- were stunned in extra-time by Algeria, but he had retired through injury before the ultimate AFCON shock of Zambia's penalty shootout final success in 2012.
"With the AFCON here, in my own country, it's really a dream," Fae said. "The opportunity is there, and I'll do all I can to ensure my players fight for it and wet their shirts to do it."
Unlike during the Golden Generation's peak years, when they consistently managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory -- not least when they conceded a 93rd-minute Georgios Samaras goal to miss out on the 2014 World Cup knockouts -- the 2024 side is making an art of survival in the unlikeliest circumstances.
No side before had qualified as one of the third-placed 'lucky losers' with only three points and a minus-three goal difference, and even that was made possible only by a series of results going their way -- including, most decisively, Morocco's victory over Zambia.
The Elephants then required an 86th-minute penalty equaliser from Franck Kessié to escape elimination against holders Senegal, and they survived their quarterfinal against Mali only after Simon Adingra had netted a 90th-minute equaliser for the hosts. Oumar Diakité then won that quarterfinal with a back-heeled goal in the 122nd minute, by which point Fae's side had played more than 80 minutes with 10 men.
While it often seemed the Golden Generation couldn't buy luck for love nor money, the current crop are enjoying a charmed life.
"It's miraculous, but it's our mental strength that allows us to make miracles," Fae said. "We won't just relax because we've enjoyed miracles. We absolutely want to keep the cup at home.
"We need to continue making the efforts to make sure these match scenarios continue to turn in our favour. So we keep this idea of miracles inside us.
"They didn't come just like that, but because the players pushed to the end. That's what made miracles happen.
"Going down to 10 for more than an hour, then scoring at the end, psychologically it gives us oxygen, while our opponent are maybe thinking that we're a team transformed and growing in confidence."
While the Golden Generation occasionally appeared crippled by expectation, infamously when Gervinho's nerves betrayed him during the harrowing 2012 shootout against Zambia, the current crop are increasingly looking less encumbered by pressure due to the unexpected nature of their resurrection.
"It's a semi, one match till the final, so there's pressure linked to that," Fae said. "But we're managing it by saying that we're so close to the final and look how far we've come.
"It would be a shame if we put the pressure on ourselves, and while it's not as though we have nothing to lose --that would be a lie with a final at stake -- we've come so far so we're not going to let go now."
For Gradel, it's imperative the players harness the home support at Stade Alassane Ouattara, as they did in adversity against Mali in Bouaké, rather than let supporter expectation burden them.
"We have created character in this group that helps us get through the difficult experiences that we encounter in these matches," Gradel said. "In the last match, we really felt how the players and supporters are united, and this allowed us -- whatever the match or the score -- to give absolutely everything.
"Against Mali, with 10 men, we could feel they were behind us. You felt the people push, and hearing them sing the anthem -- a man down -- was something really incredible.
"With the fans [behind us], we didn't feel like 10 men; we felt like 15 against 11."