Tuesday, May 16, 2006

#23: Les Elephants


Where? Western Africa, facing South, just West of Ghana.

How big? About the size of New Mexico (or Poland). Population is a little smaller than New York.

What did I learn from the CIA Factbook? Cote d'Ivoire went nearly 40 years into its post-colonial history without a military coup, but since 1999, there's basically been one after another. Here's something else I learned: my textbooks and atlases were all wrong. I grew up thinking the capital was at Abidjan. Then I heard somewhere that the capital had moved, but that it was recent. Turns out the capital moved in 1983. I know that my high school geography class (nearly 10 years later) required us to know an incorrect fact. Mrs. Hopper you have placed yourself on my list. Inaccuracy shall not be tolerated.

Is there anything of geopolitical importance? Why yes. The decade has been filled with civil war, to the point where French troops have been there for a while. In 2004, 6,000 UN peacekeepers set up shop. They were supposed to have held elections last year, but that hasn't happened. The ESPN commercial where Bono tells us that the World Cup caused a cease fire is inspiring and all, but it's not like everyone is holding hands and drinking cokes on grassy hills. There's still some serious violence.

Fun? I think it's funny that the CIA Factbook says that the Ivorian banking system's corruption makes it a perfect spot for money laundering, but it's too underdeveloped to actually do it. OK. That's more ironic than funny. This isn't funny either, but it's interesting: the Presidential Palace in the capital (Yamoussoukro, Mrs. Hopper!) is surrounded by a moat filled with crocodiles. In an odd tourist attraction, they actually have feeding time for the crocs (live chickens, supposedly). Seems a very welcoming and democratic palace.


A first time qualifier, which kind of surprised me. For a country with a relatively peaceful history (and close tie to France), they've never had much success on the pitch. But then the government falls apart and the soccer team starts playing great. Weird.

An odd bit of trivia: Cote d'Ivoire has won the two longest penalty shootouts in international soccer history. They beat Cameroon 12-11 in a 24 shot shootout, and beat Ghana 11-10 in a 22 shot shootout. Great keeping there.

Qualifying this time wasn't supposed to be good. They were placed in what most considered the African group of death (hang on to this thought for a minute), paired with Egypt and Cameroon. But despite that, the Elephants came out swinging, jumping to the top of the group, while favorites Cameroon limped along, losing to Egypt and drawing with Libya and Sudan. Things didn't stay too bright though, as Cameroon found their legs - and beat Cote d'Ivoire both times. The second loss to Cameroon dropped the Elephants from the top, and few thought Cameroon would give up the lead. But they play the games for a reason. Cote d'Ivoire won on the road at Sudan 3-1, while Cameroon gave up an equalizer in the 79th minute to Egypt at home. The Elephants didn't exactly back into the cup, but they surely had some help.

The national team is actually loaded with talented professionals. Many players play in France (and a few actually lived in France most of their lives, like Drogba). Ivorians have become some of the highest priced players in the world too, and English sides have lined up to pay ridiculous sums.

The back line is solid, with Emmanuel Ebouye and Kolo Toure, who both make Arsenal tough to score on (Toure more than Ebouye). Toure is fast, and can keep pace with streaking strikers. Also watch Didier Zokora in the midfield, who is tough enough to knock around opposing strongmen. Man U was after him for a while.

And the one player who will get the most attention, likely, is Didier Drogba. Yes, he's often a poor finisher. He's likely overpaid at Chelsea (only Rooney was paid more for in English history, well... until Chelsea sign Shevchenko for half the Ukrainian GDP this summer). But he also led the Premiership in assists. And he's scored more international goals than anyone in Cote d'Ivoire history. He's a big target, can find the net, and gets others involved. Critics will have their say, but he's the guy they'll be watching too.

Remember above when I said they were in the African "Group of Death"? Yeah, the draw for Germany did them no favors either. Group C is the toughest group. Cote d'Ivoire would advance in 6 of the 8 groups. Unfortunately, this is one of the two.

They open with what might be the best team in the tournament, Argentina. Welcome to the world's stage. Now, if I were a bold man, I'd predict Cote d'Ivoire to shock the world and pull the upset in the opener, catching the Argentines unawares, kind of like the hyped Portuguese were shocked by the USA in 2002. But I'm only sort of bold. Drogba scores early, but the Argentines get a bullshit PK to level it. A late goal by Veron makes it 2-1, undeserved.

The loss sucks the life out of Cote d'Ivoire, and the Dutch take total advantage. Van Nistelrooy scores twice in the first half, Robben adds one in the second. 3-0 Netherlands.

The hangover ends, and the Elephants decide just to have some fun in the finale. Drogba scores twice. They give up a late penalty, but they secure a win. 2-1. A big win, though it doesn't get them through.

The first two matches have to be a disappointment, but the final game shows that there's solid talent in Cote d'Ivoire. The Elephants should be back in South Africa, and could make a run there. In just about any other group, they'd advance. And I know that I've already listed all the African teams. Trust me, I have great respect for them, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of them sneak into the knockout phase. But the draw was unkind to the African teams. And worst of all to Cote d'Ivoire. That last win is worth savoring though.

If this were March Madness, Cote d'Ivoire would be... a team that comes out of nowhere, but is filled with solid talent. Good enough to knock off a big conference, but it's not clear if they'll actually do it. Maybe Northwestern State from last year?

Why waste money on metal detectors to protect the president? Just surround him with these nice little fellas.