Drogba a winner even in the despair of defeat

Ivory Coast's inspirational captain emerges from drama with his reputation enhanced
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The Independent Online

How quickly fortune's wheel can turn. Eight days ago, Didier Drogba was the king of the penalty shoot-out, upstaging Samuel Eto'o by scoring twice in that marathon decider against Cameroon; within a week he was the villain in fate's lottery, seeing his kick saved as Ivory Coast succumbed on penalties to Egypt in the final of the African Nations' Cup. Nobody could have deserved the ignominy less, for Drogba had an excellent tournament, proving himself not merely a fine battering ram of a centre-forward, but also a great captain.

Behind the moody stare it is hard to imagine the Chelsea forward dwelling on past mistakes, but if he did spend yesterday contemplating what might have been - and the chance he lifted over the bar from six yards with 13 minutes of normal time remaining will hurt at least as much as his penalty failure - there were consoling words from his some time strike partner, Bonaventure Kalou. "Didier has been what everybody would expect," said the PSG forward. "He pushes the team; he's very important for the squad. He's somebody that every Ivorian of this age looks at and respects."

In a nation beset by civil war - and forget the sentimental notion of football uniting the country behind a common cause; if it has any impact, it is mercilessly brief - that is some claim, but it is understandable. Even amid the frustration and tears on Friday, there was much talk of Ivorian pride, and Drogba is central to that. If Marseille's Abdoulaye Meite were a more reliable defender and Henri Michel had not felt more secure replacing him with the veteran Koffiblaise Kouassi, Drogba, at 27, would have been the oldest outfield player on the Ivorian side in the final; come the World Cup, it is likely that he will be.

It is on Germany now that Ivorian eyes are focused, and they head into a group that includes Argentina, Holland and Serbia-Montenegro bolstered by the knowledge that alone among Africa's qualifiers, they did themselves justice in the Nations' Cup. Togo, Ghana and Angola slipped out in the group stages, Tunisia were thrashed by Guinea before exiting in the quarter-finals, and, as Ivory Coast began patchily, it was not just the bruised ego of El-Hadji Diouf proclaiming the "wrong teams" were going to the World Cup.

"We started the tournament slowly," admitted Kolo Touré. "Everybody expected us to go out, but perhaps they forgot that this is our first tournament together. Didier Drogba is a big player, but it's his first African Nations and you need some time for players to get to know one another's games. A lot of our players are 22, 23 years old, and that's why I'm proud of what we achieved. They are young, and in their first tournament they went straight to the final. In two years' time we hope we are going to win it. This was our first time together, and it is going to help at the World Cup, definitely."

Michel has been prickly about the subject throughout the tournament - perhaps needled by the disregard for the Nations' Cup implied by questions about a tournament still four months away - but even he, after a pantomime roll of the eyes, was prepared to acknowledge the value of lessons learned in Egypt. "We came here to win," he said, "but the experience will help us in the World Cup."

On the specifics of what he has learned, he was evasive, but he now knows he has a captain in whom he can have almost absolute faith. Drogba is always a selfless player, but what has been noticeable in Egypt has been his readiness to intercede in his team-mates' disputes as a mediator. "He is important in calming the young guys down," said Touré. "He has that experience to give himself to the rest of the squad."

And after the disappointment of his penalty miss? "Maybe he will be even stronger."

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