When Sven Goran Eriksson was manager of the England team his laissez-faire attitude to player behaviour was increasingly regarded as a weakness. His toleration of the WAGs and the "Beckham circus" appeared to undermine the team's discipline and unity.
As coach to Ivory Coast, however, those weaknesses have become virtues. Kolo Touré, the Manchester City defender, yesterday suggested Eriksson's laid-back approach to off-field affairs had created the perfect environment for "The Elephants" to flourish. "We like him because he is a really humble man," Touré said. "The team spirit is high. The manager has made a big difference. He lets the group do what we want and that is most important."
At tournament time African nations traditionally hire overseas coaches – the only exception of the six here is Algeria. With organisation a common weakness of African sides, the first priority of many imported European coaches is to instil discipline on the pitch. Most start by imposing rules off it. In his 11 weeks as coach Eriksson has focused on defensive discipline. He said after Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo had been shackled in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday, "I'm very happy with our discipline and organisation – in the past we haven't had that," but he has not coupled it with off-field strictures.
This appears to work with the Ivorians, who have highly committed senior players such as Touré and Didier Drogba, and a long-standing bond within the squad. Touré, one of eight of Tuesday's starting XI who began their careers with Abidjan's fabled ASEC Mimosas academy, added: "We have known each other for a long time, we all grew up in the same academy, to be together and play together is like playing with your brother."
That unity was evident on Tuesday when Ivory Coast had the better of the match with Portugal. Now they face a Brazilian team which looks less awesome after their unexpectedly narrow win over North Korea.
"Portugal was a good result for us because they are one of the best teams in the world," Touré said. "We played very well as a team, that was most important. We need to defend even better against Brazil but if we fight like we did against Portugal, and have the luck to score a goal it will be good." Portugal's Deco acknowledged: "They defended well and we didn't play well."
Drogba hopes to be fit to start on Sunday after playing 25 minutes on Tuesday with his broken arm in a cast. "Having him back is a big plus. I was worried he would not be fit," said Touré, "but doing well in the World Cup is about teamwork, not about one player. We also have fantastic young players like Gervinho, [Salomon] Kalou and [Aruna] Dindane."
Creditable though the Ivory Coast result was, it completed an opening round of fixtures in which only one African team, Ghana, won. "We are really proud of Ghana's win," Touré said. "We hope next time it will be maybe Cameroon, maybe us, maybe another country. The fact we are in Africa does not mean extra pressure for us. The top countries in football have lots of money to put into the team, African countries do not have those facilities, but we are still fighting."
Portugal's coach, Carlos Queiroz, insisted their draw with Ivory Coast was no embarrassment but said his team could no longer be cautious if they were to reach the World Cup's second round. Queiroz admitted his side refrained from going forward to avoid falling into a trap laid by the counter-attacking Elephants.
"This result didn't embarrass us. This is the hardest group and only two candidates will move forward," he said of Group G. "There was concern, there was nervousness, we normally attack more. We were cautious and balanced to prevent them counter-attacking."
Incidentally, Eriksson's comment that there are more smiling faces in the Ivorian squad than he saw when coaching England makes one wonder how cheerful the current England squad can be, given Fabio Capello's much stricter regime.Reuse content