Ivory Coast have the chance to make history when they take on Greece in Fortaleza today – and, with it, lift the morale of both their nation and two grief-stricken squad members.
Kolo and Yaya Toure lost their younger brother, Ibrahim, to cancer last week and with Ivory Coast currently afflicted by severe flooding too, coach Sabri Lamouchi said he hoped to provide some good news by leading the Elephants to qualification for the World Cup second round for the first ever time.
"Obviously what happened to the brother is a tragedy all of us, and I would like to send our condolences to the family," Lamouchi said. "Obviously there are events in the Ivory Coast right now – there have been a lot of floods – and we are really concerned. This is not a good situation to play a match. With tomorrow’s match, we can send a positive message."
Ivory Coast sit second in Group C and will guarantee their progress to the last 16 if they beat Greece. A draw would be enough too provided that third-placed Japan did not beat Colombia by a two-goal margin or more. Greece, for their part, could yet climb from fourth place to second provided they won and Japan lost to Colombia.
Ivory Coast: Group C team profile
Ivory Coast: Group C team profile
1/5 How they qualified
Ivory Coast limped into the World Cup finals in Brazil with a 4-2 aggregate win over Senegal in the African World Cup play-offs. After dominating Group C with an unbeaten record in the preliminary qualifying rounds – winning four and drawing two – the Elephants were handed a two-legged showdown against Alain Giresse’s Senegal and claimed a 3-1 victory in their home stadium. Senegal took a one-goal lead in the second leg, leaving Ivory Coast’s qualification in the balance as the hosts went in search of a 2-0 victory which would secure them a World Cup berth on away goals. But Salomon Kalou spared Ivory Coast further anxiety when he levelled the scores on the night to ensure Ivory Coast’s passage to the World Cup.
Sabri Lamouchi took charge of the Ivory Coast in 2012 to mark his first job in management. His controversial appointment was met with disapproval in some quarters after former boss François Zahoui was sensationally dismissed from the role. Lamouchi’s inexperience only heightened the discontent that arose in the wake of Ivory Coast’s managerial shake-up, while calls for continuity at the top fell on deaf ears. The incoming former France international enjoyed a rich playing career that included stints at Monaco, Marseille and Inter Milan. But his reputation was not enhanced by the Elephants performance at the Africa Cup of Nations early in 2013, which he himself branded a ‘failure’.
3/5 Star player
It was during the Ivory Coast’s inaugural FIFA World Cup appearance in 2006 when Yaya Toure first made his potential apparent. Despite Ivory Coast’s failure to clamber out of the group stages, Toure impressed and secured a switch from Olympiakos to Monaco in August 2006, a move which triggered his march from strength to strength. The box-to-box midfielder later enjoyed a spell at Barcelona before he settled at Manchester City – gathering plenty of silverware in the process. Toure has three times been named African Player of the Year and is lauded for his versatility. The 30 –year-old complements a potent attacking threat with industrious defensive displays and an impressive ability to transition between both.
4/5 Emerging talent
Right-back Serge Aurier is reportedly a transfer target for Arsene Wenger as he sets about locating a strong replacement for Bacary Sagna. Aurier showed great potential from a young age and made his Ligue 1 debut aged just 16 when playing for Lens. The 20-year-old moved to Toulouse in 2012 - despite interest from Premier League clubs such as Manchester City and Sunderland - and immediately made a place in the starting 11 his own. Aurier made his international debut in June 2013 and has represented the Ivory Coast seven times, including both legs against Senegal in the decisive two-legged play-off that confirmed Ivory Coast’s World Cup berth.
5/5 Formation (4-3-3)
Barry; Aurier, Bamba Souleymane, K Toure, Boka; Tiote, Serey Die, Y Toure; Gervinho, Drogba, Kalou
"It’s a decisive match tomorrow," said Lamouchi, who refused to confirm whether Didier Drogba would start the match. The former Chelsea striker has come off the bench in the Ivorians’ opening two games, the victory over Japan and defeat by Colombia.
"I have 23 Ivorians and they all want to make history, whoever happens to be on the pitch,” said Lamouchi. “We’ve been working together for 40 days and we’ve been preparing for two years and I’ve never seen them work so hard. They’ve handled themselves as great professionals because this match is important to Ivory Coast."
It is so important, in fact, that newspaper reports suggest a government official has visited the camp with a pledge to double the players’ £14, 300 win bonus per player should they prevail against the Greeks today.