Second time lucky? Men in orange feel the heat of expectation

No team was more unfortunate during the first round of group games than the Ivory Coast, who pushed an impressive Argentina all the way. As the talented Africans prepare for another challenging encounter against the Netherlands today, Jason Burt tests the mood in their camp
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The Independent Online

Less than 24 hours after their bruising yet exhilarating World Cup debut and the Ivory Coast played another match. This time they turned out at the tiny Aggerstadion, a modest yet neat little venue, reminiscent of a bygone age, which has also been appointed their training ground.

Last Sunday the Elephants, as they are known, played the Sports Friends Troisdorf - a Fifth Division side - and won 9-0. Five thousand locals turned out, while on the bench sat Didier Drogba with most of the team who played the Argentinians. Understandably excused duty, they happily signed autographs instead while Ivorian pop songs were pumped out over the public address system and, at half-time, there was impromptu dancing.

Troisdorf is a typical rural town set in hilly, rolling countryside and sandwiched between the Rhine and the outskirts of Cologne-Bonn airport in western Germany. It has taken the occupancy of the vibrant Ivorians, whose golf resort hotel lies a few miles outside, in its stride. Indeed in the quiet town centre there are few concessions to their presence, just the odd flag fluttering among the usual World Cup bric-a-brac and a single banner on the Taubengasse, the approach road to the training ground, wishing good luck.

But then Troisdorf is used to African athletes making their mark. The Aggerstadion is better known for its athletics track and the hall of fame mounted at its entrance notes that the 100 metres record is held by a Ghanaian, Emmanuel Tuffour, with a highly credible 10.19sec, while the best 800m time belongs to a Kenyan runner.

The Ivorians have also already impressed. Their high-octane performance in narrowly losing to a formidable Argentinian team helped to light up the tournament while the general consensus is that had they been drawn in any other group they would be favourites to progress. It's all the more unfortunate as they are by far the strongest of the African contenders and, as such, are standard-bearers for their continent.

It is also an astonishingly talented group of players - from the outstanding pair of Arsenal defenders, Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Eboué, through to Touré's brother Yaya and the Premiership-bound Didier Zokora in midfield. Then there is Chelsea's Drogba, the captain, in attack. All but one of the 23-man squad plays in western Europe, many with Champions' League experience. The slogan on the side of their team coach, as it swept into the training ground, read "Come on the Elephants. Win the Cup in style" and although they may not triumph they have certainly already fulfilled the demands to show some style. They still might progress to the knock-out stages. If they do no nation will want to face them. Two victories are certainly not beyond the Ivorians and they will cause a lot of problems for the Netherlands, who they face in Stuttgart today, and Serbia & Montenegro.

However, despite the declaration of their harried media officer Roger Kouassi that there is a clean bill of health, their exertions in Hamburg took their toll. The squad was given Monday off, with most relaxing by the swimming pool at their hotel in Niederkassel, and then went shopping in Cologne in the evening. They only started training again properly on Wednesday although that session, in the unforgiving mid-morning heat inside the Aggenstadion, appeared gentle enough. Even so Drogba sat out the final few minutes with a bag of ice to his right knee.

Kouassi is a colourful character and one who has donned the loudest of shirts adorned with World Cup emblems, the embroidered names of all the Ivorian players and a huge map of the world on its back. "Nous vous soutenons" ("We support you") reads the inscription across his shoulders but access to the French coach, Henri Michel - who ducked questions for three days in a rerun of last week's evasiveness - and players has been difficult. It is Michel's style and having guided three countries to World Cups, including his own, it is an approach with which he feels comfortable. But it is probably also a reaction to the pressure the players are under. Yesterday Michel said that his team had a "knife to their throat" in describing their predicament in the group - "If we lose we have to go home," he added - but given the context of civil war back home it was an unfortunate choice of metaphor.

The Ivory Coast used to be one of West Africa's most thriving economies. Now it's one of its most unstable places, split among ethnic groups. Football has become a focus. The team embody unity although, for some, that has become a heavy burden: players hail from the south and north and, although they are understandably reluctant to be drawn into political statements, the mood is clear. Bonaventure Kalou, a striker with Paris St Germain having also played in the Netherlands for Feyenoord, has spoken this week about the hope that football can provide "harmony". PSV Eindhoven's Arouna Kone has raised the prospect of fresh elections while Bakari Kone - no relation - said: "We've all been touched by what has happened. We're all Ivorians, and we try to help our country just by being here."

There is another dimension to today's game. The links between the Dutch and Ivorian players are strong while orange is the colour for both sets of supporters. It will be a sea of just one hue inside the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion. "The only way to determine whether fans support Cote d'Ivoire or the Netherlands could well be the colour of their skin," Arouna Kone said.

Kalou, who spent four seasons at Feyenoord, added: "It will be strange to play against my adopted country and yes there will be lots of emotion."

Indeed, if his younger brother Salomon had been successful in his passport application the two could have been facing each other. As it is, Kalou is likely to start on the bench, the one change Michel is expected to make against a Dutch side who have now gone 13 competitive matches unbeaten - including 10 consecutive clean sheets . Nevertheless their coach, Marco van Basten, who travelled to Egypt this year to watch the Ivorians reach the final of the African Nations' Cup, is well aware of the threat his country faces.

Much hope for the Ivorians will rest not just on Drogba's power but also on the ability of Kolo Touré and the other defenders to stop the Premiership trio of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben, who scored the only goal in the Dutch's first-game win, and Touré's Arsenal team-mate, Robin van Persie. At the same time Zokora will have to offer more protection from midfield.

Touré is well aware of the threat. "It is a really difficult group," he said. "And we played against the best team of the four in Argentina. We are now going to play against a second, very good team and we need to show that we, too, have great quality in our side. We didn't get the draw against Argentina that we might have deserved, and some parts of our performance weren't really what we were expecting."

Touré said that hard lessons were learnt with the Ivorians probably having to find a balance between curbing their instinct to constantly attack without inhibiting themselves too much. It's a point that was raised by his club manager, Arsène Wenger.

"It's very different playing in a finals," Touré said. "The teams we play against who have been here before have the experience and the maturity as well. You can see that out on the pitch. You can't afford to make mistakes when you are confronted by that and, against Argentina, we conceded a goal from a set-piece which you simply cannot do. Against Holland, we will need to cut that out of our game completely. We must be more mature. But we learnt a lot. You have to be ruthless at this level."

Nevertheless Touré is enjoying the experience and keen not to let that enjoyment fade. "It's exciting to go from marking Hernan Crespo to marking Ruud van Nistelrooy in a few days," Toure, whose father is a retired military officer, said. "That's what playing in this tournament means. Everyone back home is so proud. This is a dream for our country and, whether we win or lose, we want to give them something to hold on to." Michel agreed. "We now have to prove what we are capable of," he said.

World at their feet? How the African nations have fared in their first games

Togo

Started well against South Korea and led 1-0 at half-time in their Group G match, before they fell apart in the second half to lose 2-1.

Verdict: Unlucky.

Ghana

The Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien was dynamic, but the Italians exposed a shambolic defence in their 2-0 victory over the Africans.

Verdict: Outclassed.

Ivory Coast

Ran the Argentinians close in a 2-1 defeat, with Didier Drogba scoring in the 82 minute. The Ivorians are a definite threat in Group C.

Verdict: Unlucky.

Tunisia

A late equaliser by Bolton Wanderers' Radhi Jaidi in a 2-2 draw against Saudi Arabia. Tunisia are likely to be exposed against better opposition.

Verdict: Lucky.

Angola

Set up to avoid defeat against Luiz Felipe Scolari's Portugal in their Group D match, failed, and looked incapable of anything else, losing 1-0.

Verdict: Outclassed.

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