Snubbing the Elephants of Ivory Coast

National football team’s recurring failures have turned rapturous support of local fans cold – even icy at times.

The MG football centre in Anoumabo village in Abidjan is led by coach Richard [Kingsley Kobo/Al Jazeera]

Abidjan, Ivory Coast – Dressed in a white slim-fit football jersey, without a name or number of any player, Catherine Zadi, 34, leans on a rickety iron fence that encircles a wet, patchy lawn. She watches two male players hit a tennis ball back and forth, trying to grasp the basics of the new sport she has chosen after dumping football – her long-standing passion.

Zadi had been a football fan since the age of five and a staunch supporter of Ivory Coast’s national team, especially the Didier Drogba-led star-studded generation. She once relished delirious moments at stadiums and in front of her television but has also suffered many heartbreaking times when her team recorded unexpected losses.

“Watching Ivory Coast’s Elephants play football can give you cardiac arrest. I have had enough palpitations. I’m switching to tennis. It’s more predictable and less stressful,” Zadi says.

Frustrated fans

Many Ivorians were frustrated when their team failed to reach the knockout stage of a FIFA World Cup for the first time at the 2014 edition held in Brazil. It would have been a good opportunity for Captain Drogba and his mates to reconcile with local fans after past debacles.

But the team’s irritating exit from the competition after losing their last group game against Greece stamped out the remaining flame of love in the hearts of many aficionados, some of whom are turning their back on the team like Zadi.

I saw a silent and mourning city. Football mania was backfiring and the effect was palpable.

- Kone Ibrahim, Ivorian taxi driver

It was not the first time Ivorians were grieving and bemoaning the failures of their dear Elephants, mostly on the verge of snaffling elusive success.

In the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations final against Egypt in Cairo, Ivorians prayerfully watched the nerve-racking penalty shootout that eventually went in favour of the Pharaohs. It would have been Drogba’s first silverware offering to the nation, but it slipped away.

“We left our plates of rice, coke and beer on the table untouched and went to bed. The next day when I managed to get to work, I saw a silent and mourning city. Football mania was backfiring and the effect was palpable,” says Kone Ibrahim, a taxi driver.

Ivorians and their team suffered a graver misfortune in 2012 when Drogba fluffed a penalty in normal time that could have handed them the long-sought-after trophy in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations played in Gabon’s capital, Libreville, against eventual winners Zambia.

“We had no more tears to shed. Imagine your kids, your husband and yourself wailing like in a village funeral. That defeat affected many of us for months and we consequently ignored all what is football in order to heal our broken hearts,” Josiane Kouakou, a hairdresser says.

Many vowed never to show support for the team anymore and those who paid attention to Ivory Coast’s performance at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, hosted by South Africa, did morosely and were not shocked when the team crashed out once more, this time in the quarterfinals against Nigeria.

Sales of national jerseys nosedived across the nation, according records from City Sport, the largest sportswear chain in the country. Many fans ignored the 2014 World Cup qualifiers but when Ivory Coast made it, it aroused some curiosity characterised by wide denigrations.

“Ivorians were not aflame by the qualification of their team to the Brazil 2014. They didn’t want to be absorbed and eventually get frustrated. Thus, they were sharing their eyes, ears and time with other things when the tournament kicked off,” says Ake Pascal, a psychology professor at Ivory Coast’s second largest university in Bouake.

“But support and interest grew when the team won their first match against Japan and was on the verge of achieving a historic qualification to the knockout stage of a FIFA World Cup. We sat on the edge of our seats waiting for the blast of the final whistle to celebrate, but when the referee awarded a late minute penalty to Greece, we buried our faces in our palms, wondering if the jinx will ever be broken,” he says.

Drogba also captained that squad and at 36, many locals are calling for his departure, along with several other aging players. 

Drogba’s success

When Drogba joined English club Chelsea in 2004 on a transfer fee of $40m, he became a role model back home and inspired many young talents and the building of several football training centres across the country.

“When you asked every new lad coming to our training centre why he wants to play football, he will tell you because he wants to be like Drogba,” Coach Richard of MG football academy says.

Parents used to come and chase home their kids who sneaked down here, but Drogba's football success has changed the trend.

- Coach Richard, MG football academy

“And their parents kept encouraging and accompanying them to our centre every morning. It was never like that before. Parents used to come and chase home their kids who sneaked down here, but Drogba’s football success has changed the trend,” he says.

In 2004 and 2005, Drogba used his household image to make a solemn call on state television for Ivory Coast’s warring factions to reach a peace agreement.

He is also a member of the Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation Commission tasked with healing a nation still divided from the 2011 post election war.

However, despite his more-than-a-decade rich career, topped off with a UEFA Champions League success in 2012, and his naming by Time magazine in 2010 as one of the world’s 100 most influential people – alongside Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – Drogba has yet to win any title for his country, and many locals are unforgiving.

“Drogba remains Ivory Coast’s all-time top scorer with 65 goals and helped us to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 2006. But he never won any medal or trophy for the nation, and that leaves hollow spots in his record,” Boli George, a 24-year-old law student, says.

Ivory Coast won their first and only major title at the 1992 Africa Cup of Nations in Senegal, long before the arrival of Drogba’s golden generation.

Local league

With afflictions from the 2014 World Cup still fresh, pundits suggest attention could shift to the paltry domestic league, long abandoned for the Elephants. Local stadiums could start registering growing attendance, which should be good news for dozens of clubs playing the division one and two leagues.

“We’re observing that fans are fed up with the national team and may likely be turning to the local league first as a solace and then could pick interest later on and become regular supporters,” says Rigo Gervais, coach of Ivory Coast’s double champions Sewe Sport.

Many frustrated fans in the country are still wandering in search of a new pastime, and some have grabbed something new like Zadi, but can it replace football?

“I don’t know yet if tennis can fully take the place of football in my heart. But to stay safe and sound let me snub the Elephants and their sport for now,” Zadi says.

Source: Al Jazeera

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