In Côte d’Ivoire, the word of the season is émergence. The president, Alassane Ouattara, has made it a core message to turn the country into an “emerging economy” – with fast growth, rising living standards, and investment appeal – in the next few years. In the witty Ivorian popular culture, émergence is the new benchmark: if the lights goes out, the electric company is having trouble emerging; when you apply for a job, you’re just trying to emerge. Inevitably, an émergence dance has appeared. Folks are having fun with this.
One might think that Côte d’Ivoire’s presence at the World Cup, with a relatively kind draw (Colombia, Greece, and Japan) can only add to the émergence story. Unfortunately, the mood among supporters this year is muted. “We’re mainly pessimistic,” blogger and tech entrepreneur Mohamed Diaby told me via Twitter. “Ivorians will not blink an eye if the team ends up dead last in the group,” writes Phil Paoletta, a Cleveland native who runs a restaurant in Abidjan. “We can at least look forward to the jokes.”
The problem is that this Côte d’Ivoire team is largely the one that qualified for the World Cup in 2006, the country’s first time, only to land in the Group of Death with Argentina, Netherlands, and Serbia, and then crashed again in 2010, with a loss to Brazil and a draw with Portugal. No dishonor there, but the team leaders are older now, and have not given way to generational renewal. Captain Didier Drogba, is 36. Didier Zokora, once known as “Maestro,” is 33 and without a club. Goalkeeper (and liability) Boubacar Barry is 34. Even the superb Manchester City midfielder Yaya Touré (who is fighting a nagging injury) is 31.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the manager, Sabri Lamouchi, who was appointed to general surprise in May 2012. Lamouchi, who at 42 is barely older than his players, is a former second-choice French midfielder with no prior coaching experience. He replaced well-regarded local coach François Zahoui, who had just taken the Elephants to the final of the 2012 African Cup of Nations, where they lost on penalties to Zambia. The defeat was seen as another case of Drogba’s generation falling short of its potential. But things have not improved with Lamouchi. The Elephants were insipid in AFCON 2013, losing in the quarter-finals to Nigeria. The team has flashes, but no longer a signature style.
If all this sounds like an exercise in managing expectations – well, it is. No one got to Brazil by accident, and Côte d’Ivoire has a solid squad with experience as a group and individually in top clubs across Europe. Cheikh Tioté and Salomon Kalou are in their prime. Gervinho has found a second wind at Roma. Max Gradel is a pillar for Saint-Etienne. Sharp young players such as Toulouse defender Serge Aurier, 21, and Swansea forward Wilfried Bony, 25, may enjoy personal émergence at the right time. The first-round group seems wide-open. And if the Elephants come in burdened by age and lackluster coaching, they are at least free of pressure from the home crowd.
From the perspective of Ivorian politics and economics, this is probably a good thing. In 2006 Côte d’Ivoire’s qualification came in the midst of a complex political and military conflict that paralyzed government and stalled development for nearly a decade, and the team became a vital symbol of national unity. (The myth that “Drogba ended a civil war” has been thoroughly debunked, however, most recently by Jordan Conn in Grantland. It was propounded by foreign journalists in the first place.)
During the 2010 World Cup as well, the country was tense, with elections meant to end the crisis just months away. They ended in a stand-off, with former president Laurent Gbagbo refusing to concede defeat to Ouattara, resulting in four months of near-civil war. Gbagbo was militarily removed with French and United Nations help, and sent to The Hague to face International Criminal Court (ICC) charges of crimes against humanity.
Now, things are settling down; the economy is reviving, and political life, though still marked by the conflict years, is resuming. Just yesterday, June 12, the ICC confirmed the charges against Gbagbo, meaning that he will go on trial – at some point in the future – and not be freed, as his supporters had hoped. Whatever one makes of the politics, this means dynamics in Côte d’Ivoire can continue on the path to normalization . We don’t yet know if émergence will happen in earnest, but at least the nationalist stakes around the Elephants have been lowered. Fans in Abidjan can finally enjoy a World Cup without crisis – free to poke fun at their squad if it fails to deliver, and celebrate if it springs a surprise.