JOHANNESBURG – The penalty shootout that settled the final of the African Cup of Nations last February is generally remembered for the emotion of the Zambians, winning the tournament in the city in which the Zambia national team had been wiped out in a plane crash 19 years earlier. But alongside their joy and tearful memories, there was another story being played out. Didier Drogba looked shattered. Gervinho openly wept. On the bench Francois Zahoui pursed his lips with the air of a man who knows dismissal has just become inevitable. The failure of Cote d'Ivoire's golden generation went on.
In 1992, Cote d'Ivoire (also called "Ivory Coast" in the West, to that nation's dismay) won its only Cup of Nations, inspired by the goalkeeper of Alain Gouamene, who didn't concede a goal in the whole tournament and then both saved a penalty and scored a penalty in the epic shootout that settled the final against Ghana. There were rumors - all denied - that he'd carried in his boot the tooth of an elephant, a muti charm that supposedly made him appear bigger in the eyes of forwards. A group of witch-doctors from a suburb of Abidjan insisted they were responsible for the success but when the Ivorian federation refused to pay they put a curse on the national side.
Finally, after 10 years of underachievement, the Ivorian government decided to act in 2002 with the Defense and Civil Protection Minister Moise Lida Kouassi publicly begging forgiveness for "the promises which weren't kept after the 1992 Nations Cup." He gave the witch-doctors a bottle of spirits and US$2,000 and asked that, in return, "the village, through the perceptiveness of its wise men, will continue to help the Republic and, in particular, the minister of sport."
Cote d'Ivoire qualified for the next World Cup finals.
It was probably less down to the lifting of a curse than the quality of players. That squad included Didier Drogba, Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zokora, Arouna Kone and the Toure brothers. Salomon Kalou would soon join his brother Bonaventure, and Gervinho had become a fixture by 2010. This is one of the greatest generations of talent any African nation has ever produced - and yet, despite two World Cup qualifications, it remains unfulfilled.
In 2006, Cote d'Ivoire reached the final but was beaten by the host, Egypt, on penalties. Drogba, who had been majestic through the tournament, fluffed a sitter with 10 minutes of normal time remaining and then missed his penalty. He'd led a young side superbly, always encouraging, intervening to calm potential flashpoints, a dignified, almost statesmanlike presence far removed from the petulance he often demonstrated in a Chelsea shirt.
Two years later, Cote d'Ivoire got to the semifinal. Again it met Egypt and this time it was hammered, losing 4-1. Kolo Toure, having picked up a groin injury on the opening game, returned to the side for that game, palpably before he was ready, and was destroyed by Amr Zaki. He arguably hasn't been the same player since. Two years after that, Cote d'Ivoire looked to have scored an 89th-minute winner in its quarterfinal against Algeria. But then Madjid Bougherra headed an equalizer in injury-time and Hameur Bouazza grabbed a winner early in extra time. Stunned, Cote d'Ivoire couldn't respond.
Cote D'Ivoire was favorite again in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon last year. Stung by past errors, the Elephants adopted a cautious approach, waiting for opponents to make errors and then pouncing. As in 1992, it didn't concede a goal in the whole tournament but, in the final, when Zambia conceded a penalty with 20 minutes remaining, Drogba lashed over the bar. Unlike 1992, Cote d'Ivoire then lost on penalties.
After four near misses, what seemed unthinkable seven years ago suddenly seems very thinkable indeed: this Ivorian generation may end up winning nothing. For Drogba, at 34, this is surely a last chance. "We have a team capable of great things at the 2013 Cup of Nations," he said this week with more than an air of weariness. "It would be great to win the trophy now. Honestly, we are getting tired of losing out each time. We showed great solidarity against Senegal [in qualifying]. We fought together, everybody gave of himself and this helped us to win. And now everybody expects a trophy. We hope to give the cup to our country."
Cote d'Ivoire has hoped before. It's had the best squad before. And this generation has always failed before. It's come to feel that Cote d'Ivoire's biggest opponent in South Africa may not be the other teams so much as itself. Disappointment breeds demons and it was surely those as much as Algeria that beat it in 2010. They perhaps weighed on Drogba as he stepped up to take the penalty in the final a year ago. The biggest obstacles to Ivorian success are probably their own memories and expectations.