In the absence of Didier Drogba, Cote d’Ivoire have a new leader in Yaya Toure, who is now expected to lead his country’s charge for a long-awaited second Africa Cup of Nations trophy which the retired Drogba could not achieve.
Chelsea striker Drogba has retired from international football and so will not be leading the Elephants in Equatorial Guinea.
The big striker provided class and inspiration as the 1992 African champions returned to top reckoning by reaching the 2006 Nations Cup final, where they lost to hosts Egypt on penalties, and qualified for three World Cups – 2006, 2010 and 2014.
The Elephants were thereafter dubbed the leading favourites to win subsequent tournaments, but even when they again reached the final in 2012 they were upstaged by an inspired Zambian side.
Several of those from the country’s ‘Golden Generation’ led by Drogba like Didier Zakora, Arthur Boka, Emmanuel Eboue, Kader Keita and Aruna Dindane will not be Equatorial Guinea thus bestowing the mantle of leadership on Manchester City star Yaya.
The Elephants though have struggled leading up to this year’s tournament – scrapping past a Nigerian side drawn from players in the domestic league, before they fell 2-0 to Sweden in warm-up matches in the United Arab Emirates.
But the 31-year-old Yaya is a world-class box-to-box midfielder, whose undoubted quality was further underlined when he was voted the CAF African Player of the Year for a record fourth successive year this month.
He has also won several major trophies with his various clubs, from Asec Mimosas of Abidjan to Barcelona and Manchester City, where he played a key role in the club’s two English Premier League titles in the 2011/12 and 2013/14 seasons.
Critics though have been quick to point out Yaya has failed to translate his form at club level to the full international stage, like was the case at last year’s World Cup in Brazil, where the Elephants failed to go past the first round.
After the disappointments in Brazil and the 2013 Nations Cup, where they were outscored by less fancied Nigeria in the quarterfinals, the west Africans have tried to pick up the pieces under French coach Herve Renard to qualify for Equatorial Guinea 2015.
But even that qualification was not the easy cruise it once was as they finished in second place, four points adrift of group winners of Cameroon, who thrashed them 4-1. They were also stunned 4-3 at home by DR Congo.
Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon will renew their rivalry in Group D, which also has Mali and Guinea.
It is a first round group that will most certainly test the leadership of the new Cote d’Ivoire team leader and his commitment to his country’s cause.
And not too far away will be the question whether Yaya could go a step farther than what his predecessor Drogba accomplished with this team.
“Again, it will be difficult because all teams out there are good and worthy winners,” said Yaya in a recent interview.
“We will have to fight hard and give a bit of extra and match the big boys – we have Ghana, Algeria, Senegal and many other big teams, but as the saying goes, to win trophies, you have to beat the big teams, and that is what we hope we can do.”