By Charles Walmsley
Has there been a more emotional victory that Zambia’s in the African Cup of Nations final? Nineteen years on from the plane crash that took the lives of 18 members of their golden generation that had defeated Italy in the 1988 Olympics and promised World Cup qualification, a side without any superstar players returned to Gabon, the country of the tragedy, to win a major trophy for the first time. Even the locals could not ignore the alluring narrative as they threw aside rivalries to support Herve Renard’s team en masse. Yet in this final another, less compelling narrative was being formulated as the Ivory Coast’s own ‘golden generation’ once again left a tournament empty handed.
There was a sense of inevitability in the disappointment; it was the fourth time that a side blessed with the gifts of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and the Toure brothers failed to convert their position as pre-tournament favourites into ultimate victory. Throughout the tournament they had been functional rather than brilliant, creating little but defending very well – they didn’t concede a goal in the finals, indicating that Francis Zahoui was trying to avoid the sudden capitulations that had afflicted the side in the three previous competitions. This defensive focus would have been alright had Didier Drogba been the player that he was four, or even two years ago. As it was though they relied too heavily on his goal scoring prowess, especially as Gervinho brought his awful club form this season with him. Although Drogba finished joint top of the scorers chart he was remarkably inconsistent, especially in the final where his dreadful penalty miss once again raised questions about his performance under pressure.
Drogba was not the only big name player to underperform though – the aforementioned Gervinho scored a great solo goal in the semi-final against Mali but was largely anonymous for the rest of the tournament and missed the penalty that allowed Zambia to win the shoot-out. This has underlined the strange thing about the ‘golden generation’ – the star players are often the worst performers in the big games. It isn’t simply a case of playing with worse players than they’re used to since in the current squad six play in the Premier League, four in Ligue 1 and two in the Bundesliga. Perhaps, like England’s golden generation, players don’t have enough coherence as a team. Certainly Zambia were far more unified in the final, united through having played with each other in effectively the same team since U17 youth tournaments, as well as the emotional spirit of the 1993 plane crash. Yet this Ivorian side have played together for a long time as well and, unlike that England side, have been strong until a single moment of capitulation, as in 2010 when they allowed Algeria back into their quarter final with a last minute equaliser, or in 2008 when Egypt put four past a previously solid defence.
Their greatest issue has probably been the weight of expectation as they, like all golden generations, followed a much weaker side so were instantly called upon to guarantee success almost from the moment they arrived on the international scene. Now, more than half a decade after their first World Cup qualification, the question is whether this side will ever succeed. In any other year this would probably have been their last chance but the change in the tournament’s dates, moving to odd rather than even years, means that this golden generation may have one more chance to claim a trophy. Even this may be optimistic though as Drogba eyes a lucrative end of career move to China or America and the likes of Yaya Toure consider their future in the national set-up, not wishing to miss club action two Januarys in a row. It now looks likely that the side will join Beckham, Owen et al in the long list of failed golden generations.