Sun, Feb 03, 2008 - Page 22 News List

More than victory at stake for favorites Ivory Coast

AFP , SEKONDI, GHANA

Ivory Coast's Salomon Kalou takes part in a training session in Sekondi, Ghana, on Friday ahead of their Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final match against Guinea.

PHOTO: AFP

Much more than victory will be at stake when favored Ivory Coast confront Guinea today in their Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final.

Chelsea striker Salomon Kalou, whose dazzling winner against Nigeria meant the Ivorian Elephants topped Group B with maximum points, said a successful national soccer team unites the politically troubled country.

An uneasy peace exists in Ivory Coast between the Christian south and Muslim north since a failed coup attempt six years ago against President Laurent Gbagbo.

"If we can bring the Nations Cup home it will enhance the prospects of peace. Ivory Coast is a good country that does not deserve to be divided," said the star who forms a deadly strike force with Chelsea teammate Didier Drogba. "We try our best on the football field because success brings happiness to our people and when disputes break out no one benefits."

Kalou was tipped by Neil Tovey, retired captain of the 1996 South Africa Cup of Nations winning team, as a player who could emerge from the shadows and become a star of this year's tournament.

And no Ivorian will forget how he settled the battle of the giants on the second day of the competition, exhibiting superb ball control to dribble past several Nigerians before planting the ball past Austin Ejide.

Ivory Coast then gave Benin and Mali three-goal hidings to banish memories of the last Cup visit to Ghana eight years ago when they returned in disgrace after an early exit and were detained at a military camp for several days.

Now the 2006 runners-up are favorites to lift the trophy, while other contenders like hosts Ghana and defending champions Egypt face tougher quarter-finals against Nigeria and Angola respectively.

Guinea, with playmaker Pascal Feindouno, would have been outsiders, but the absence of the captain as he completes a two-match ban for violent conduct leaves the underdogs baring few teeth.

However, striker Souleymane Youla has warned the media not to write off a nation that has reached the quarter-finals at three consecutive tournaments, losing narrowly to Mali in 2004 and Senegal two years ago.

"Of course we are going to miss Pascal because everything goes through him and I am more at ease knowing he is behind me," said the France-based Guinean who scored four goals in a warm-up against Sudan. "Pascal is a very important player, but we have developed a plan to deal with his absence."

While Feindouno, who scored twice in a Group A clash with Morocco that ultimately decided who accompanied table-toppers Ghana into the knockout phase, is the lone big-name Guinean, Ivory Coast boast a galaxy of stars.

Defender Kolo Toure, a doubtful starter owing to a groin injury, and midfielder Emmanuel Eboue play for English Premier League title challengers Arsenal and Yaya Toure is the enforcer at Barcelona.

And there are no potentially deadlier strikers at the Cup of Nations than Kalou and Drogba, with plenty of reserve options like Aruna Dindane, Kader Keita and Boubacar Sanogo available to French coach Gerard Gili.

The first meeting of the west African countries in the Cup of Nations will see Gili in a battle of wits with compatriot Robert Nouzaret, who took over after a faltering start to the qualifying campaign.

Gili was a late appointment, stepping up from the Ivorian Olympic squad last month when Uli Stielike dashed to his native Germany to be with his seriously ill son, who died this week.

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