Gervinho spearheading Ivorian hopes
If Gervinho's boots could talk they would have had something interesting to say last Thursday, when their owner danced his way through the Colombia defence and scored Ivory Coast's only goal. But then ever since a young Gervais Yao Kouassi joined the ASEC Mimosa youth academy -- the nurturing ground for the country's most promising youngsters -- his feet have been destined for greatness.
Dribbling was always what Gervinho -- who hails from the Abobo suburb in the Ivorian capital of Abidjan that is best known for producing another international, Arouna Kone -- enjoyed best: from the three years when he did it barefoot in the academy, to now when the Roma star has been able to show off his skills on the world's biggest stage.
Gervinho, like the Toure brothers, Salomon Kalou, Didier Zakora and Emmanuel Eboue, was recruited by the Jean-Marc Guillou-founded academy as a youngster, but the winger's family were not convinced it was the best path for him. Guillou, a former French international himself, ran a school that specialised in sport; Gervinho's parents wanted a more normal education for their son.
It was only when they saw his commitment to the game, underlined by Gervinho's early morning routine of playing for a local club, that they relented. But they were not disappointed. The school provided boarding facilities for pupils and provided them with an all-round education that included: learning international languages like English and Spanish in addition to their native French; life skills such as how to sign a contract, buy property and build a life overseas; as well as developing skills on the pitch.
The boys were also given nicknames and, because one of his first coaches was Brazilian, he ended up with one that wouldn't have been out of place in the Selecao lineup. "Gervinho" was born.
The academy he represented is the feeder to ASEC Mimosas, the Ivory Coast's most successful league team, and most of its pupils go on to begin their careers there. Gervinho's started that way, too, playing for the Mimosa youth team from the age of 11, before he moved on to another local club, Toumodi, where Ibrahim Toure, the youngest of the Toure brothers (sadly now dead), was also in the youth side.
But Gervinho was being groomed for much bigger things. At 17, he was sent to K.S.K. Beveren, the Belgian club that was an affiliate of the academy. As a stranger in a foreign country, Gervinho fell back on the skills he learnt at the academy and, despite finding the cold weather a challenge, he spent three years in Belgium and played for the senior side 61 times.
By then Gervinho had done a lot of growing up and was ready for the step up. French club Le Mans was his first route away from the ASEC Mimosa, but he found himself at home for another reason. Rudi Garcia, a former midfielder who made his name at Lille, was impressed by Gervinho's quick feet and made him a regular on the wing. The pair formed a close relationship and Gervinho even said he would follow Garcia anywhere.
In the midst of his Le Mans stint, Gervinho received his first national call-up for the friendlies in November 2007. He was part of the Ivorian squad at the 2008 African Nations Cup (ANC) and was asked to captain their 2008 Beijing Olympics team which also featured Kalou. It was deemed a success as Ivory Coast finished second from a group which included Argentina, Serbia and Australia and Gervinho netted once, in injury time against Serbia to round off a 4-2 win. Their quarterfinal clash was an African derby against Nigeria and the Ivorians were beaten 2-0, but the player's reputation had grown.
Soon, Gervinho moved to Lille, where Garcia had gone, and that was when he really began to catch the eye. In his first season, he scored an average of over one every three games; and in his second, his 15 goals helped Lille win Ligue 1 for the first time in 56 years. His part in their success meant a big-name club was bound to come calling and it was Arsenal he answered.
Gervinho described his move to North London as a dream come true and a chance to learn, but it ended up being an underwhelming experience for both club and player. He did not get the game time he wanted and, when he did, he did not produce the glut of goals Arsene Wenger expected. Gervinho made 46 appearances for the Gunners in two years and netted only nine times.
He was more successful internationally during that time, scoring in the 2010 ANC and twice in the World Cup that year, even though he came off the bench in all three games. But even as he became a key figure for his country, he also became a villain. Gervinho missed the penalty that would have held Zambia at bay (at least for another spot kick) in the 2012 ANC final.
It was obvious Gervinho had an itch that needed scratching but that only happened when he left Arsenal. At the start of last season, Garcia became Roma coach and one of his requests was to bring Gervinho to Italy. Roma's sporting director, Walter Sabatini, agreed although he admitted he would not have made that concession for anyone else. He will probably agree now that it was worth taking that chance.
Roma won the first 10 games of the season and Gervinho was among their stars. They finished runners-up to Juventus -- having ended up in sixth position a year earlier -- and reached the semifinals of the Coppa Italia with the driving runs of the Ivorian a key feature of their play.
The winger put his own resurgence down to being paired with a coach he could learn from again, which was less of a dig at Wenger than it was at being almost attached to the bench at Arsenal. But knowledge is not the only thing Garcia has given Gervinho.
With regular game time and someone who understands him, Gervinho's confidence has been restored. He was given the freedom to dribble again and he has been doing it with regularity at this World Cup. It's not the only thing he can do, either; his header against Japan was evidence of that.
With Greece up next on the agenda and place in the knockout stages up for grabs, Gervinho will be keen to prove to the world how good he really can be. In an ageing team, the winger might just be the one his country looks to for inspiration.