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Elephants hunting big game

While African teams have made an impact on several World Cups, many expect South Africa 2010 to be the event where one of the nations finally reaches the magical mark of the semi-final stage.

And though legendary Brazilian boss Carlos Alberto Parreira, currently leading struggling South Africa, insists that an African side is still several tournaments away from being considered a favourite, he did cause a stir at the ongoing African Cup of Nations in Ghana by saying earlier this week that 2006 finalists Ivory Coast are the runaway class of the continent. He even implied that they could be the best African side of all time.

'I can only agree with that assessment,' Reinhard Fabisch, current coach of Benin and previously the boss of Zimbabwe and Kenya, told African Football Media. His side were thrashed 4-1 by the Elephants in the team's second Group B encounter.

'They have one of the top strikers in the world in Didier Drogba, and that alone makes them a serious threat,' he continued, speaking of the Ivorian side that went out cruelly in the 'Group Of Death' at the 2006 world finals in Germany.

'We certainly saw that having very top players, even against relatively equal opponents, can change the outcome of a game and an entire tournament. From what I have seen they are clear favourites to win this event.'

And what about their chances at the first-ever World Cup on African soil in two years time?

'I have always said that we will one day see an African team win the event or at least reach the semi-finals. 2010 will be a great chance, but there are so many variables,' added the German-born coach.

'You just can't say since it greatly depends on their preparations and the administration being able to keep the players happy and in top form.'

Whether the side can go further further at the upcoming world showpiece than Cameroon's best-ever quarter-final appearance in 1990 is a thought rich in historical implication. More significantly at this point, though, it's an indicator of both the Ivorians on-pitch performances in Ghana and the pressure that they may have to deal with in the run up to 2010.

'We have to keep winning or else all these positive words people are saying about us don't matter,' said Arsenal defender Emmanuel Eboue after the Elephants' straightforward 3-0 win over a promising Malian side that saw them top their opening group with a perfect record and a plus-seven goal difference.

'The key is simple: we have to keep working hard, and if we do that we can do a lot here in Ghana and even beyond.'

Is Ghana trying to avoid us?
Salomon Kalou
The theme of work and togetherness is one that the 'African Oranje' stress again and again. Another common theme is the self-assurance of their current crop of European-based stars. 'The door is open for us...all we have to do is keep walking through it. We can keep on winning if we play at this level,' said an enthusiastic Salomon Kalou, Drogba's team-mate with London side Chelsea.

'Our performance in the group definitely has us confident of success moving forward,' added 24-year-old Barcelona midfield revelation Yaya Toure. 'And, like against Mali, we changed five or six players from the matches before and were still very strong. That's very encouraging for us.'

'We need to keep working hard together as a team. That's all we should think about,' admitted Arsenal defender and older brother of Yaya, Kolo Toure, when asked about the pressure of being runaway favourites for the event. 'It's hard to win any kind of tournament, but for us all is possible if we focus on ourselves. If we keep playing like we have, there's no telling. But, we have no pressure on us. We are a strong team and experienced.'

Fellow Arsenal man Eboue concurs: 'We are playing really well. To win the group in such a fashion is encouraging, and we are not afraid of anyone.'

And what about the hosts, the promising Black Stars from Ghana, who Ivory Coast beat in a legendary penalty shootout (it ended 11-10) for their only previous African crown in 1992? Surely they will have something to say about the coronation of the Elephants in their capital city of Accra, and many said that they were most pleased to finish top of the table in order to avoid their neighbours in the quarter-finals.

'Is Ghana trying to avoid us?' asked the 22-year-old Kalou with a mocking laugh. 'It will be fun to meet them in the final if that happens, but we are not afraid. Ghana are strong and naturally they are a major obstacle. Every team can beat us. The level at this tournament is very high, and right now - especially when reaching the knockout stage - we will have to take every team seriously and concentrate 100 percent.'

Naturally, the last word should go to the big number 11 and captain, Drogba, whose self-assurance with his national team is infectious: he carries himself in the bright orange more like a lion than an elephant, chest puffed out, head up, relentlessly hunting his next goal.

The Chelsea striker's response to discussion of Ivory Coast's bright future was typically assured: 'I hope we can keep it simple,' he said with his trademark wide-but-relaxed smile.

'Let's not speak too much about it and do it on the pitch.'

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