The biggest question ahead of the Ivory Coast’s opening World Cup match against Portugal revolves around the fitness of injured striker Didier Drogba.
Article continues below ...
Drogba remains a doubtful starter after breaking his right arm in a friendly against Japan on June 4, and Ivory Coast coach Sven-Goran Eriksson can’t afford any risks on Tuesday against a powerful Portugal squad led by Real Madrid winger Cristiano Ronaldo.
The teams arrive in Port Elizabeth on Monday for their only training session at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Drogba didn’t train in the team’s Sharpeville base on Saturday, instead receiving treatment.
Midfielder Didier Zokora said Drogba, who trained with the team for two days late last week but wore a protective cast as he worked on his ball skills and fitness, remained in good spirits.
"Even if he’s not playing with us every time, he’s the captain and he leads the team very, very well," Zokora said.
Portugal will feature a trio of Brazilian-born players.
Defender Pepe, midfielder Deco and striker Liedson all made their names in the Portuguese league. When the Brazilian national team failed to call them up, they became naturalized Portuguese.
They will have to face their original home country when Portugal meets Brazil in Group G, which also features North Korea.
"I don’t know what it’ll be like," Deco said recently of that June 25 match against Brazil in Durban. "It’ll be different playing against Brazil, but I play for Portugal with all my heart and soul."
Portugal is making its fifth appearance at the World Cup and its best performances were the semifinals in 1996 and 2006.
But Carlos Queiroz’s squad had trouble qualifying for South Africa 2010, and a loss to Ivory Coast would be a significant setback in its bid to advance to the second round.
Ivory Coast, meanwhile, is among Africa’s best contenders for a second-round berth. The team has been invigorated since the arrival of Eriksson, who took England to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002 and 2006.
Defender Kolo Toure said Eriksson has the Ivory Coast squad thinking more like a unit than a collection of individuals.
"Sometimes we, instead of thinking about the team, we are thinking about ourselves," Toure said. "I think Mr. Eriksson came and he just said to us, ‘If you want to be one of the best teams in this World Cup, we need to work together."’
In its World Cup debut four years ago, Ivory Coast opened with a 2-1 loss to two-time champion Argentina. It then conceded two early goals to lose by the same score to the Netherlands, before rallying with a 3-2 win over Serbia and Montenegro that restored some pride but was not enough to take the African side into the next round.
Toure said Drogba would be missed if he didn’t play, but that Eriksson had shown Ivory Coast is more than the sum of its parts.
"Like I said, we have so many players playing in the best leagues, but when we come to our national team we don’t do things in the right way," Toure said. "He has helped us a lot … tries to work our head, like talking to the players. We have a lot of meetings and try to bring all the players together and to bring this team spirit."