The adventure continues for Côte d’Ivoire at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament with a quarter-final against Spain looming next after an impressive runners-up finish in Group D.
That came via a 2-1 defeat of Saudi Arabia plus a 0-0 stalemate with Brazil and 1-1 draw with Germany – results that have unsurprisingly raised hopes for Max Gradel and his team-mates.
“We’re feeling proud because nobody expected us to get this far given the group we were in,” the Côte d’Ivoire captain told FIFA.com. “It’s an achievement to have got out of that group. You mustn’t forget that Germany won the U-21 EURO this year and they’re a great team with very good players. We also held our own against Brazil, who are the favourites and reigning champions. People didn’t think we’d come through this group of death, but we deserved it.”
At the age of 33, Gradel is the oldest member of the Côte d’Ivoire squad, which he joined up with just before the start of the competition. “It’s always been a dream and a source of pride to represent my country, so when the coach called me, I didn’t hesitate for a second,” added the forward, whose 75 caps include victory at the 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, a year after he appeared at the FIFA World Cup™. “On top of that, this is one of the only international competitions I’ve never played in.”
For the former Leeds United and Saint-Etienne player, Tokyo 2020 has provided him a close-up at a new generation of Ivorian talent, who caught the eye just by qualifying for this tournament – only their second Olympic outing and first since 2008. “These are young players who want to work hard and improve, and who listen and have a lot of humility. That makes everything easier for me as a captain and leader. For me, it’s a pleasure to play with them and to share this experience with this squad.”
The feeling is mutual, according to coach Soualiho Haidara. “[Max] brings us a lot more calmness. The role of leader that he plays in this team allows us to manage a certain number of problems. As soon as he arrived, he organised things internally with his younger ‘brothers’. He introduced a code of conduct with fines when necessary. With him, Eric Bailly and Franck Kessie, we have a leader in every department. That makes things easier on the pitch. When you watch Max put in a shift, it’s like he’s still 25 years old.”
Having played with the likes of Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure and Salomon Kalou, Gradel knows that another golden age for the national team is some way off. “Everyone is different,” he said. “You’re talking about a generation that had monsters of the game, legends. It’s obviously a bit early to compare this group with Côte d’Ivoire’s golden generation, which I got to see at their peak. Here, I’m getting to know a group of players just starting out, so it’s impossible to compare them. What’s certain is that we still need to wait before Côte d’Ivoire again has that many players at the top of their game all at the same time.”
More immediately, the aim is to improve on their showing at Beijing 2008, when Les Éléphants were knocked out in the quarter-finals. Instead, Gradel and Co will be taking inspiration from Nigeria in 1996 and Cameroon in 2000, both those teams having turned heads by winning Africa’s only two gold medals in Olympic football. “That’s what we’re hoping for, but we’re trying to compete and work hard with maximum humility. We’ll see what the future has in store for us. We’re not going to try to look further ahead than our next match, so we’ll see what happens.”
If big games produce big players, Haidara’s troops now face another major challenge against a side that will test their quality and put their ambitions under the microscope. “The situation is getting more interesting and we’re under more pressure,” the coach told FIFA.com. “When you knock out a big team like Germany and then come up against Spain, you feel like you don’t even have time to appreciate what you’ve achieved.”
Haidara’s main concern ahead of facing La Roja is the condition of his players, who were still suffering the effects of jet lag during their first two games. “We just have to hope our players feel good on the day – that’s all,” he said. “If we’re capable of putting in sprints the way we did yesterday, I think we can take on any opponent.”
So far, they have done just that, and Haidara feels their travel schedule has actually brought benefits too. “We didn’t play any friendly games before the start of the tournament, which made our preparations difficult, but it also made things tough for our opponents. They didn’t have any videos of us to watch, whereas we had videos of them.”
That surprise factor is gone now, of course. Côte d’Ivoire are no longer an unknown quantity, but whatever insights Spain have learned, one lesson is surely clear – they will need to give everything to stop these elephants in their tracks.