Ivorian hopes hang on Drogba health
Cape Town: With Brazil massive favourites and North Korea the rank outsiders the pivotal issue in World Cup Group G could be decided in its first game in Port Elizabeth when Ivory Coast take on Portugal.
In fact, the entire group order is likely to be heavily influenced by whether Ivorian striker, talisman and national hero Didier Drogba is deemed fit to start that June 15 match after fracturing his elbow last week.
Sven-Goran Eriksson, who took over as short-term Ivory Coast manager only in March, said on Thursday: “If the game had been today or tomorrow he could not play but there are still some days and he might play against Portugal.”
Drogba, who helped Chelsea to a league and FA Cup double and finished as the Premier league’s leading scorer last season, is absolutely essential to Ivory Coast’s hopes of progressing to the second round for the first time.
In their only other appearance four years ago they had a tough group and went out after losing to Argentina and Netherlands.
Eriksson, who twice took England to the quarterfinals, is upbeat about this year’s prospects of advancing to a possible second-round meeting with Spain. “Of course it’s a very difficult group but we have the talent to meet the challenge and qualify,” said the Swede.
He certainly knows plenty about Portugal, who knocked England out in the quarter-finals of the last tournament and the 2004 European Championship.
Portugal’s prospects also depend heavily on one player, Cristiano Ronaldo, all the more so since fellow attacker Nani was ruled out of the tournament by injury this week.
Portuguese fans might dispute the claim, pointing to the fact that Ronaldo did not a single goal in qualifying, but if they are to have any chance of matching their run to the semi-finals four years ago then the former world player of the year will have to be on song.
Such is the depth of Brazil’s talent that they could afford to leave a double world player of the year winner - Ronaldinho - out of their squad.
The five-times champions are, as always, among the tournament favourites but with some of their other big names, notably Kaka, struggling for form, there is cause for concern.
Four years ago, despite arriving in Germany as holders and favourites, they went out in the quarter-finals while in 1966, when they were also paired with Portugal, they failed to get out of their group.
That tournament marks the high water mark of North Korean football as they stunned Italy and famously led Eusebio’s Portugal 3-0 in the quarter-finals before losing 5-3.
Little has been seen or heard of them since and they arrive in South Africa with most of their build-up shrouded in mystery and written off as no-hopers.
Just as they were in England 44 years ago.