Ivory Coast try again to justify favouritism
The situation is all too familiar for the footballers of Ivory Coast less than two weeks before the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in South Africa.
For the fifth consecutive tournament, captain Didier Drogba and a star-packed squad must carry the burden of favouritism, which they failed to justify in Egypt, Ghana, Angola and Gabon/Equatorial Guinea.
They have come agonisingly close twice, losing penalty shootouts to hosts Egypt in Cairo seven years ago and to Zambia in Libreville last year, and the other two attempts ended in semifinals and quarterfinals exits.
South Africa 2013 represents the last throw of the Africa Cup dice for ageing Drogba, who blazed a regular-time penalty well over the crossbar to help Zambia achieve a maiden title.
Converting a shootout spot kick was little consolation to the man who has achieved so much in his career, and who says this will be his last appearance at a competition first played 56 years ago in Sudan.
Ivory Coast have conquered Africa once, defeating Ghana in Dakar 21 years ago in another final settled by penalties, but that was long before the emergence of Drogba, Kolo and Yaya Toure, Didier Zokora and Emmanuel Eboue.
These stars are known as the 'golden generation' of Ivorian football, but the best any of them has managed so far is silver when it comes to the post-final medals' presentation.
"Coming to South Africa for the 2013 Cup of Nations will be special for me," Drogba told Ivorian reporters. "We have twice come so close to winning this tournament.
"But that does not mean that we can afford to slow down and assume that if we wait long enough the title will be ours. We have learnt from our failures and we are coming this time to win the title and nothing else."
The first round draw for the African football showpiece, which begins on January 19, ends on February 10, and offers a place at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil to the winners, was not overly kind to the Ivorian 'Elephants'.
Not only have they been put in Group D wth former champions Algeria and Tunisia and a Togo team with all to gain and nothing to lose, but tradition suggests potential trouble for the title favourites.
Ivory Coast have lost two of three previous Africa Cup meetings with Algeria, lost the only meeting with Tunisia, and have managed only one win in three meetings with Togo, a team used to carrying a rank-outsiders tag.
"It is unquestionably the most difficult group and we got three fearsome opponents," admits Ivorian coach Sabri Lamouchi. "We were favourites before the draw and still are. Now we must deliver on the pitch."
While Ivory Coast are undoubtedly the team to beat, there are many other teams capable of collecting the $1.5 million first prize, including Zambia, Algeria, Ghana, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia.
Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo should not be written off either, leaving Burkina Faso, the Cape Verde Islands, Ethiopia, Niger and Togo as the five teams without realistic ambitions of going all the way.
Winners and runners-up in the four mini-leagues advance to the quarterfinals and Group A should be a three-way fight between Angola, Morocco and South Africa despite the shock elimination of Cameroon by Cape Verde.
Mali and Ghana came third and fourth respectively at the 2012 finals and are the obvious choices to progress from Group B, but DR Congo pose a threat if only because they are coached by wily Frenchman Claude le Roy.
Zambia and Nigeria appear too powerful in Group C for Ethiopia, back in the big time after a 31-year absence, and Burkina Faso, the only country to be eliminated three times without securing a point at the Cup of Nations.
The opening-day clash between Algeria and Tunisia is sure to have a vital bearing on the Group D outcome with the Maghreb neighbours boasting rising stars in Sofiane Feghouli of Valencia and Youssef Msakni of Esperance.
Usually staged biennially, the Africa Cup is being played in successive years for the first time since 1963 because of a move to uneven-number years, designed to avoid every second tournament being hosted six months before a World Cup.