Football: Fans rally behind Ivory Coast's surprise Nations Cup march

Football: Fans rally behind Ivory Coast's surprise Nations Cup march
Ivory Coast’s players take part in a training session at Bikuy stadium in Bata on February 6, 2015. Ivory Coast will face Ghana in the final football match of the 2015 African Cup of Nations in Bata on February 8.

ABIDJAN - Expectations for the Ivory Coast team were so low going into this year's African Nations Cup that Chic Shop, one of Abidjan's pre-eminent outlets for bargain team merchandise, did not even bother to renew its stocks.

But after a string of convincing wins and a final to play against neighbours Ghana on Sunday, fans are now scrambling for the remaining jerseys, vuvuzelas and hats - all leftovers from last year's World Cup campaign. "People are buying up all the posters from 2014. Even though it's now 2015, they're selling. Anything that's orange, white and green is flying out the door," said sales clerk Ibrahim Coulibaly, in reference to Ivory Coast's national colours.

This was never meant to be Ivory Coast's year.

The era of the so-called "Golden Generation" - a band of Europe-based superstars who never managed to win a cup in a decade of trying - ended last year with the international retirement of leading striker Didier Drogba.

Despite consistently ranking among the top sides on the continent, the team known as the Elephants have only won the African championship once, nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Under the direction of coach Herve Renard, who led Zambia to a surprise African title three years ago, many expected 2015 to be little more than a transition year.

The Elephants had even struggled to qualify for the Nations Cup, only making it through in the last round of matches, and they started the tournament with uninspiring draws against Guinea and Mali. "People were discouraged. They didn't come to watch the matches because the Ivorians weren't doing well," said Sylvie Aude Tagro, who runs an outdoor bar in Abidjan's working class Yopougon district.

SERENE, HUMBLE AND PROGRESSING

Then came wins against arch-rivals Cameroon and perennial bogey team Algeria, the latter among the favourites to win the competition in Equatorial Guinea.

"It's a team that is serene, that is humble, that is progressing with certainty," said Cyrille Domoraud, a member of the first Ivorian World Cup side who helped develop a new generation of talent, including Manchester City's Wilfried Bony.

"It's a team that is gaining maturity." By the time the Elephants reached the semi-finals against Democratic Republic of Congo, who dealt them a surprise home defeat in Abidjan during qualifying, the country's supporters had shed their indifference.

"All these years we gave and we gave, and there was so much disappointment," 27-year-old student Armand Koudou said as he watched the match at a packed public viewing area. "But these last two games have made us believe."

Moments later Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure, who had disappointed for most of the tournament, blasted in the opening goal from the edge of the box, sending thousands of fans into delirium.

The 3-1 romp that followed set the Elephants up to take on Ghana, the same team they beat in Senegal in 1992 to win their sole African title.

Like the rest of the country, Aramatou Baro, decked out in her national team jersey and orange, white and green bow tie, now believes history can repeat itself. "It will be okay. Thanks to Allah and our coach Herve Renard, I hope and I know that the cup will come to Abidjan."

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