Didier Drogba of Chelsea looks on before the pre-season friendly match between Malaysia and Chelsea at Bukit Jalil National Stadium. Drogba and the Ivory Coast lost the Africa Cup of Nations final to Zambia on February 12, 2012. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Didier Drogba and the Ivory Coast came up short yet again against Zambia on Sunday. How do their Golden Generation's failings compare to those of other countries?
Didier Drogba is now 33-years-old. Not one member of the starting Ivory Coast defense is under the age of 27, and the youngest member -- Sol Bamba -- is the least accomplished. Didier Zokora is on the wrong side of 30 and Yaya Toure is now 28. Solomon Kalou, both seemingly around forever and eternally young, is now 26. Kader Keita, previously a key creative force in the Ivory Coast team, did not play a starting role at the Africa Cup of Nations. He is 30.
There is another Africa Cup of Nations in 2013 due to CAF's desire to change to odd years, but this year's African championship was seen as one of the last opportunities for the Ivory Coast to win a major title. While a number of the team's players will still be on top of their game for the 2014 World Cup, Didier Drogba will be 36. His future at Chelsea and at the highest level of professional football is still up in the air.
For all of the talent around him in the Ivory Coast side, there is no defined Drogba replacement waiting in the wings. Wilfried Bony and Seydou Doumbia are both good, young center forwards, but neither is anything like Drogba from a physical or stylistic point of view. Inserting one of them for Les Elephants' current captain would almost necessitate a serious change in style of play.
And so, they are at a crossroads. On Sunday, they failed to defeat Zambia, a team filled with African-based talent, almost entirely unknown to those who aren't experts on African football. The Copper Bullets did not get lucky, but matched them for 120 minutes, then showed more composure doing a penalty shootout. Just like the two Egypt sides that beat them in previous editions of the tournament, their opponents appeared to be more confident and have more chemistry with each other.
Drogba and Kalou, despite the fact that they have played together nearly every day since 2006, looked like strangers. Yaya Toure was more or less uninvolved in the game. Zokora and Cheik Tiote were poor in the center. Gervinho and Kolo Toure lacked composure in the penalty shootout. A veteran team that has spent nearly a decade together, just like all previous Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup campaigns, failed to meet expectations.
With Drogba's professional future up in the air, this could have been the last chance for the Ivory Coast to win an African title or go deep into a World Cup with their 'Golden Generation' intact. Perhaps, with Drogba departing, they will fail to reach previous heights, much like when Pavel Nedved retired from Czech Republic duty. Or, perhaps, Drogba will be to Les Elephants what Raul Gonzalez was to Spain. With that, we take a look at other countries, their 'Golden Generations', and their failures.
England's 'Golden Generation' from the late 1990s and all of the 2000s is perhaps the most disappointing group of international players since people have been able to easily consume media that comes from outside of their own nation. The hype that this group of players received from not just their own press, but media around the world, as they were coming through the ranks was massive.
While many of these players went on to win Premier League and even UEFA Champions League titles as club players, they were a complete and utter unmitigated disaster as international players.
Phil Neville, Gary Neville, Robbie Fowler and Sol Campbell played their first international tournaments for England at Euro 1996, a tournament which the nation hosted. They went out on penalties in the semifinals in heartbreaking fashion. This is the farthest that any of those players would ever go at the international level.
David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen joined at the 1998 World Cup, where Beckham was famously sent off as Argentina eliminated the Three Lions. Steven Gerrard and Emile Heskey were added at Euro 2000, where England went out in the group stages. Ashley Cole, Wes Brown, Wayne Bridge, Joe Cole and Owen Hargreaves joined up for the 2002 World Cup, which England only participated in because of a miracle goal by Beckham in qualifying. They lost to Brazil in the quarterfinals.
As Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Ledley King were integrated in 2004, the Golden Generation was complete. They lost to Euro 2004 tournament favorites Portugal in the quarterfinals on penalties. At this point, no one had figured it out yet.
The 2006 World Cup was the big hint to everyone that these players just didn't have it. Michael Owen blew out his knee in the first game. Owen Hargreaves and Joe Cole were solid, but the rest of the team looked shaky throughout. They barely defeated Paraguay and drew Sweden in the group stages, then snuck by Ecuador in the Round of 16. They were found out in the quarterfinals, when Portugal was once again their nemesis.
England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008 was easily their darkest hour. They looked fantastic in World Cup 2010 qualifying and it appeared that the Golden Generation might finally have a semifinal in them, but they limped through the group stages, finishing behind the United States. That set up a meeting with Germany, who knocked them out in the Round of 16.
In seven major tournaments, the Golden Generation did not reach a single semifinal.
In both the 2000 and 2002 UEFA Under-21 Championships, the Czech Republic was one of the strongest sides in the tournament, finishing runners up in 2000 and champions in 2002. Those squads included the likes of Petr Cech, Zdeněk Grygera, Tomáš Ujfaluši, Milan Baros and Marek Jankulovski. The rosters did not include Thomas Rosicky, who was young enough to be eligible for both teams. In total, 16 members of the 2002 team went on to represent the Czech Republic at senior level, not including Ujfaluši and Jankulovski, who were too old for the 2002 team.
These players came up at the same time that players like Tomáš Galásek, Jan Koller and most importantly, Pavel Nedved were in the primes of their careers. Incredibly, this team failed to qualify for the 2002 FIFA World Cup at a time when Koller was between 20-goal seasons, Galásek had just won the Eredivisie with Ajax, and Nedved had just joined Juventus.
They fared better at Euro 2004, where they were semifinalists, but they were unexpectedly eliminated by eventual champions Greece. At the 2002 World Cup -- Nedved's last tournament -- the Czechs fell apart after beating the United States in the opening round and failed to make the knockout stages. With Nedved retired, the Czechs failed to advance out of the group stages of Euro 2008 and did not qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
Not exactly a failure - Portugal
Though they did not experience the extreme failures of England or even the level of disappointment that Czech Republic's great teams did, much more was expected of Portugal's best generation. The likes of Luis Figo, Nuno Gomes, Manuel Rui Costa, Pauleta, Fernando Meira and Thiago saw their primes or back ends of their careers overlap with the rapid rise of Cristiano Ronaldo and the naturalization of Deco. They reached the Euro 2000 semifinals, but were knocked out in the group stages of the 2002 World Cup unexpectedly.
Portugal were favorites at Euro 2004, but were upset by Greece in the final for the second time in the tournament after outplaying every one of their other opponents. They were among the favorites at the 2006 World Cup and advanced to the semifinals, where the midfield of Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele was their undoing.
From failures to kings of the world - Spain
It's interesting to think of this generation of Spanish players as failures in 2012, but they were once well on their way to being just that. Xavi, Carles Puyol and Iker Casillas were already contributors at the 2002 World Cup, with Raul Gonzalez having amassed 51 caps by that period. Spain won their group, but lost in the quarterfinals to South Korea. Xabi Alonso, Joan Capdevilla and Fernando Torres joined for Euro 2004, where they were dumped out in the group stages.
Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, David Villa, Marcos Senna and Cesc Fabregas all played at the 2006 World Cup, where Spain were counted as one of the dark horses for the title by most experts. By this point, they had already acquired the label as the world's great underachievers. They were eliminated in the Round of 16.
Spain went on to win Euro 2008, and the rest is history. Perhaps coincidentally or perhaps as a product of the move, Raul was dropped for that tournament. Barcelona would win the UEFA Champions League the following season with many of that team's biggest stars and Spain went on to win the 2010 World Cup. Barcelona won the Champions League again in the 2010-11 season -- with Real Madrid getting to the semifinals -- and Spain will be favorites at Euro 2012.
Who's the next Golden Generation to fail for a decade?
Though this is a terribly unfair thing to predict, Argentina certainly seem to be working on it. The rise of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria, Javier Pastore, and Nicolas Otamendi seemed to come at the perfect time. Roberto Ayala, Juan Roman Riquelme, Juan Pablo Sorin, Juan Sebastian Veron, Javier Zanetti and Ariel Ortega were all coming to the end of their careers. Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano, Lucho Gonzalez, Esteban Cambiasso, all in their primes.
To date, it's been nothing but disappointment. Germany has eliminated them in the quarterfinals of the last two World Cups. At the 2007 Copa America, where Argentina looked spectacular, they were embarrassed in the final by Brazil. The most recent Copa America was held in Argentina, and even at home, they looked abysmal. Fairly or unfairly, much of the blame falls on Lionel Messi. Argentina have looked entirely average in World Cup qualification so far, but should -- should -- coast to the finals.
The good news for Argentina is that he's just 24. Aguero, di Maria, Pastore, Higuain, Otamendi and a number of other great talents will be around for his entire career. Messi's already had four major disappointments at international level, but he has another decade to figure things out.