15 June 2014

Africa: Stamp of Approval for a Baby Elephant

"Today a young one had his say," Didier Drogba told FIFA.com after Côte d'Ivoire came from behind to open their FIFA World Cup™ account with a 2-1 win over Japan. "Serge brought us energy and balance and he had a fantastic game," added the 36 year-old striker, a UEFA Champions League winner and a true icon of African football.

Drogba, a member of Côte d'Ivoire's aging Golden Generation, is speaking of one Serge Aurier. Just 21-years-old, the flying Toulouse wing-back had a night to remember in his World Cup debut. "I can't believe it," the stocky wide man enthused, all nervous energy and kinetic excitement. "It's my first World Cup, we're here in Brazil and I helped the team to win. It's like a dream."

Les Elephants went down early to an incisive strike from Keisuke Honda. The game stretched on until the middle of the second half without Côte d'Ivoire able to find a concrete reply. A few set-pieces from captain Yaya Toure flew over the bar and Salomon Kalou also went close, but the game needed a spark. So coach Sabri Lamouchi turned to his ace on the bench, Drogba, playing in his third World Cup.

Drogba on young Aurier

He didn't score, but the Galatasaray striker and former Marseille and Chelsea hero made an immediate impact. His presence inspired the team. His hard running opened holes in the Japanese defence. Within two minutes of Drogba taking the pitch, the Africans were level. Two minutes after that, they were in the lead. It was a lead they kept until the end, moving alongside Colombia at the top of Group C.

"Setting up both goals, it's like a dream," Aurier said, a bundle of energy with bulging thighs and wide eyes, talking of his two assists. "Serge's crosses were just perfect," added Wilfried Bony, who started over Drogba and scored the first goal. It was a move Les Elephants had practiced for nearly an hour the day before: a pass up the right side and an early cross from Aurier. "I didn't have to do anything except get my head to it," Bony added. "The work was already done." Gervinho's header just second later was a carbon copy, almost identical.

New generation

A smile spread across Drogba's lips when he talked about young Aurier's big debut. "It's good to see we have a new generation coming through," he said, eying the team's youngest player with satisfaction and something like a papa's pride. "This is what we need and it's good for our football. It gives us energy. It gives us spirit."

While Drogba is surely playing in his last World Cup, Aurier has a whole shining career ahead of him. Rumours link him with a move to Arsenal in the English Premier League at the start of next season. "We're trying to bring all the young ones up the right way, to bring them along in the spirit of this team," Drogba added, calm and tired-eyed at 2am, while Aurier bounced around the halls of the Arena Pernambuco, talking to whoever would listen. He basked in the approval of the old Elephants, Like Drogba, Didier Zakora and Kolo Toure too.

"He's the best right-back in all of France," Drogba added, making sure young Aurier was out of earshot when he said it. "I think he'll do well at the next level too, in the Premier League." It's high praise indeed from a man who knows just exactly what that takes.

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