Rustenburg, South Africa: Didier Drogba and Ivory Coast’s ‘golden generation’ headed off into the sunset on Sunday having come up short yet again in their quest to be crowned kings of Africa.
For Drogba, who turns 35 next month, this was the last opportunity to lift the Africa Cup of Nations, but all the hype and hopes ended at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in this north-western mining town.
Other members of the much-vaunted but trophy-less 30-somethings from Abidjan like Manchester City’s Kolo Toure, 31, Didier Zokora, 32, and keeper Boubacar Barry, 33, will share Drogba’s feeling of emptiness.
Spirited Nigeria’s 2-1 win trampled on the Elephants’ dreams of living up to their favourites’ tag at the fifth successive Nations Cup.
Failing to a Nigerian team short on experience but long on ambition in an absorbing quarter-final leaves Drogba’s future ambitions now lying with his new club Galatasaray, and helping his country qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
But the Nations Cup, the title he and the rest of the ‘golden generation’ craved, has yet again proved agonisingly out of reach.
Drogba, who despite wearing the captain’s armband did not feel up to joining coach Sabri Lamouchi at the post-match press conference, knows only too well how cruel the continental showpiece can be.
He was in the sides that lost on penalties to Egypt in Cairo in the 2006 final, that finished fourth in Ghana in 2008, that were knocked out in the quarters in Angola 2010, and that lost again on spot-kicks to Zambia in last year’s final.
All looked set fair for the Ivorians to finally shed their reputation as “chokers” under Lamouchi’s new management, with Saint-Etienne midfielder Max Gradel accrediting the inexperienced coach for introducing a new-found respect among the players.
But Drogba never really fired in South Africa, appearing out of condition when putting in a lacklustre performance in the opening 2-1 win over Togo.
He was dropped to the bench in the 3-0 victory over Tunisia, and started and scored a goal in the 2-2 draw with Algeria.
Against Nigeria, sporting his traditional ponytail, he made a marginally greater impact without proving the match-winner that he has been so often in the past for former club Chelsea.
Pundits had forecast an Ivorian victory, but nobody told Nigeria, who under 1994 title-winning captain Stephen Keshi proved astute at containing Ivory Coast’s star-studded side.
Nigeria’s Sunday Mba bagged the 78th-minute winner and Lamouchi hinted at the feeling of despair in the dressing room after this unscripted defeat.
“Of course our aim was to win the title, and for certain players this could be their last chance so, yes, there is disappointment in the dressing room,” the manager said.
“It’s a great sadness for me as the players were working with one objective, to win this Nations Cup, but it proved not to be enough.”
Arsenal striker Gervinho, such a bright presence in the 3-0 win over Tunisia but less sparkling here, said: “All the team only had one thing in their head, that was to win this match. It wasn’t to be, there are no excuses.”
Ivory Coast had arrived in South Africa with such high hopes, Drogba summing up the mood in the Elephants camp when he said: “We have a team capable of great things at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
“It would be great to win the trophy now. Honestly, we are getting tired of losing out each time.”
That is a feeling that he will have to live with for the rest of his life.