'Ivory Coast are like Arsenal… good players but no trophies!' Gervinho's silverware quest for club and country
As a boy growing up in the Ivory Coast during the 1990s, Yao Kouassi Gervais collected trophies like they were going out of fashion. Now he is desperate for more.
Gervinho, as we know him, watched with delight as his country won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1992 and Arsenal, the team he supported, lifted endless trophies under Arsene Wenger. But now, with the 24-year-old enjoying his first season at the Emirates and about to take part in his third Africa Cup of Nations, both are suffering from trophy droughts.
Ivory Coast have not won anything since that victory 20 years ago and Arsenal have not seen silverware since their 2005 FA Cup win.
Trophy quest: Gervinho is on a mission
The increasingly difficult hunt for a medal with Arsenal must sit on the back burner for now as the next few weeks is all about helping hot favourites Ivory Coast to win Africa’s biggest tournament. Premier League managers might not like it but the next three weeks in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea really matter — especially to these perennial under-achievers.
‘The Ivory Coast are like Arsenal,’ says Gervinho, breaking out into a grin. ‘The Ivory Coast have not won a trophy since 1992. We’ve got good players and every time we approach a tournament, we say we are going to win it and then we miss out. This year I would really like to win with both Arsenal and Ivory Coast. I am going to win a trophy this year.’
When you meet Gervinho, you notice how much stronger and bigger he is than the spindly figure he seems on TV. Tattoos of his three children’s names cover his arms and he is friendly, too, laughing and smiling. The only disappointment is that his backwards baseball cap hides one of the Premier League’s more eccentric hairstyles. Those braids were done by a hairdresser friend in Lille.
International: Gervinho hopes he can end Ivory Coast's long wait for a trophy
Goal: Gervinho insists he will win a trophy this year
Ivory Coast have been favourites at the last three African championships. In Egypt in 2006 they went closest to winning the trophy, losing a penalty shootout to the hosts in the final, with Didier Drogba among those to fail from 12 yards. They were unlucky, although most observers agreed Egypt played the better football during the tournament.
The same opponents thumped them 4-1 two years later in the last four in Ghana, while Algeria scored twice in time added on to knock them out in the last eight two years ago. Each time there was so much hope, each time there was failure.
It makes little sense when you look at a squad who boast names such as Gervinho, Drogba, Kolo and Yaya Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Cheick Tiote.
The fact so many names are so recognisable is largely down to a man called Jean-Marc Guillou, a former France midfielder who gave Wenger his break in coaching when he appointed him as his assistant manager at Cannes in 1983. He is also the man who set up the renowned academy in Ivory Coast’s former capital Abidjan which produced the Toures, Eboue, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho, to name but a few.
Guillou founded the academy in 1993, setting up trials for which around 5,000 football-crazy young men turned up. It provided a home for talented players who travelled in hope of a ticket away from Abobo, the poor, humid district of the city which was home to most of them. It is an area full of migrants with little money, an area struggling to deal with the effects of drug trafficking.
Contenders: Manchester City are the newest addition to the list of Arsenal's title rivals
Friends: Gervinho is good friends with Chelsea forward Salomon Kalou
‘We were in a boarding school,’ says Aruna Dindane, the former Portsmouth striker who has played for his country 67 times and is now plying his trade in Qatar.
‘They did everything for us. We were like little kings. Guillou is our spiritual father. He didn’t just come to develop footballers and leave. He lived through something special with us. We wrote history together.’
The role of Guillou as a spiritual father is one that comes up again and again. It is because the academy did not offer only football — it provided a home, food, education and plenty of attention and face-to-face time with Guillou.
Gervinho was part of the Puskas year of trainees at the academy, each year group named after a legend of the game. Gervinho’s good friend Kalou — they still regularly play PlayStation together online — was in the Armando class, for example, named after the great Diego Maradona.
‘When I went to the academy, we watched Arsenal because of Guillou’s connection with Arsene,’ says Gervinho, who came to England via Beveren in Belgium and Le Mans and Lille in France.
'He knows Arsene well and his academy had the same philosophy as Arsenal. Arsenal have always been a dream of mine and I always thought one day I would go there.
Link: Gervinho will link up with a host of Premier League stars for the Ivory Coast, including Yaya Toure
‘During the holidays, professional players would come and say hello to us in the academy and that really made you want to be a professional. When you saw what great conditions they lived in, it gave you even more desire.
'I say today that, thanks to football, my family are able to live well. Thanks to football, I live a decent life. Football has allowed me to see a lot of things, meet a lot of people; it has allowed me to come to the best club here and play with great players. It has allowed me to be trained by one of the best coaches in the world. Football has saved my family.’
It was there that his nickname was born. Brazilian coach Gustavo Carlos decided Gervinho reflected the excitement and flair in his game. It fits his celebrity status now — he is so popular back home that one band penned a song about how he has transformed lives.
Help win that elusive trophy in the next few weeks and he will transform a whole lot more.
Arsenal's global charity partner is Save the Children. Gervinho joins his team-mates in supporting the partnership in a number of ways including donating a day’s wages to the initiative which will help to support a range of education projects in the UK and overseas, helping the poorest children get a better start in life and giving them the chance to grow and fulfil their potential.
For information about the partnership, and to get involved, visit www.arsenal.com/savethechildren
To make a donation and support education projects, visit www.justgiving.com/beagoonerbeagiver