ERIC BAILLY: THE IVORY COAST’S NEXT CAPTAIN?

By: Sammie Frimpong

Yaya Toure, skipper of Ivory Coast and the country’s finest footballer, announced his retirement from international football days ago, necessitating the assignment of ownership of the side’s armband — and the ‘office’ of its most influential character — to a new personality for the second time in two years.

The last change-over came just around this time in 2014, when Didier Drogba — long the side’s leader — stripped off the national team’s orange for the last time after the Fifa World Cup in Brazil. The baton was passed to Toure (hitherto a strong presence in the Ivorian ranks but not quite at Drogba’s stature) who, within less than a year, had succeeded in perhaps the one area his predecessor failed: winning the Africa Cup of Nations (2015 edition), Ivory Coast’s first in over two decades.

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Like ageing and accomplished Drogba, though, Toure has opted to bow out, having secured for himself a legacy that posterity would struggle to match. As indicated at the outset, however, the 33-year-old’s exit also leaves a leadership vacuum that needs to be filled. This time, though, Les Elephants — for the sake of long-term stability, at least — require the appointment of a younger, hungrier player, rather than one with little more to achieve and only a couple of years left in his career.

That search, if it’s what the national team authorities do intend to embark on, is one that would ultimately focus the spotlight on Eric Bailly, 22. The Manchester United centre-back has been on quite a trajectory since making his international debut in January 2015 versus Nigeria. A first major title followed at the Nations Cup in Equatorial Guinea shortly thereafter, where he starred so brilliantly, playing all six games with the nous of a veteran and particularly exuding composed assuredness in a final — against neighbours Ghana — which was set on the thinnest of knife-edges.

His move to Old Trafford from Spain’s Villareal in summer this year — as the first recruit of Jose Mourinho’s reign and for a fee only eclipsed as an African record by Liverpool’s £34m purchase of Senegal’s Sadio Mane — was unheralded, but it’s already proving quite a bargain. Prior to United’s recent slump, Bailly had been one of the stand-out men of the Mourinho era, outdoing even fellow fresh arrival Paul Pogba (the world’s most expensive footballer, in case you’ve forgotten) as an impact signing thus far into the season and being named the club’s Player of the Month for August 2016.

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Bailly is by no means the most experienced option for Ivory Coast captain — the likes of Salomon Kalou, Seydou Doumbia, Gervinho and Wilfried Bony would seem more probable alternatives in that regard — but few Ivorian stars currently possess a profile higher than Bailly’s. Granted, Bailly still has much work to do in becoming an ideal fit for the role, particularly with respect to his temperament. He notoriously got booked 11 times in La Liga last season — even sent off once — yet there are encouraging signs that, steadily developing a cooler, wiser head (see his calmly converted spotkick in the incredibly tense, drawn-out shoot-out which climaxed Afcon 2015), such a poor disciplinary aura would begin to clear up with time and the weight of added responsibility. Truth be told, though, what’s a leader without some fire?

Bailly deserves the mantle neither due to his impressive physical attributes (at 6 ft 1 in, he is one of the more imposing specimen available to Ivory Coast boss Michel Dussuyer) nor because of the stereotype that defensive players generally make the best captains. Despite his youthfulness, he brings far more to the table and, if it’s an exciting new face Ivory Coast need to represent the exciting new generation emerging for the West African nation’s football, it’s him.

Really, what’s not to like?

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