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Ivorians proud of team as hopes dashed

Written by: Staff
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ABIDJAN, June 16 (Reuters) Residents on both sides of war-divided Ivory Coast met elimination from the World Cup with heads held high today, saying they were proud of their team's powerful performance in the finals.

The Netherlands secured their place in the last 16 with a 2-1 victory over ''the Elephants'', but the African team -- which had made it to the World Cup finals for the first time -- made them fight all the way.

''It's just the start. In the coming years we will see Ivory Coast really has a great team,'' said Ibrahim Belem, a driver in his 30s who watched the match on a big screen at a sports club in the main city Abidjan.

''We congratulate them. It was a great match but we didn't have much luck. They fought hard but it was defensive errors that allowed the two goals from Holland.'' The Dutch seemed to be cruising after two goals put them 2-0 up by the 26th minute before a stunning riposte from the diminutive Ivorian striker Bakary Kone.

''I say bravo to the Elephants. It was their first go at it.

As in any sport there were highs and lows. It's a young team and they lack experience,'' said Bakari Coulibaly, a swimming teacher and athletics coach in Abidjan.

''In four or five years we will have a great line-up. I'm not too devastated,'' he said, as small groups of supporters gathered on street corners to compare notes on the match.

Passions run extremely high when it comes to soccer in Ivory Coast, as in most of West Africa. Angry youths went on the rampage, attacking the state electricity company's offices, when the power failed during the country's opening match on Saturday.

But the beautiful game has also provided a welcome distraction from a ongoing conflict that has dragged on as a string of international peace deals fail to reunite the country.

''I'm proud of our team. Even if we were eliminated we weren't humiliated,'' said Moussa Kone, 27, who sells petrol in bottles on the roadside in the rebel-held town of Bouake.

''The competition would have allowed us to forget the war a bit if we had gone through.'' The former French colony has been split in two since a 2002 civil war launched by rebels who seized the north after failing to oust the president. Nearly 11,000 UN and French peacekeepers patrol a buffer zone keeping the two sides apart.

''We dreamed for a while. Football is magic. We forgot politics for a while. I think if we went further the World Cup would have reunited Ivorians. It's a shame. It will be for another World Cup,'' said Ali Fadiga, a 26-year old mechanic.

REUTERS DH RAI0114

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