“I’d seen him two or three times when he was at Arsenal, but it’s only when you’re playing alongside him that you realise what an absolute monster he is. If he was more clinical, Gervinho would be at Cristiano Ronaldo’s level.”
These were the words of Francesco Totti, and the subject of his praise in the Gazzetta dello Sport in January was none other than Gervinho. At the time, although the Ivoirian's influence on Roma’s game was undeniable, his total number of goals could be counted on just one hand.
Credited with two of the four strikes that Les Elephants netted at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, Gervais Yao Kouassi - his full name - has continued in the same vein in the early stages of this current Serie A campaign.
Having notched three goals in four games for I Giallorossi thus far, he also got on the scoresheet for his country again in September, in a 2-1 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifying victory over Sierra Leone. Indeed, the Roma No27 appears to be reaching the peak of a career that has involved spells in Belgium (Beveren), France (Le Mans and Lille) and England (Arsenal).
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the crowd-pleasing 27-year-old, who recently signed a contract extension with his club, shared his thoughts on Brazil 2014, Roma’s chances of glory this season and the prospects for Côte d’Ivoire following Didier Drogba’s international retirement.
FIFA.com: Gervinho, judging by your recent performances, Côte d’Ivoire’s early exit from the 2014 World Cup does not appear to have damaged your confidence.
Gervinho: Well, it did take me a while to accept the fact we had been eliminated. We were intent on qualifying for the knockout stages of the tournament, but unfortunately we conceded that last-minute penalty to Greece and lost 2-1 – a result that prevented us from moving on. We tried to put our feelings of disappointment behind us by going on holiday with our families, but it wasn’t easy. Things are better now. I’m focused on achieving new objectives for my club and my country. There’s the qualifying campaign for the Cup of Nations, and my second season with Roma, where I feel comfortable and would like to play for the foreseeable future.
You’ve made it clear that Roma coach Rudi Garcia, a man you know well, has played a key role in helping you settle. How important has he been to the success that Roma and you have enjoyed?
He’s loved by the Roma supporters, as well as by everyone in and around the club. He’s been able to get his ideas across well and apply his style of play, which is based on holding onto the ball as much as possible. All the players immediately bought into his plans, and the results followed. Personally speaking, I first met him in 2007, when I was at Le Mans. I also played under him at Lille in 2009, and then we came together again at Roma last season. To sum up, we know each other very well; I understand what makes him tick, and vice versa.
Roma were very active in the transfer market this summer, signing Urby Emanuelson, Juan Iturbe, Ashley Cole and Kostas Manolas. Is the league title the principal target this season?
We certainly did some good business in the transfer market. Now there’s competition for places practically all over the park, which is good news, as we’re involved in numerous competitions this year. And, looking back, it was perhaps a lack of depth that cost us the title last season. Now, anything is possible.
Italian clubs have not shone as brightly in European competition over the past few years. Is the quality in Serie A very different from the English Premier League, for example?
Every national championship has its own characteristics and its own tempo. Having played in Ligue 1 and the Premier League, I don’t feel like the level of Italian football has dropped all that much. In fact, Serie A remains a very attractive prospect, as some big-name players decided to come and play here during the summer. Although some clubs have struggled in Europe, we’re going to work hard at projecting another image of Italian football.
The draw for the UEFA Champions League was not all that kind to Roma, pitting you against Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow and Manchester City. Are you feeling positive about it?
Of course we have some big teams in our group, but it’s not like Roma are completely unknown either. We’ve got just as much chance as the other three sides. Although it’s been four years since we’ve taken part in the Champions League, we have players in our squad who are very familiar with it. We’ll have the benefit of their experience. We’re very hopeful.
After Didier Drogba’s retirement, is there the same sense of optimism at national-team level?
Didier was our captain – he made a great contribution to the national team and will leave a huge void. As far as I’m concerned, I’m proud and happy to have played alongside him. But he’s left now, and we need to move on. We have some important challenges coming up, including the Cup of Nations qualifiers and the tournament itself in January. That’s what we have to focus on.
When you reflect on Côte d’Ivoire’s World Cup campaign, what do you think went wrong?
We were expected to get out of our group, and we were expected to beat Greece in our last match. In the end, there wasn’t much in it - a penalty in the final seconds knocked us out. It came down to little mistakes. We were all responsible for them, and they cost us dearly. I must admit that I took our exit rather badly. The World Cup was very important to me and to the whole country. We were left with a lot of regrets.
Do you think that Côte d’Ivoire have fallen off their perch?
Despite the failure in Brazil, the quality of our players is not in doubt. For me, the best team in Africa is still Côte d’Ivoire.
What was your reaction to the news that Herve Renard had been handed the reins of the national team?
It’s the Ivoirian FA’s decision, but every new arrival is very welcome. It’s always quite rewarding getting to know a new coach.
After you enjoyed a particularly successful 2013/14 season, you’ve continued to impress this term. Are you currently playing the best football of your life?
I did have a good season with Roma, and we qualified for the Champions League, which was our main goal. And I gave all I had during the World Cup. Right now, I’m just trying to maintain that form.
And what is your prime objective for this season?
First, winning the Cup of Nations. And second, winning the Serie A title. That’s in chronological order, not in order of personal preference!