Unbolt the doors, roll up the window blinds: the lock-in in last chance saloon is over. Didier Drogba was as statesmanlike as he always is in an orange shirt, walking round his team-mates picking them from the floor and raising spirits but he must fear that this is the end. He said afterwards that if he is wanted he will stay and spoke of shifting the focus to World Cup qualification but the Ivory Coast captain is 34 now; will he really be around in Morocco in 2015 for yet another last shot at the Africa Cup of Nations?
Seven years ago, when the Elephants lost on penalties in the final to Egypt in Cairo, it seemed inconceivable that that group of players, the so-called golden generation of Drogba, the Tourés, Salomon Kalou, Didier Zokora, Emmanuel Eboué and Arouna Koné would not win at least one Cup of Nations. Perhaps the term golden generation is itself a curse, a guarantee of non-success. And if it is, and this highly talented team is forever unfulfilled, how absurd that the coup de grace should have been delivered by Sol Bamba's backside.
Egypt in the final in Cairo in 2006, Egypt in the semi-final in Kumasi in 2008, Algeria in the quarter-final in Cabinda in 2010. Zambia in the final in Libreville in 2012 and now Nigeria in the quarter-final in Rustenburg in 2013: it is a roll of defeats that could haunt Ivorian football for decades. The fitful gifts of Gervinho aside, there is little sign of fresh blood rising to replace the veterans: where is the generation to succeed the golden generation? Having missed this opportunity, it could be a long time before another occurs.
The setting was appropriately apocalyptic, morning sun yielding to heavy cloud cover and a blustery wind. Rain lashed the hills that surround the hills to the south and east of Phokeng, eddies of dust scudded across the plain to the north and lightning flickered constantly above the platinum works. The flaw that brought the Ivorians down was more familiar: their goalkeeper Boubacar Barry. After he had punched bewilderedly down the wrong line as Emmanuel Emenike's free-kick flashed passed him three minutes before half-time, the former Tottenham forward Mido tweeted that Barry had already won three Cups of Nations for Egypt. That was cruel and not entirely fair, for Barry is capable of great agility and has made some fine saves, but there was some truth to the jibe – and that, unfortunately, is not changed by his evident devastation.
On a human level it was impossible not to sympathise as he walked weeping from the dressing room to the team bus; from a football point of view you knew that if he was blaming himself he was pointing the finger in exactly the right direction. Barry has always been erratic and error-prone, his level far below that of the team's spine. That he has remained essentially unchallenged as the Ivory Coast No1 for six years is extraordinary.
To blame Barry alone, though, would certainly not be fair – even if he did signal he was having one of his skittish days with an unconvincing parry from a Victor Moses shot early on. Nigeria had dominated the first half – Emenike skewing wide a fine chance created by Brown Ideye – and were well worth the lead. Mikel John Obi was exceptional at the back of midfield, he and Ogenyi Onazi never giving Yaya Touré an inch. Essentially they did to him what he and Didier Zokora had done to Kanu in the 2006 semi-final in Alexandria and, as a result, he had far less influence than is usual, and was never able to set the Ivorian rhythm.
Ivory Coast rallied. Drogba, having been fouled, dinked the free-kick to the back post for Cheik Tioté to head in and for a time it seemed that, having stayed into the abyss, they had found some inner resolve to fight back. But then, 12 minutes from time, Sunday Mba, vindicating Stephen Keshi's decision to select domestic based players, was allowed to drift through two challenges. Bamba lunged in an attempt to block, and the ball flicked a buttock that sent it looping past Barry. The Ivorians, beset by the realisation it was happening again, had nothing left.
The Ivory Coast coach, Sabri Lamouchi, insisted afterwards that he "took full responsibility" and it's hard to believe he will not pay with his job. He raised the usual objection that this was his first defeat – echoing Vahid Halilhodzic after the defeat to Algeria three years ago – and in coaxing a couple of excellent performances from Gervinho, he has achieved more than many coaches ever will, but nothing that has happened in the months since he replaced François Zahoui have done anything to make his appointment seem any less strange.
A team as emotionally fragile as this, that bears with it always in the knockout stages the trauma of past failure, surely needed a coach with experience, somebody who could calm nerves and stiffen sinews. Zahoui, in fact, playing cautious football and eliminating risk, seemed to have the right idea, and but for a missed Drogba penalty and the emotional wave ridden by the Zambians, he surely would have brought home the trophy. Certainly he got far closer than Lamouchi.
For years, it feels, we've been saying "surely this time". In two years' time in Morocco, we probably won't. As Drogba knows from his Champions League success at Chelsea, it can be just as hope fades that achievements come, but he cannot go on for ever. Yaya Touré, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho should all still be somewhere near their peaks then, and that means they will have a chance, but in 2015 they will be just another side with a handful of good players: the golden generation is over.