When Gervinho scored the winner for Ivory Coast against Togo with two minutes to go on Tuesday, his team-mates celebrated with surprising intensity. Yes, they had just won a game they had looked like drawing, and spared themselves an awkward postmortem, but there seemed something more. Didier Zokora held Gervinho by the shoulders and shook him, clearly saying something to him of some profundity. It's difficult to be sure, and the players subsequently revealed nothing explicit, but the body language suggested his was a huddle of encouragement, as though senior players were saying to Gervinho something along the lines of, "See, we knew you could do it "
Gervinho's goal was a reminder of what a gifted player he is. As the Togo goalkeeper Kossi Agassa missed Yaya Touré's deep free-kick, the ball fell to Gervinho just below waist height, at a narrow angle to a gaping net. It was easy to imagine him, given how he has played for Arsenal recently, being unable to decide whether to head or volley it and ending up falling in an ungainly heap as he tried to do both.
Instead, though, he flicked the ball firmly with the outside of his right foot to secure a win Ivory Coast seemed to have surrendered by conceding a soft goal from a corner on the stroke of half-time.
Being gifted, though, is not enough. It's one thing to own a Stradivarius, quite another to be able to play it properly. Gervinho went into the Cup of Nations in 2010 hyped as the player who would add dash, sparkle and imagination to a Côte d'Ivoire side based largely on pace and power. He would, we were told, give them something unpredictable. He did that, all right, although perhaps not necessarily in the way Ivory Coast would have hoped. Gervinho began that tournament well, scoring a tap-in and sparkling in a 3-1 group-stage win over Ghana in Cabinda, a game that was understandably overshadowed by the terrorist attack on the Togo team on their way to the city a few days before. He was as guilty as anybody, though, of losing his head in the quarter-final against Algeria, when Ivory Coast lost despite taking the lead in the 89th minute.
Last year, in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, the wildness, the occasionally bizarre decision-making, was clearly in evidence. Yet his team-mates clearly have great fondness for him. Didier Drogba was frequently petulant in his time at Chelsea but in an Ivory Coast shirt he becomes almost statesmanlike, the oldest player of the so-called golden generation and very much the leader. There were times in Malabo and Libreville when you could almost see Drogba suppressing his temper, making himself be encouraging. Gervinho is 25 was 24 then but still seems to be treated as the baby of the squad in part because he is younger than the rest of the golden generation, perhaps not even fully part of it.
There is a recognition of his fragility. He scored a wonderful winner against Mali in the semi-final last year, running from the halfway line before finishing with surprising calm, but when it came to the shoot-out in the final, he snuck farther and farther back. At 7-7, Ivory Coast's coach, François Zahoui, ordered him to go forward; he refused, and Kolo Touré's penalty was saved. Rainford Kalaba fired over the bar, which meant that Gervinho effectively had to go forward.
Drogba hugged him not a manly, darts-player hug, but tight to his chest like a father comforting his son. Gervinho, with sapping inevitability, missed.
His form since has got worse and worse. At Arsenal he has become almost a joke figure. There is a fan who sits in front of the press box at the Emirates who has an enormous quiff and habitually wears an orange overcoat who seems these days to attend games for the express purpose of abusing Gervinho. He may be an extreme case but it doesn't take much for fans to become impatient with Gervinho these days. And as their impatience has grown, so has Gervinho's confidence dipped and he seems very much a confidence player.
A player that fragile will probably never be a consistent performer at the highest level. The very best players have a mental toughness that allows them to put mistakes behind them. Even if he did, his inability to pick the right option on a reliable basis is a major failing. But what is significant is the difference in attitude between Ivory Coast and Arsenal perhaps between country and club. The Ivorians know that, for all his failings, he's the best they've got and so it makes sense to try to get the best out of him; at club level, the attitude among fans at least seems to be to highlight his deficiencies so that he's got rid of and replaced sooner rather than later.
The result is that Gervinho tends to play better for Ivory Coast than he does for Arsenal. In a largely pedestrian Ivorian performance, in which passes were too often misplaced, he added energy. He operated both to left and right but was more effective on the right, his dart into the box creating the space for Yaya Touré's opener, although the ball broke to the midfielder as Gervinho was tackled rather than from a deliberate cut-back. Even if his delivery can be unreliable, his tricksiness gives Ivory Coast an extra dimension.
Other 25-year-olds might feel patronised by the constant encouragement, but it seems to be what Gervinho needs to thrive. Arsenal's frustration with him is understandable but in a supportive environment, he can still be a dangerous player.