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RUSTENBURG, South Africa, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Captain Didier Drogba said the chances of he and a golden generation of Ivory Coast players ever lifting the African Nations Cup had gone for good after a 2-1 quarter-final defeat by Nigeria on Sunday.
"It's over," the 34-year-old striker, who missed a penalty in normal time in last year's final shootout loss to Zambia, quietly summarised.
The trophy has eluded the country since 1992 - the Elephants have twice been runners-up in the last four editions, were semi-finalists in 2008 and were knocked out in the last eight in 2010.
For a fifth successive tournament, the Elephants were tipped to win the title with a squad boasting such talents as Drogba, Yaya Toure and Salomon Kalou.
But Africa's top-ranked team once again failed to live up to expectation and go home empty-handed.
The normally chatty Ivorians quietly left the turf and passed the media ranks without uttering but mere greetings.
Goalkeeper Boubacar Barry slipped through, head bowed, rubbing his teary eyes as he followed his team mates.
"It is heartbreaking," said centre-back Souleman Bamba, who deflected a shot from Sunday Mba over his own goalkeeper for the Nigerian winner.
"We were the strong favourite, but unfortunately we didn't manage to do what we wanted to do, to win this competition.
"The start of the second half was very good, we've scored an equaliser, but for some reason we didn't manage to make more goals and that's the big disappointment."
Subdued coach Sabri Lamouchi defended his team following the match at the rain-soaked Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace.
"I assume all the responsibility," said Lamouchi, who only took over the job months before the tournament.
"We had our chances to take control of the match but we lacked simplicity in our build up," he added.
With the Nations Cup dream once again shattered, Ivory Coast are now turning their eyes towards the 2014 World Cup.
"When you are down you learn and you have to stand up," Bamba said. "Tonight we are disappointed but we are not finished at all. We have the qualifiers for the World Cup to play and we look forward to that."
Drogba agreed: "We now look ahead to the World Cup, with or without me." (Reporting by Agnieszka Flak and Mark Gleeson, editing by Justin Palmer)