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And They Say it’s Only a Game...

When politicians fail, who do we turn to? In 2005 Didier Drogba took matters into his own hands and effectively ended a civil war in his native Ivory Coast. Here’s how.

For years I had heard rumors about this. ‘Didier Drogba ended a civil war in his home country’. It’s not that I didn’t believe it, I had just never actually investigated it. With such unprecedented challenges facing our communities now, I have been amazed by the actions and contributions of many of our sports stars. It got me thinking about the legend of Drogba. Had he truly used his platform to bring an end to civil conflict?

It didn’t take more than a Google search to find the answer: he had indeed. In 2005, the Ivory Coast was on the verge of being knocked out of the final qualification spot for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Ahead of the final game of qualifying, Cameroon needed a win against Egypt and they would punch their ticket ahead of the Ivory Coast. To qualify, the Elephants of the Ivory Coast needed Cameroon to lose or tie and they themselves needed to beat Sudan.

Drogba and the other stars of the Ivory Coast knew that giving the people of their country the chance to watch them play on the largest stage in sport would be a massive achievement and a welcome distraction from the unrest that had gripped the West Africa nation. Things didn’t start well for them as Cameroon took a 20th minute lead. In Sudan, Drogba and the Ivory Coast were making easy work of Sudan, leading 3-1 by the 73rd minute. With their games kicking off simultaneously, the crowd listened to the radio anxiously waiting for good news. It came in the 79th minute. Egypt had scored and leveled things 1-1. If the score would stand, the Ivory Coast would head to the World Cup for the first time in history. Their game ended first and the players huddled around a radio on the field, waiting for the news that the final whistle had been blown on the other side of the continent. Instead, the news that came across was that Cameroon had been awarded a penalty in the 94th minute.

The Elephants saw their dream flash before their eyes and for a moment, the entire future in the Ivory Coast seemed bleak. But it wouldn’t last. The spot kick hit the post and the score remained at 1-1. Pandemonium ensued. For the first time in history, the Ivory Coast was headed to the World Cup.

Drogba was once regarded as one of the top strikers in world football and a true icon for all of Africa.

It would have been hard to believe but the final whistle in Egypt wasn’t even the most dramatic moment of the day. That was soon to come. The North and South of the Ivory Coast had been divided in two—the South being controlled by President Laurent Gbagbo and the North by rebels known as The New Forces of the Ivory Coast. Fighting had persisted since 2002 and it was hard to see how things would ever be mended. Enter Didier Drogba and co.

After the game against Sudan, the celebrations in the locker room were out of control and a TV camera managed to push in. Drogba was given the microphone.

“Men and women of Ivory Coast, from the north, south, centre, and west, we proved today that all Ivorians can coexist and play together with a shared aim - to qualify for the World Cup.”

“We promised you that the celebrations would unite the people - today we beg you on our knees.” When he said that the whole team dropped to their knees.

“Forgive. Forgive! The one country in Africa with so many riches must not descend into war. Please lay down your weapons. Hold elections. All will be better. We want to have fun, so stop firing your guns.”

The speech didn’t bring about instant peace, but the two sides moved closer and closer to the negotiating table. The final act in Drogba and the national team’s peace-making effort was yet to come. In 2007, Drogba announced (whether or not he had the consent of President Gbagbo is uncertain) that their home match against Madagascar would be played in the city of Bouake, the city most closely associated with the unrest in the northern region. When the game was played, government and rebels sang the songs of their nation together. Football ruled over conflict and disagreement. It was only right that Drogba scored the 4th goal in the 4-0 victory and when he did, the decibels in the stadium were ear-shattering. The conflict wasn’t brought to a clean end then and there for a period of time, the Cote D’Ivoire was united behind a superstar and his teammates.