The Soccer Match That Ended a Civil War
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the beautiful game has healing powers.
By Eromo Egbejule
The finest member of Ivory Coast’s “golden generation” of soccer stars spent most of his formative years in France and never played in the local league. But there was never any doubt about Didier Drogba’s love of country, and the feeling was mutual and durable, as liter bottles of a popular beer and a village are both named for him.
So his words carried considerable weight in 2005, as his West African homeland was riven by civil war. At the same time, the tightly knit national soccer team, known as the Elephants, was one of the most fearsome squads on the continent. Their triumph against Sudan to claim Ivory Coast’s first-ever trip to the World Cup sent people into the streets nationwide to celebrate.
Just as his compatriots were basking in the euphoria of the win, Drogba grabbed one of the microphones being thrust at him by the plethora of journalists in the stadium and admonished the Ivorian ruling class. “Please lay down your weapons and hold elections. … We want to have fun, so stop firing your guns.” Within weeks of that footage playing repeatedly on Ivorian media outlets, the rebels and the government agreed to a temporary truce.
And that was just the start.
The winner that day was not the politicians who were behind it but football.
Mamadou Gaye, Ivorian soccer journalist
Drogba was a bully of a striker whose sharp turn of pace often left defenders stunned. He was just as comfortable scoring with his head as he was with his feet and symbolized the ruthless mix of talent, pace, guile and determination that the Elephants possessed. He was also Ivorian through and through. “His love for football is only equalled by his passion for his native land,” says Jim Hart, writer at These Football Times.
By the mid-2000s, his land was roiled by the first of two civil wars due to disputed elections and sociopolitical issues arising from the death of longtime dictator Félix Houphouët-Boigny back in 1993. Rebel forces led by Guillaume Soro controlled the north, while President Laurent Gbagbo’s national government held the south. The only unifying force: the Elephants.
In 2006, Drogba clinched the first of his two African Footballer of the Year awards, then he dropped a bombshell: An important qualifier against Madagascar would be held in the rebel capital of Bouaké to foster national reconciliation. If anyone else had said those words, they would not have carried the same weight.
But according to veteran Ivorian sports journalist Mamadou Gaye, Drogba was only the messenger and not the initiator of the idea, as the ruling politicians knew well the power of the game. “The party decided to have a direct dialogue, and Jacques Anouma, the former president of Ivory Coast Football Federation, was [also] the financial director of the presidency, very close to Gbagbo,” Gaye says. “That’s where the idea emerged and Drogba happened to be captain.”
The stadium at Bouaké was packed to full capacity with most people wearing the orange jerseys of the Ivorian team. There was palpable excitement in the air and most attendees, including Gaye, were visibly emotional. Northerners came out in large numbers because it had been years since they last had the opportunity to see the Elephants play before the country had been divided in two. People from the south drove hours to see the game.
Security personnel from both the Republican Guard and the rebel coalition were present in the stadium. Soro himself was the special guest of honor and seated close to members of Gbagbo’s government and the international community. Everyone wanted to witness the historic spectacle and watch the Ivorian team’s many superstars, especially Drogba and brothers Kolo and Yaya Toure, who were playing in the English and French top divisions.
The Elephants did not disappoint: They beat the Madagascar team, 5-0, and as Bouaké reverberated all night with joy, Drogba’s status changed from a saint to a god. “The winner that day was not the politicians who were behind it but football,” says Gaye, who drove two hours to Yamoussoukro after the game to stay with family because every hotel in Bouaké was booked full. “No political party can fill up a stadium unless they ferry people, give them T-shirts, food and money. People paid for themselves and drove themselves there. It was unbelievable.”
This time, the peace was more permanent, even though it would be ruptured by a second civil war five years later. Gbagbo would go on to make history as the first former head of state dragged to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, before being acquitted of crimes against humanity.
This October, Ivory Coast is scheduled to hold presidential elections — and many of the same players are back on the political pitch. Soro, who went from rebel leader to prime minister and then parliament chief, was recently handed a 20-year sentence in absentia for money laundering and embezzlement of funds during his time in office. Nonetheless, he’s a top candidate this year, likely to form an alliance with former presidents Henri Konan Bédié and Gbagbo to challenge incumbent President Alassane Ouattara. There are growing concerns about violence.
Drogba, meanwhile, ended his playing career in 2018 and has started a school, among other charitable initiatives, in his home country. Last month, his own political career began with a loss in the presidential elections of the Ivorian Football Association.
- Eromo Egbejule, OZY Author Contact Eromo Egbejule