The power of a ball: How soccer star Didier Drogba ended the Côte d’Ivoire Civil War

The beginning of the end: Drogba's speech that ended the Coat d'Ivoire Civil War | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The King of Sports, Football (American soccer). Every four years, the world watches the FIFA World Cup. Every four years, people from all parts of the world stop everything they’re doing in order to watch their country play football. Every four years, billions of dollars are invested in this event.1 Many praise it, many criticize it, but what nobody can deny is that football has a power to unite an entire nation and give its people hope and joy, whatever their condition or situation might be. Did you think football was irrelevant and useless? Well, you would be wrong. The power of football is immense, and the story you are about to read will show it. Yes, football, eleven players looking to put a ball in a goal, was able to end a civil war!

Didier Drogba lifting the 2012 UEFA Champions League trophy | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Didier Drogba was born in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, on March 11, 1978.2 He is a historical figure in his country, considered by many to be the best Ivorian player in its history. In addition to that, he has the record for being the highest scorer in the history of Ivory Coast football. There is no one in Ivory Coast who does not idolize this football player. We can say that Didier Drogba has been one of the world’s best strikers of the last decades. The African striker has won almost everything during his football career, even scoring in the 2012 United European Football Association’s (UEFA) Champions League final for his then football team Chelsea against the German power FC Bayern of Munich. It is necessary to emphasize the dimensions of a Champions League final, because the vast majority of American readers have little knowledge of European football, partly because of the popularity of American football. For example, Super Bowl XLIX, the most watched sporting event in United States history, had 121 million people watching it. This number is undoubtedly colossal, but it does not compare with the 180 million people who saw the final of the Champions League in 2016.3 Despite the giant audience, this was not even the most seen UEFA Champions League football final in history. A Champions League final is crucial, as was Didier Drogba in that one. At the end, the Ivoirian was chosen as the best player in the UEFA Champions League final. The African player was so important for the English team that he even kicked the last penalty that would give them the maximum glory for a Football team.4

Despite moving to France at the age of five, Drogba never forgot his roots nor his people.5 Despite having the possibility of changing his nationality to French citizenship, which would have allowed him to play with a much more competitive team and with greater aspirations to win a World Cup (the ultimate prize of every football lover), love of his homeland was of greater importance to him. When Drogba returned to Côte d’Ivoire, he not only found a football team in ruins and with little hope of achieving any important achievement, but he also found a country in ruins and with hopes of progress almost destroyed.

It all began in September 2002. A group of military opponents of the Ivorian government decided to take the main cities of the country as a symbol of rebellion. The rebels attempted a coup, but it did not work, so they took refuge in the north. That was the beginning of the civil war in Ivory Coast.6

Political division of Côte d’Ivoire due to the Civil War. In green, the rebel side; in red, the government side | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

Drogba playing for the colors of his country | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Despite the thousands of deaths during the first three years of the civil war, there was a reason to celebrate in Côte d’Ivoire: football. In 2005, Côte d’Ivoire obtained its first classification to a FIFA World Cup in all its country’s history. It came in a game against Sudan, in which the Ivoirians won 3-1.7 And then, with everyone celebrating that epic result, the captain of the Ivory Coast team, Didier Drogba, wanted to turn that celebration into a momentous moment for the history of the country. Kneeling, and surrounded by all the different races that made up the Ivory Coast Football Team, he turned to the national television camera, and began his message:

“Men and woman of Cote d’Ivoire from the North, South, Centre, and West. We proved today that all Ivoirians can co-exist and play together with a shared aim: to qualify for the World Cup. We promised you that the celebration would unite the people. Today, we beg you, on our knees: Forgive! 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!” 8

Drogba’s message touched Ivoirians, because the country was affectionate at that moment of great celebration, and because they needed someone to open their eyes. After more than four-thousand dead in three years, who better to do so than the greatest idol who, at that time, was already elevated to the level of eternal legend. A week after that gesture, the two sides agreed to a cease-fire; it was the beginning of the end of the war.9

Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, along with rebel leader Guillaume Soro, peacefully united for the first time thanks to football | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Although “Didi”’s speech was well received by both sides of the confrontation, there were still things to resolve in order to say that “the civil war was over.” Thus, in 2006, when Drogba received the prize for best African footballer of the year, he decided to return to Ivory Coast to show his country the precious trophy. But he did not go to his birth city, the capital of the country: he traveled to Bouaké, one of the cities that had been occupied by the rebels opposed to the government, where they had installed their headquarters. When he arrived, Drogba also gave a speech that again spoke of the importance of unity and peace for the progress and development of the West African country.

After that episode, in 2007, the captain of “The Elephants” (nickname given to the Ivorian soccer team) proposed something that was really daring and dangerous in case it materialized. Drogba’s aim was to realize an official match of the national team in the same city, Bouaké. His goal was to bring the unity of the country to its maximum expression on the most conflicted place, the capital of the rebels. It was not easy, but with the mediation of Drogba, the political and football authorities agreed. It was clear that it was not going to be a normal football game. That date, June 3rd of 2007, was The Day for Ivoirians. There was strong tension in the air, because both the people of Bouaké and those of the capital were present in the stadium. The pressure increased a lot more when the leaders of the Ivorian government arrived, who were with the rebels for the first time without bullets separating them. Miraculously, the king of the sport was able to bring rebel leaders, government leaders, and soccer fans together in one place. Then, the national anthem started, and the Ivoirian president Laurent Gbagbo and the rebel leader, Guillaume Soro, sang it side by side. Drogba knew at that moment that the Civil War was over. “To see the two sides together, to sing in unison the hymn of my country was very special. I felt Côte d’Ivoire was born again,” declared the great striker. Not surprisingly, the following day, after Ivory Coast’s 5-0 win against Madagascar, a local newspaper called “Five goals to erase five years of war.”10

Drogba ended up winning all the hearts of the Ivorian people, when in 2009 he decided to donate a hospital in Abidjan, the capital of his country. He did it with the three million pounds he had received after carrying out an advertising campaign with a well-known brand of soft drinks. He just established one condition: that the hospital services were totally free.11

Ivory advertising featuring Drogba. The striker is in all the streets of Ivory Coast | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, the well-known TIME magazine included Drogba among the 100 most influential people in the world, because of his peace objectives and results in the Ivorian Civil War.12From there, he became a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. In addition, Drogba has a foundation, which built five hospitals in Côte d’Ivoire. The hospitals in Abidjan, Yamoussoukro, Man, Korhogo, and San Pedro, which cost five million dollars, were paid for with Drogba’s own money.13 In football, you can be an idol based on goals and titles. But Drogba is much more than an idol. He is a hero, almost a saint, in Ivory Coast.

Didier Drogba, the hero, the legend | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Like him, there are thousands of artists and athletes who enjoy popularity and unanimous approval in their countries. The great majority of these artists are blinded by fame and lust. They squander all their money and end up consuming drugs or are stuck in scandals of sexual abuse, tax evasion, or alcoholism.14 This was not the case for Didier Drogba. The Ivoirian used all his influence to build a better future for the next generations of Ivoirians. A World Cup qualification is an invaluable gift for a football lover, but something that even surpasses this is what “Didi” did: give his compatriots peace. Let us hope that the case of Drogba will not be the only one, and that these influential people can use their popularity for the good of others, for peace.

  1. Veysel Avsar and Unal Umut, “Trading Effects of the FIFA World Cup,” Business Source Complete, no. 3 (May 2014): 315-329.
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica, September 2014, s.v. “Drogba, Didier,” by Jack Rollin.
  3. Ishaan Tharoor, “These global sporting events totally dwarf the Super Bowl,” The Washington Post, February 05, 2016.
  4. Grant Wahl, “In Praise of Drogba,” Sports Illustrated 116, no. 22, (May 28, 2012): 53.
  5. Encyclopædia Britannica, September 2014, s.v. “Drogba, Didier,” by Jack Rollin.
  6. Abu Bakarr, “Democracy and Civil War: Citizenship and Peacemaking in Cote d’Ivoire,” African Affairs no.1 (February 2010): 513.
  7. Peter Law, “The World at their feet: five African representatives will be among 32 finalists vying for honors,” New African, no. 452 (June 2006): 59.
  8. Paddy Agnew, “Drogba calls for peace as football unites Ivory Coast,” Irish Times (February 07, 2006): 12.
  9. Grant Wahl, “Soccer Savior,” Sports Illustrated 112, no. 22 (May 2010): 52.
  10. Alex Hayes, “How Drogba united the Ivory Coast Chelsea star acclaimed by his countrymen after ending five-year civil war,” Daily Telegraph (August 8, 2007): 22-23.
  11. Laura Williamson, “It’s Saint Drogba!,” Daily Mail (November 12, 2009): 96.
  12. Richard Stengel, “The 2010 TIME 100,” Time Magazine (April 2010).
  13. John Hutchinson, “The Didier Drogba Foundation,” The Sun (February 17, 2012): 24.
  14. Lawrence Wenner, Fallen sports heroes, media, and celebrity culture (New York: P. Lang, 2013): 201.
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40 Comments

  • I knew Drogba was a great player but I was unaware he had the power to stop a civil war in his home nation. Soccer is obviously very influential and this article proved that. Drogba provided his people with many different forms of support. He is a very generous man and I do not think enough people know about this. This article was very good and interesting to read.

  • Interesting article! Its interesting how in America we don’t really consider soccer to be a huge sport to watch while in the Ivory Coast it stopped a civil war. Its interesting to see how Drogba used his influence for some much good in his country. Drogba not only used his powers to stop a civil war but he also build five hospitals for them and help for them to have free health care. Its truly inspirational how much good Drogba did for his country and how his good will benefited everybody.

  • Soccer is one of the most influential sports in the world. From a young age, I was privileged enough to see how a mere soccer ball could connect children of different races at L’elcol Belge. A small school, culturally mixed with Congolese, Rwandese, Russians, Burundians, and Indians. Soccer was the desired sport that was played during any break time at school. The sports broke apart the boundaries and bogus racial beliefs that had been established in us by the environments we were raised in. While at home, the political talks did not harden our hearts into thinking ill of other races because soccer had coached us well in seeing that we are all but one living organism. Blessed to the “n” th degree by God’s love for we carry traces of him in us. So while reading this article I was not surprised by Drogba’s story (since he is beloved by my parents) for how he promoted love to foster between two masses of a people. Overall this was phenomenally very well written article props.

  • It’s always been interesting how societies perceive sports. They can either bring an entire city together for goodness (celebrations and parades when cities win important championships) or they can bring an entire city into anarchy (when people lose or are angry with the city’s organization). I think it’s no surprise that a professional player had some sort of influence. This article did a good job at showing how influential Drogba was in this social issue.

  • Reading this article i was just amazed at how much a sport could do for its country, especially such a divided one. What Drogba did was amazing and truly inspiring, from providing free health care and donations to the people that needed it. I would have never put the two very different topics together, soccer and politics, and let alone allow them to help one another. Very well written article!

  • It is amazing how a national team can unite a country! Especially the way Drogba did it. In times where his country was going through tough times. When a national team plays everybody in that country forget absolutely what they are doing and everyone forgets their political beliefs etc. We see a similarity in sports today when players kneel for the anthem. The impact one person can have on so many is simply amazing especially doing it through sports.

  • It is crazy how influential soccer can be. Not only has Drogba stopped a civil war, but pele has as well. And a war started in Honduras because of a soccer match. This article was very well written and you obviously researched in depth. It’s amazing how much Drogba is loved in the Ivory Coast. He has given absolutely everything for his country on and off the soccer pitch.

  • This was a fantastic article that tells a remarkable story of however soccer breaks barriers. I personally love soccer and knew of the talented Didier Drogba. However, I never knew how much he was loved by his country and by its citizens. It is incredible to imagine that this talented soccer legend, never once participating in politics before, was able to move not only the citizens of Ivory Coast, but also the government officials of both sides.

  • This article is truly inspirational, I did not grow up much with football as a child, but I have heard of this event before, and I feel now that I am fully knowledgeable of everything that happened in Africa during the World Cup. Drogba performed many selfless acts that put him in danger as well, not to mention his many generous donations. It is very apparent that the author was very interested in this subject, and it was very well written.

  • Growing up largely influenced by soccer, I knew from the beginning that Drogba was a phenomenal Soccer player. My family being Mexican, Soccer has always been a bigger part of my life than any other sport. However, I didn’t know how often and how much Drogba used his power for good. Not only did Drogba end a civil war within his home country, he was able to build 5 hospitals for them alongside providing free health care. Drogba is huge inspiration and we should all take the time to learn from his humbleness and selflessness.

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