The private lives of footballers are often the stuff of Sunday scandal sheets. On-field saints become off-field sinners, indulging in nefarious liaisons and the sorts of spending habits that reflect the old maxim of youth having more money than sense. Such are the impressions so often presented to the public by the behaviour of many Premier League players. There are, of course, some that defy such stereotyping, have a normal family life and somehow enjoy their wealth and good fortune without courting the notoriety apparently so thoughtlessly sought by many others.
It is unusual to hear of such things though, as ‘man goes home and does good things’ is hardly going to fill the voracious appetites of the less salubrious pack of news hounds – and perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, living life below the tabloid radar, and avoiding the harsh, negative glare of the public spotlight should hardly be a cause for celebration. After all, it’s what most of the population do all of the time, but just with a lot less resources. Sometimes however, there’s a story that should be told for the right reasons. Sometimes a footballer becomes more of a person; more of a human being. He becomes a player in a conflict far more important than any played out on a football field. Sometimes he can use his fame for enormous good. Sometimes you simply have to give credit where credit’s due.
Mention the name Didier Drogba to almost any football fan without a leaning towards Chelsea Football Club, and the descriptions that come back will hardly likely to be complimentary. Diving, feigning injury and consistently complaining to referees will figure high in the pattern of responses. Even including his more ardent admirers of the blue persuasion will, in all probability, only add plaudits for his performances and successes on the field. Some may offer a reference to the Didier Drogba Foundation that has done so much to raise living standards in his home country, but surely very few, if any, would refer to an ongoing devotion to ending a bloody and debilitating civil war in Cote d’Ivoire.
Drogba first left his native country at the tender ago of five, to live with an uncle in France. It was a short break though. The young boy became homesick for Africa and family, returning three short years later. Although the lush green surroundings of his homeland were burnt into his soul, he was again compelled to leave Cote d’Ivoire in 1991 when both of his parents lost their jobs. Two years later, together with his siblings, they were to join him in his new French domicile.
It was the beginning of a new life, and one that would take Drogba on to fame and fortune. The love of his homeland never left him however, and speaking to Aljazeera back in March 2013 Drogba related that, he “left Cote d’Ivoire with a certain image: It was beautiful, its streets were lovely, there was greenery everywhere and people were happy. And when I came back a few years later, I saw a real change. That’s when I started asking myself questions.”
Such questions were related to the civil war that had been raging in Cote d’Ivoire, tearing asunder the rebel Muslim north and the government-controlled Christian south, and what he could do to bring peace back to the troubled African country. Beginning in 2002, by 2004 most of the continuous fighting had slowed as the two factions settled into an uneasy stalemate. The conflict still occasionally flared hot and fierce though, with inflamed passions. Despite interventions from both the UN and France, tensions were still running high.
Only one thing seemed able to still unite the country. The Elephants; the Cote d’Ivoire national football team, led by Didier Drogba. After each game in the qualifying tournament for the 2006 World Cup, Drogba would lead his teammates in prayer for a return to peace in their homeland. On 8th October 2005, they visited Sudan for a decisive qualifier. The game in the El Meriekh Stadium was a triumph for the Elephants. Akale put them ahead in the first half, before a brace from Dindane after the break sealed the result. A late goal for Sudan from Tambal was scant consolation. The Elephants had defeated their hosts 3-1 to qualify for the World Cup finals.
As the country celebrated, Drogba took it upon himself to seize the moment in a dramatic gesture intended to salve his wounded homeland. Instead of the prayer he and his teammates had offered up after each game, live on television, he picked up a microphone and delivered an impassioned plea to a country striven by civil war for five years: “Ivorians, men and women, from the north and the south, the centre and the west, you’ve seen this. We’ve proved to you that the people of Ivory Coast can live together side by side, play together toward the same goal: qualifying for the World Cup. We promised you this celebration would bring the people together. Now we’re asking you to make this a reality.” Flanked by his teammates, the iconic leader of his team dropped to his knees in the changing room of a football stadium and appealed to the country’s warring factions to bring the conflict to an end. “Forgive,” he implored them.
It was a cathartic moment, and added a layer of hope to the scenes of jubilant celebration. A wave of renewed unity and aspiration for a better tomorrow flooded over the entire country. It’s even said that government officials in the south of the country, contacted bars and hotels in the rebel-held north, asking the owners to supply beer to all guests and to send them the bills. It was duly done, and payment was made. The speech was replayed on national television time and again over the coming weeks, and tensions began to ease. It seemed that the nation’s football team had managed to achieve what the former colonial power and the United Nations could not. Peace began to return to Cote d’Ivoire.
Speaking later, Drogba explained that far from being a preplanned gesture, it was a spontaneous reaction to the joy of qualification, and had come from from his heart of those of his teammates. “Inside, we wanted all that stuff to stop,” he said. “When you play a match and you’re surrounded by rocket-launchers … okay, that’s for the president’s security, fine. But you’re playing with rocket-launchers everywhere. We wanted to play in a more relaxed atmosphere again. So after that game, we were euphoric, and someone whispered in my ear that it was the right time to put out a message. Then we just improvised.”
Asked to describe his emotions afterwards, Drogba was quick to explain his feelings “I have won many trophies in my time,” he declared, “but nothing will ever top helping win the battle for peace in my country. I am so proud because today in Cote d’Ivoire, we do not need a piece of silverware to celebrate.”
That day in 2005 marked a beginning of the long journey towards reconciliation for Cote d’Ivoire. It was however only a beginning. In the same year, Drogba was acclaimed as African Footballer of the Year. It’s difficult to tell whether his exploits in front of a microphone, on his knees, pleading for peace, had swayed any votes in his favour, but surely few could complain if it had. He had however further plans to move the peace process forward.
Although tensions had eased, there was still an impasse between the rebels in their northern stronghold, and the government in the south. During a tour of the country in March 2007, Drogba staked his reputation on a bold suggestion. A qualifying game for the African Cup of Nations was scheduled to take place in the country in June of that year, and rather than have it played in Abidjan, he suggested that, in a move of reconciliation, it should be moved 300 kilometres to Bouake, the major city of the rebel north.
Had the government refused his request, or the rebels denied permission for the game to take place there, the influence of Didier Drogba and his team of Elephants may well have waned, but such was the prestige achieved by the players that there was little opposition, and the game was moved.
On 3rd June 2007, Cote d’Ivoire beat Madagascar 5-0 in Bouake. That short sentence however tells little of the significance of the game, even if it encapsulates the result. Although security at the game was in the hands of some 300 soldiers from the rebel forces, approximately 200 government soldiers were invited to attend the game as guests, to observe and support Drogba and his team. Reports suggest that whilst passionate support for the team echoed around the stadium, there was also a mood of tranquility as formerly implacable enemies watched the game in harmony. It was the first time in more than five years that government forces had been in the rebel stronghold, but on this occasion they were united as Ivorians. It was all because of a game of football. 2007 and also saw the inauguration of the Didier Drogba Foundation, dedicated to improving the life chances of the people of Cote d’Ivoire following the privations of the civil war.
Whilst still basking in the warm glow of victory and a pending reconciliation, a spokesman form the Ministry of Sport declared that Drogba and his teammates had done more to bring about peace in the country than any politician, any international force, or any internal powers. He also praised the players of Madagascar who had agreed to the match being played in Bouake despite the obvious potential for danger. After the match, Ivorian newspaper headlines read ‘Five goals to Erase Five Years of War’, ‘Drogba brings Bouake back to life’ and ‘Drogba magic.’
It may be falling into the easy trap of hyperbole to say that all of this progress was simply brought about by football. Some months before the game in Bouake had taken place, the rebel leader Soro Gauillaume had agreed a peace accord with President Laurent Gbagbo. There were therefore other moves afoot on the road to reconciliation. It has to be said however, that this was not the first such agreement, and many others had foundered in the past. The Elephants move to play in Bouake remains, at the very least, a potent symbol of encouragement on the journey towards peace. Drogba later related that “Seeing both leaders side by side for the national anthems was very special. I felt then that that the Ivory Coast was born again.” Such renaissance however was not the end of the road.
Following the peace accord and an easing of tensions, elections were finally held in October 2010, albeit after a number of delays. Disputes over the result and accusations of electoral malpractice however dogged the process, and by early 2011, fighting had resumed. Alassane Ouattara had been widely recognised by the international community as the winner of the presidential elections, but the incumbent Gbagbo was reluctant to relinquish power.
The days of hope from 2005 and 2007 were forgotten as the rebel New Force clashed with government defences around Abodo, Yamousssoukro and Anyamal. After months of failed negotiations and sporadic armed skirmishes, frustrated by a lack of progress, Ouattara’s forces seized control of most of the country with Gbagbo and his supporters forced into an ever decreasing pocket of land around Abidjan.
The fighting was peppered with accusations and counter-accusations of atrocities as the conflict escalated. One report suggested that in the city of Duékoué, forces fighting under the banner of Ouattara killed hundreds of noncombatants. It’s often said that truth is the first casualty of war and in such times it’s difficult to establish hard facts. It remains fairly safe to say however, that human rights violations occurred on a fairly substantial scale on both sides of the divide. The country had resumed its fratricidal blood-letting.
As April dawned, and reports of bloodshed increased, the international community was compelled to intervene and the UN, together with in situ French troops took action to protect both their own forces and the civilians caught up in the conflict. On the 11th April, French forces arrested Gbagbo at his residence. He was then transported to the north of the country, charged with armed robbery, looting and embezzlement related to the post-election unrest. He still however, refused to accept defeat in the previous year’s November election. This however did not prevent the UN declaring Ouattara the winner, and democratically elected president of the country.
At his inauguration in the political capital Yamoussoukro, Ouattara announced the setting up of a Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission, aimed at removing the easing the pains of the recent conflict and forging a new national unity. The concept was inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that did much work to heal the open wounds of apartheid conflict in South Africa. Quite how successful it would be however, was less than clear, and any chances of achieving the president’s vaulted aspirations would largely depend on the make-up of its members and the prestige and trust they brought with them. The president declared that: “We will have to tackle difficult questions such as the land issue in rural areas and identity questions.” It would be no easy task.
The body had 11 members sworn-in at its inception, and was headed by former Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny with religious and regional leaders filling most of the remaining seats. In a move to demonstrate a broad approach, there was even a place for Professor Sery Bailly, a long-time ally of Gbagbo. There was also another member. Not a politician or a regional leader. Not a former soldier, nor even an academic. The final seat was offered to, and filled by, Dider Drogba.
Despite any opinions to the contrary in England, in his homeland there could no more unifying figure than the leader of the national team who fell to his knees to beg his country to “forgive”. Speaking to The Independent in December 2011, shortly after collecting a global humanitarian award, Drogba explained why he was more than keen to join the commission, and further pursue his aims reunite his country.”If I wasn’t optimistic I wouldn’t be there,” he said, simply. “It’s the first step. We want peace to last, not to be just words, and it’s important that after this situation people can be able to sit together, speak and think about why we ended up with a civil war. I’m not here to judge the ex-president or the new one. The only thing I can say is that the population suffered a lot. A lot of people have been killed. That’s why it was necessary for us to speak. I’ve suffered from this war but it’s easy for me to come out and say ‘My village has been attacked’ or ‘This guy from my family died’. But what about the others? The other people who cannot talk. They all suffer.”
In October of 2015, Alasasane Outtara won a second five-year term as president of Cote d’Ivoire in a landslide election victory. Over two million Ivorians supported him in the ballot, accounting for in excess of 80% of the votes cast. In his home state of Kong, only six of 14,000 votes cast were not in support of him. It appears however that despite the apparent improbably robust victory, there seemed little signs of any electoral impropriety, as judged by neutral observers. The result was a ringing endorsement. Not only for the president, for the reforms put in place and the economic growth of around 9% over the past three years however, but also the work of the Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission, including Didier Drogba.
In such a climate there is an inevitable clamour for the former Chelsea striker to seek political office. If he ever was to stand for election, few would doubt the likely outcome. Unlike another former Stamford Bridge star, George Weah, Drogba insists however that he has no political ambitions, and it is there perhaps that his greatest strength lies. Weah warily walked the political route to tackle conflict in his native Liberia, but Drogba has vowed to take a different path.
Since 2007, the Didier Drogba Foundation in has focused on providing healthcare on the ground, by setting up a network of clinics around the more remote areas of the country, offering vital help to people who previously had no access to such facilities. Drogba has said that, “There is nothing better than when you see a kid with a smile on his face and that is why I’m trying to help. I want to do a lot of things in Africa, I want to give people the chance to dream, and it is easier to dream when you are in good health and happy.”
Through his foundation, healthcare in Cote d’Ivoire has markedly progressed, but perhaps a far greater healing has occurred due to Didier Drogba being perceived as a uniting force for all people of his country. This may well have been enhanced by his non-aligned stance as has ruled out any desire for public office. It’s an ‘apolitical political’ stance, but one that has seen him become the unquestioned symbol of his nation as it struggles on the road towards a permanent peace. Earlier I mentioned how ‘man goes home and does good things’ is hardly the sort of thing that fills the newspapers. If, however, a manifestation of that is ‘man goes home and saves country’ perhaps it should be.