So many top echelon footballers of the modern era are, or were, graduates of academies run by the richest clubs who scoop up any promising talent and ‘hot house’ them to produce the most precious and rare of blooms, whilst the vast majority of others are cast aside, discarded like so many weeds. For so many of the successful minority, it means that the ‘rites of passage’ enjoyed and even often endured by the mere mortals who watch them and pay homage to their brilliance are absent from their development as both footballers, and more importantly, people. Sadly, but to the delight of certain sectors of the media, this can lead to poor life decisions and the type of errant behaviour that offers easy headlines for the red top newspapers who seem so anxious to feast on the fates of supposedly fallen angels, screaming about too much money, too young and not enough common sense. No one ever prints an article about a player headlined ‘Footballer Goes Home and Does Good Things.’
Some players however, have earned their celebrity, fame and fortune by walking much less comfortable paths, enduring a nomadic lifestyle in pursuit of their dreams, travelling to different clubs, often having their resolve tested by injury and rejection of both professional and societal variations. Sometimes this is a factor of the location of birth, sometimes it’s caused by the scarcity of life chances, sometimes by a lack of belief, often by a combination of many such factors. Those who make their way to the top by these less-travelled roads though have learned life’s tough lessons, qualified from the school of hard knocks and graduated from the university of life. The journey was more difficult, but their personal development so much more complete.
Didier Drogba was born on 11 March 1978 in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire to a fairly comfortably off family. Seeking to offer their son the best opportunities that life could offer away from Africa, the five-year-old Drogba was packed away to France to live with his uncle and aunt. It was a traumatic time for the young boy, who yearned for the comforting normality of his home back in Africa, where he didn’t feel so ‘different’ as he described his time in France. While his surrogate parents were both loving and protective, it was an understandably difficult period, and three years later he returned to Cote d’Ivoire. Unfortunately, despite the welcome return to the verdant surroundings of his homeland and his love of Cote d’Ivoire that was burnt deep into his soul – just how deep would be illustrated much later in his life – he was again compelled to leave Africa and rejoin his uncle in 1991, when both his parents lost their jobs as recession gripped the African country. Two years later, together with his siblings, they would join him in his new French domicile.
Despite the struggles and strains of growing up in a foreign country, Drogba’s determination to play football professionally had been hardened by the early life experiences that had taught him the value of family and belonging. They would also guide him through life. Despite hardships and rejection by some clubs, he eventually achieved a breakthrough into the professional ranks at Le Mans. He was 21 years old. By this age, most players who go on to establish themselves at the highest levels were already several rungs ahead of him on the climb to success. For Drogba, he had only just found the ladder. From there he moved on first to Guingamp, before finally alerting the football world to his talents at Marseille.
The biggest break of his career came in July 2004, when José Mourinho, newly installed as Chelsea manager, and making hay with the largesse of Roman Abramovich took him to Chelsea in exchange for £24 million. The following eight seasons, and the success enjoyed by Chelsea, would raise Drogba’s celebrity from merely that of a footballer to an iconic figure in the British game and across the continent. Scoring 157 goals in 347 games for the Stamford Bridge club, Drogba would collect three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups, as well as host of personal awards. His time with the club was by netting the winning strike in the penalty shootout that made Chelsea Champions of Europe for the first time in 2012, beating Bayern Munich in their own stadium with the final kick as a Chelsea player before moving on as his contract expired. After periods playing in China and Turkey, he would return to West London two years later and add to his trophy haul by winning another league title and a third League Cup.
Speak to any Chelsea fan and they’ll regale you with golden memories of Drogba’s time at Stamford Bridge. ‘Drogba Legend’ reads one banner in Cote d’Ivoire orange, strung across the stand at the ground where he delighted so many fans. Even for fans whose adherence may be to a different club, there’s often a grudging admiration and a nod of acceptance for a player who defined the role of the lone front man in Premier League football. For a player who had reached the peak of the game through a dogged determination and no little ability, that success may be enough of a story. It is, however, a long way short of defining who the ‘real’ Didier Drogba is.
While he was away from the country of his birth, Cote d’Ivoire suffered the fratricidal horrors of a civil war. The Muslim-dominated north sought to break away from the mainly Christian south of the country as religiously fuelled internecine conflict raged. When prosperity turns to poverty as global economic tides wash away security and peace of mind, divisions that were once less important, suddenly assume new prominence and inspire frenzied devotion. The conflict that began in 2002 had by 2004 settled into a struggle where neither party was capable of subduing the other and the country suffered an uneasy stalemate, punctuated by far too regular bouts of fighting and bloody conflicts. Attempts at peacekeeping by France and the UN were well-intentioned but doomed to fail as antagonisms became more and more engrained. Only one thing united all Ivorians, the national football team, The Elephants, led by Didier Drogba.
For the iconic leader of the team, it was an opportunity to try an offer a balm to the open wounds of his country. In the qualifying tournament for the 1996 World Cup, after each game, Drogba would gather his team-mates around him, and lead them in prayer for peace in their homeland. It was heartfelt and, for a man like Drogba with that love of his country pulling at his heartstrings, it was important, but a bigger, more significant step was required.
On 8 October 2005, Cote d’Ivoire travelled to Sudan to complete the qualifying programme, a win would take them to the finals. Akale scored in the first half and a brace from Dindane after the break sealed the win, despite a late goal for the home team. The game was a triumph for The Elephants, but what followed was even more important for the future Cote d’Ivoire.
As pictures of the Ivorian dressing room wildly celebrating qualification for their first World Cup Finals were beamed back to the country by Radio Télévision Ivoirienne, amid the joyous scenes, Drogba asked for the reporter’s microphone, calling for silence. At that moment, in the suddenly eerie quiet of the small dressing-room at the El Meriekh Stadium in the Sudanese city of Omdurman, Didier Drogba moved from being merely a highly paid professional footballer into a humble but hugely influential national hero.
In humble but determined tones, he addressed the whole of Cote d’Ivoire. ‘My fellow Ivorians, from the north and from the south, from the centre and from the west, we have proved to you today that Cote d’Ivoire can cohabit and play together with the same objective: to qualify for the World Cup. We had promised you that this would unite the population. We ask you now.’ He paused as he sank to his knees in supplication to the watching millions of his countrymen. ‘The only country in Africa that has all these riches cannot sink into a war this way. Please, lay down your arms. Organise elections. And everything will turn out for the best.’ He paused, bowing his head then, looking into the camera spoke again. ‘Forgive,’ he begged.
In his autobiography, Drogba confessed that he had no idea how his plea would be received. All he knew was that ‘it had come from my heart and was completely instinctive. It came from the love I had for my country and my sorrow at the state it was in.’ When he arrived back in Abidjan however, the full effect of his heartfelt message became clear. It had been a cathartic moment for the country. Suddenly, inspired by a mere footballer, hope for peace was renewed. His words were replayed over and over again and tensions began to ease. When later interviewed on national television and asked for his emotions, Drogba was clearly speaking from the heart. ‘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.’ What the UN and France had failed to achieve had been delivered by Didier Drogba. It was far from being the end of the conflict, but it was a significant step on the road to it and Drogba wasn’t going to stop there.
Tensions had eased, but it remained an uneasy time, and a stubborn impasse between the north and south of the country still dogged efforts at reconciliation. More action was required. Two years after his speech in Sudan, a qualifying game for the Africa Cup of Nations was due to be played in June 2007 in Abidjan, but Drogba had other ideas. Using his newfound celebrity that had now allowed him access to people of influence, he approached the south-based government with a startling suggestion. Instead of staging the game in Abidjan, it should instead be moved 300 kilometres north and played in the rebel stronghold of Bouake. It would, he argued be a major gesture of reconciliation. To comply required a major shift of government policy but, such was the prestige achieved by Drogba, they felt compelled to agree.
On 3 June 2007, Cote d’Ivoire beat Madagascar 5-0 in Bouake. It’s a short sentence that details the result of the game, but says so little about its significance. The rebel leader Soro Gauillaume had agreed a peace accord with President Laurent Gbagbo, and sat beside him at the game. Around 300 rebel soldiers also sat in the stadium alongside another 200 from the south who had, and officially still were, sworn enemies. There was a danger that placing previously implacable enemies in close proximity was akin to a lit powder keg and yet, despite the passionate support for The Elephants, there was also an air of tranquillity. The game, and its switch of location, had been an outstanding success. A spokesman from 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. The newspapers agreed, with headlines praising The Elephants and, of course, Drogba. ‘Five goals to Erase Five Years of War’, they read. ‘Drogba brings Bouake back to life’ and ‘Drogba magic.’
Elections duly followed in 2010 but, perhaps as was inevitable, accusations of malpractice and rigging dogged the outcome, and the conflict flared to life again. The solution would still be a distance away, but the journey towards peace and an end to the civil war had begun. In 2015, the country elected Alassane Ouattara as the president of Cote d’Ivoire by an overwhelming majority. The new leader of the country announced that, echoing a similar move in South Africa, a Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission would be set up, tasked with resolving remaining disputes and forging a new national identity for the country. It would compromise former ministers, religious and regional leaders, plus one other, a footballer. He gave it the extra legitimacy required to be accepted by all Ivorians regardless of religious or political affiliation.
In 2007 Drogba had announced the creation of a foundation bearing his name to help with education and health in Cote’ d’Ivoire, with particular regard to children. As well as supporting it from his own finances – as he describes in his autobiography, since its inauguration, ‘I made the decision to donate all my commercial earnings to the foundation, and I have continued to do so ever since’ – he also uses his celebrity status to encourage other contributions as well. 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.” His work continues.
With echoes of the former footballer – and fellow former Chelsea striker – George Weah being elected as president of Liberia as the model, Drogba has been encouraged to stand for election as president of Cote d’Ivoire. Were he to do so, he would surely be a strong candidate to lead the country, with popular support assured. Despite such promptings though, he has refused. The work he has done in his homeland has been made possible by his identity as a non-partisan force, seeking to unite his people without fear or favour to one group or another. Adopting a political stance, with inevitable conflicts arising from policies would surely dilute this. Drogba has been astute enough to distance himself from any party’s approach.
To many football fans around the world, the story of Didier Drogba speaks of the muscular front man wearing Chelsea blue and, often as not – a relic from his early days in the Premier League – an opportunistic ‘diver’ throwing himself to the ground in order to win free-kicks or penalties, and a theatrical exponent of the over-emphasised injury. To others he’s the archetypal striker that all clubs would cherish. Whilst some of those aspects have validity, they are so very far from the full story. Didier Drogba is a man who didn’t fall down easily at the most important moments of his life. Instead, he stood up to be counted, and used his celebrity and wealth for the benefit of so many others in his homeland. That potential headline of ‘Footballer Goes Home and Does Good Things’ could never be more apposite than if it were telling the story of Didier Drogba.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘African Forwards’ magazine from These Football Times).