Sometimes football transcends sporting matters and when it crosses that barrier it tells a different kind of story. Human stories. Stories where for once the ball and the goals become secondary and the person becomes the main thing. Stories where players become heroes outside of the playing field.
Today we will tell one of those stories. Today we tell the story of how Didier Drogba, the best player in the history of Côte d’Ivoire, stopped the civil war in his country through the beautiful game.
The year was 2005, Côte d’Ivoire had been embroiled in armed conflict for more than four years and Drogba and the rest of the national team were facing the biggest game of their lives. They were 90 minutes away from qualifying for their first-ever FIFA World Cup if they beat Sudan. After doing so Drogba realised that the really important thing had not just happened but was right in front of him. As captain, he had the chance to speak in front of the cameras and give a message to all his compatriots on his country’s public television. Drogba took the microphone and gave the speech that would change everything.
But let’s go back for a second and put it in context. In 2001 Côte d’Ivoire “split in two”: north and south. In the north were the rebels, who had conquered the terrain after partially succeeding in their coup d’état, leaving the then ruling government in the southern part of the African country. It was four years of terror and war until October 8, 2005.
The Côte d’Ivoire-Sudan match would end 3-1 and although Drogba, leader and captain did not score a goal in that match, he would score later on. Didier, who at the time had already been in London for a year playing for Mourinho’s Chelsea, got in front of the camera, knelt down with his team-mates and said these words:
“Citizens of the Ivory Coast. From the north, from the south, from the east and from the west, we ask you on our knees to forgive one another. Forgive. Forgive. A great country like ours cannot surrender to chaos. Lay down your arms and hold free elections.
That speech, connected to the joy of seeing his country play in a World Cup, united the Ivorian people for the first time in many years. A week after the deed, the ceasefire was announced. Only a year later, in a symbolic meeting organised by Drogba in Bouaké, one of the most damaged territories of the conflict, Côte d’Ivoire was able to heal its wounds (at least partially) with a powerful image: the president of the government and the leader of the rebels singing together the anthem of their country before the beginning of the meeting.
The match ended 5-0 to Côte d’Ivoire but the result was the least important thing about a night of football, social and political history in Côte d’Ivoire. A local newspaper headlined: “Five goals to erase five years of war”. A match to turn a footballer into a legend with the ball being a secondary protagonist.
Drogba stopped a civil war with a speech from the heart at the most important sporting and footballing moment of his country and ended up uniting them with that friendly a year later. Drogba left in his career a football legacy but also a human legacy.