Didier Drogba celebrates scoring a goal for Cote d’Ivoire​ in the Ivory Coast vs Cameroon​ World Cup qualifier match.
Didier Drogba celebrates scoring a goal for Cote d’Ivoire in the Ivory Coast vs Cameroon World Cup qualifier match. Photo: liewig christian/Corbis via Getty Images

How a Football Team Stopped a Civil War

In 2005, Cote D’Ivoire was in political turmoil – until Didier Drogba and his World Cup team stepped in.

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Decades after winning its independence from France in 1960, Cote d’Ivoire stood out for its long-standing peace amid the military coups, civil wars, ethnic violence and famine that once plagued the West African region.


The nation’s relative stability attracted thousands of migrants from neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Ghana, who gradually transformed Ivorian society into one of the most cosmopolitan in Africa – where two out of every five people on the street are be foreigners, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics (INS).

But the history of the widely-admired, peaceful and socially cohesive nation diverged dramatically in September 2002. A failed military coup degenerated into civil war, which split the country in two; a largely Christian south governed by the elected regime and a majority Muslim north under the control of rebel forces.

Hostilities were promptly halted after the establishment of a buffer zone created by United Nations forces and French soldiers, but social tensions remained palpable across the country during the standoff due to the fervent support each warring side enjoyed from their civilian supporters and sympathisers.   

Then-president, Laurent Gbagbo, who was ruling the south, had the backing of many Christians while the rebel groups, led by a former university student activist, Soro Guillaume, won the approval of most Muslims.     

It was the first time Ivorians lived in such a polarised society, when former friends became foes, depending on which side they leaned politically. 

“It was as though they had never known each other,” says Jean Claude Armand Koffi, a political science researcher at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny University in Abidjan


“The social cohesion was broken and the bond holding us together disintegrated. All we were left with was fear, uncertainty and anger. Ivorians withdrew into their shell, even eye contact was to be avoided. That was how it all started. It was a difficult period.” 

Cote D’Ivoire president Laurent Gbagbo poses for a picture with the 2006 World Cup football team in Abidjan

Cote D’Ivoire president Laurent Gbagbo poses for a picture with the 2006 World Cup football team in Abidjan. Photo: KAMPBEL/AFP via Getty Images

When the 2006 FIFA World Cup qualification phase began in mid-2004, it brought some respite from the lingering political impasse. It was light relief for many Ivorians who were growing desperate for the return to normalcy. 

Cote D’Ivoire had never been to the World Cup finals and their eventual qualification would be historic and euphoric. 

“Despite our differences, we found a common ground in football,” Koffi recalls. “I remember when Cote D’Ivoire was to play Egypt in June 2005 in the qualifiers. Several families that were opposed to each other politically wore the same colour of the Elephants shirt. At halftime, in my compound, I heard one person ask, accidentally though, the score of the game from another person with whom he was not on speaking terms. The score was cheerfully given. It was a wonderful moment.”          

Another unbelievable example of how football brings people together even in times of disappointment and frustration was the aftermath of the World Cup qualifier between Cote D’Ivoire and Cameroon on September 4, 2005.

I covered the match at the Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium in Abidjan. It was a sold-out event. More than 30,000 local fans were in attendance, cheering Didier Drogba and his team until the final whistle plunged the entire nation into soul-crushing gloom and despair.


The Elephants had just succumbed to their ferocious visitors, by a score of 3-2; Drogba’s brace falling short of achieving the desired outcome – the three points needed to top Group 3 and the bragging rights over the Cameroonian fans, some of whom had joked earlier on that Ivorians would go to bed early on that day. 

Cote D’Ivoire’s chances of reaching their first World Cup finals were hanging by a thread. It was getting dark outside the stadium yet many fans refused to go home. They appeared sad and pensive. It was a scene of lamentation. Their faint conversations were punctuated by hissing and cursing. 

The crowd was made up of Christians, Muslims, the unreligious, men, women, young and old from almost all the major ethnic groups. From their looks, outfit and accent, it was easy to identify them. Some were still holding the Bibles, Korans and chaplets they brought along to see the game. 

Eventually, they began dispersing. With few taxis and buses available to commute the multitude, ride sharing became an option. 

Ivorian fans celebrate with a poster of Didier Drogba in Abidjan, after the country qualified for both World Cup in 2005. Photo: KAMPBEL/AFP via Getty Images

Ivorian fans celebrate with a poster of Didier Drogba in Abidjan, after the country qualified for both World Cup in 2005. Photo: KAMPBEL/AFP via Getty Images

“I am a Muslim and I came to see the match with my family. The man who drove us home said he was a Christian from the south,” says Martin Zakpa, a bricklayer and football fan. “We chatted lively about the game during the ride. It was soothing because we digested the pain and shock together. We completely forgot about the tense political situation that was prevailing in the country and focused on football. We eventually became friends and attended future matches together.”


The Ivorian national team itself was as diverse as the country’s population. It was like a mini house of representatives, albeit with a common interest. Drogba is a Christian from the south, like former Tottenham midfielder Didier Zokora and then captain, Cyrille Domoraud. Arsenal star Kolo Toure, Abdoulaye Meite, Aruna Kone and Bakary Kone are Muslims from the north and central regions. Goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, Tchiressoa Guel and Aruna Dindane are the offspring of immigrant families from Guinea and Burkina Faso. 

The political-military crisis had its roots in identity issues. The rebels said northerners were being marginalised by successive regimes from the south. (Cote D’Ivoire was yet to have a northerner as president.) But many historians still argue that it was only a pretext to start an absurd war because Ivorians, from north to south, had previously lived together in peace. 

Nonetheless, the difficult situation did not have any ripple effect on the Elephants, according to former Cote D’Ivoire international player Aruna Dindane, who plied his trade at Anderlecht in Belgium and Lens in France.

“Footballers were not oblivious to what was happening. We had families who were undergoing the situation on a daily basis. But our profession and status as flag bearers meant that we had to rise above those sentiments and work as a team because we had a common goal,” he says.


“The dressing room was always very professional. No politics. No religion. Our objective was simple – score goals and win matches. We loved each other and cared for each other. Drogba was the main crusader of peace. To him, if we as players in the team are not united how can we possibly canvass for peace off the pitch?

“Footballers are humans too. Each player had his religious affiliation or political inclination but those were private affairs and were never brought to the dressing room. One thing that stood out was the desire of all of us to see the end of the war,“ he adds.    

Following the home defeat to Cameroon and the extreme unlikelihood of Cote D’Ivoire’s qualification, public enthusiasm for the remainder of the World Cup qualifiers tailed off as uncertainties about the country’s future retook centre stage. More than half a dozen summits were held in view of brokering a peace deal between the warring sides, but to no avail. 

On October 8, 2005, the Elephants of Cote D’Ivoire were to face Sudan in the final matchday of the qualifiers. The outcome of the encounter would be redundant if the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon beat visiting Egypt in Yaoundé on the same day. 

Cameroon were leaders of Group 3 with 20 points followed by Cote D’Ivoire on 19 points and Egypt with 16 points. All three teams were vying for the group’s sole ticket to Germany 2006.


The pressure was most on Samuel Eto’o and his Cameroon team-mates. Drogba and his team had nothing more to lose as all predictions went in favour of Cameroon over Egypt.

In Abidjan, few people cared about what was simultaneously going on in Sudan and in Yaoundé. I was at a wedding reception when the news floated in that Cote D’Ivoire had just defeated Sudan 3-1. What about the outcome of Cameroon-Egypt? It was still being played, with a few minutes remaining.

The MC noticed the uneasiness of the guests and announced that the ceremony be interrupted to allow everyone follow the commentaries of the dying minutes of the Cameroon-Egypt clash. It had been locked at 1-1 since the 79th minute after Mohamed Shawky answered Roudolphe M’bela’s opener for the Lions.

Curiously, I stepped out to see what the streets looked like. They were empty and quiet. Taxis parked on the roadside with drivers glued to their radio sets. Female hawkers, usually uninterested in football matters, had gathered in groups around those with radio transistors on their shoulders. Everyone was in a prayerful mood. If the Cameroon-Egypt match ended 1-1, Cote D’Ivoire would qualify for their first-ever World Cup finals.

As I dashed back to the reception, I heard from afar a masculine voice let out a wail, “Oh-oh no, we are finished.” When I inquired from a young man with headphones on, he said Cameroon had just been awarded a penalty.


At that very instance, people began dispersing, probably with the belief that it was all over and there was no need to follow the spot-kick. 

As I entered the premises where the wedding was taking place, a loud cheer resonated across the neighbourhood. What I saw next was the bride in her flowing gown rushing out of the yard accompanied by the groom and all the guests. The only person I saw when I got to the hall to retrieve my belongings was the security man. He was in tears.

Pierre Wome missed the penalty. The game ended 1-1. We qualified for the World Cup. Can’t we all live with this joy?

The streets were jam-packed now. No vehicles, just humans, dancing and singing, running and jumping, some holding Drogba’s photos, others carrying the country’s flag. The newlywed’s beautiful white gown had been smeared with dirt, from mingling with the unmanageable crowd, yet the bride didn’t seem to mind. Her husband was nowhere in sight.

Celebrations lasted all night. The state broadcaster showed footage of similar exultation across the country, even in rebel-held zones.           

The next day, Drogba’s emotional call for peace was played repeatedly on radio and television. 

"Men and women of Côte d'Ivoire, from the north, south, centre to west, we have proven today that all Ivorians can live together and play together with a common goal – a qualification for the FIFA World Cup.


"We promised you the celebrations would unite the people - today we are on our knees. Please lay down your arms and hold elections.”

Whether the call was heeded or not, it did not matter much, says Abidjan-based sports journalist, Abdul Kapo, who claims that the significance was what prevailed. 

“It proved to all that there were still people in the country who were neutral and who were not taking sides in the crisis, and whom each side could trust. That action paved the way for the organisation of a football match in rebel zone. It helped demystify the rebellion.”

In June 2007, Cote d’Ivoire played their penultimate match of the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying in Bouake – then headquarters of the rebellion. The game was presided over by rebel chief Soro Guillaume, who was the new prime minister. All the rebel chiefs were in attendance as the Elephants crushed Madagascar 5-0.

“Some people, including top personalities, were visiting the city for the first time in five years, since the war broke out,” Kapo says. “That game united many former enemies and most importantly, it highlighted the fact that we had something to live for – and therefore it was senseless killing ourselves.”


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