Words: Aanu Adeoye
Images: Offside / L'Equipe
13-year-old Béoué’s life changed suddenly. In 2002, civil war broke out in the Ivory Coast, and Béoué’s village in Béoué-Zibiao town came under attack, was burned to the ground and, with many of his family and friends already dead, the boy joined the deadly fight that had split his country in two.
At thirteen, our most pressing problems are usually puberty, video games, and rebelling against parents over shitty, enforced haircuts. Instead, according to reports from the Human Rights Watch, Béoué was a child soldier recruited by the Ivorian government to fight its cause against opposition rebels. Within two weeks, Béoué was ready: proficient enough to cock, load, and fire a Kalashnikov alongside child soldiers from the Liberian civil war, some of who were given a few hundred dollars each plus rice and clothing to entice their adolescent friends into joining the cause.
The conflict decimated cocoa and coffee production—the Ivory Coast’s most famed exports—and killed more than 3,000 people, leaving more than a million displaced thanks to a war years in the making.
The Ivorian Civil War began ten days after Didier Drogba’s international debut against South Africa. Starting up front alongside Feyenoord’s Bonaventure Kalou, this 0–0 draw would be an innocuous start to a career with Les Éléphants that would unravel into one unparalleled in its influence, especially off the pitch. With much of the groundwork laid by controversial policy changes in the mid-90s, a military coup in 1999, and deep-rooted resentment between the predominantly Muslim north and Christian south, the story of the conflict in the Ivory Coast and Drogba’s mediation efforts are incomplete without a brief history lesson on the circumstances that led to them.
The Ivory Coast was largely peaceful under the leadership of the enigmatic Felix Houphouët-Boigny, the country’s inaugural president from the time of independence from France in 1960 until his death in 1993. Henri Konan Bédié, the leader of the National Assembly, revealed on state television that he would become the new president just a few hours after the announcement of his predecessor’s demise. A power struggle between Alassane Ouattara, the Prime Minister and a prominent Muslim northerner, and Bédié ensued, but it was brief, with Bédié resigning from his post just a few days later.
The Ivory Coast shares its northern border with Burkina Faso, and for generations the Burkinabé people migrated to their wealthier neighbour to work on cocoa and coffee plantations, with many going on to become Ivorian citizens, raising families born in their adopted country. But they were never fully accepted. Thanks to plain old xenophobia, many Ivorians referred to them as étranger (a foreigner) to depict their otherness.
In 1995, the Ivorian people headed to the polls for the first time in their history and, with the challenge from Ouattara looking credible, Bédié played on the populist tide from the Christian south and, in a remarkable spot of political gamesmanship, had the electoral code amended. Now, presidential candidates would be required to have two Ivorian parents and must have resided in the country in the five years leading to the election. This was a double-edged assault on Ouattara: his father was a Burkinabé, and the man himself lived in the United States while working as the deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund. The two main opposition parties dropped out as Bédié won with a resounding 96% of the vote.
When the military overthrew Bédié’s government in 1999, and a new election was called in 2000, the National Assembly upheld the law that excluded Ouattara from competing five years earlier, leading to a victory for Laurent Gbagbo—another southern Christian. With the Ivorian economy experiencing a downturn, the Burkinabé became the scapegoats as nationalists from the south challenged their ‘purity’ and right to vote. The protections enjoyed under Houphouët-Boigny’s regime were long gone, and the northerners took up arms to defend themselves. And so, in 2002, the civil war began between government forces under Gbagbo and rebels called New Forces who had secured strategic victories by capturing several towns and cities in the north, with their headquarters in the predominantly Muslim city of Bouaké. There was a failed attempt to take hold of Abidjan, Drogba’s home city and the country’s economic capital, but they were met by resistance from government troops and the peacekeeping envoy from France. The violence would continue for almost two years: an endless cycle of failed peace agreements, power-sharing attempts, and death.
October 8, 2005. The atmosphere in the away dressing room of the Al-Merrikh Stadium in Omdurman, Sudan was raucous, celebratory, and understandably so: the Ivory Coast had just qualified for its first ever World Cup.
With a 3–1 victory over Sudan after a tough qualifying group containing Egypt and a Cameroon side close to the peak of its powers, the Ivorians had done it. Despite having the best squad on the continent, it was a nail-biter, with the final throes of the campaign leaving fate out of their hands at kick-off.
Qualification could have been sealed on the penultimate match day with a victory over Cameroon in Abidjan, but instead the Ivorians lost 3–2 despite a brace from Drogba in a match so important the Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich made his first ever trip to Africa on his private jet, in the company of José Mourinho, to see their prized asset in action.
The Ivorian plan for the final game was simple: win in Sudan and hope that a stuttering Egypt side did them a favour against Cameroon in Yaoundé. They won the match against Sudan as expected and huddled in the centre circle of the Al-Merrikh—a wide, flat bowl of a stadium painted in yellow and red—awaiting news from 4,000km away that would decide their destiny.
With the game tied at 1–1, Ivory Coast were within reach of making it to Germany 2006, until Salomon Olembé, Cameroon’s number 11, controlled a hopeful lofted pass into the Egyptian area and tumbled under minimal contact. It was a penalty. In the fifth minute of added time. For some inexplicable reason, ex-Fulham wingback Pierre Womé circumvented the regular penalty taking order ahead of Samuel Eto’o and, after a long run-up, the defender crashed his kick against the right-hand post and wide.
The damage was done. The referee blew for full time, and the Ivorians exploded in ecstasy.
(The damage, however, was not yet done for Pierre Womé as his home was ransacked, his cars were repeatedly vandalised, and his wife’s hairdressing salon was burned down by an irate mob of Cameroonian fans. “Each time it seemed as if the youths were really determined to do in Pierre Womé,” said a cousin of the player. Womé was an outcast, omitted entirely from Cameroon’s squad from the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt and genuinely feared for his life in the aftermath.)
After years swinging from mediocrity to incompetence since they won the AFCON title in 1992, the experience of manager Henri Michel and the first shoots of Ivory Coast’s Golden Generation had seen them through to the biggest international competition of them all. There, with cameras, watching the celebrations in Omdurman unfold, was national broadcaster Radio Télévision Ivoirienne and, in a moment of spontaneity, Drogba asked for a microphone from the cameraman. He duly obliged. Drogba spoke to the millions of his countrymen who were watching. He spoke not only of footballing celebration but also of societal unity. Of drastic change. Of peace.
“My fellow Ivorians,” Drogba began as the dressing room fell quiet, “from the north and from the south, from the centre and from the west, we have proved to you today that the Ivory Coast can cohabit and can play together for the same objective: to qualify for the World Cup.
“We had promised you that this would unite the population.” Dropping to his knees alongside his teammates, he continued… “We ask you now: the only country in Africa that has all these riches cannot sink into a war in this way. Please, lay down your arms. Organise elections. And everything will turn out for the best.”
The enormity of his words didn’t hit Drogba until the next day when the team flew back to Abidjan, and he realised his message had been played on the main television and radio news bulletins for hours on end. It would remain on loop for the next few weeks. This was football and politics colliding yet again, as they often do in Africa, despite FIFA’s best efforts to separate the two. The idea of sports and politics existing in separate worlds has always been a fallacy that conveniently ignores the fact that, for better or worse, when eleven men or women file out to represent their nation, they are ambassadors for their country’s beliefs and policies. International football, by its very nature, is political. And, as he sunk to his knees with a heartfelt message of unity in the Ivory Coast, Drogba drove this political point home like a well-struck volley, for a man who, in his prime, stirred strong opinions in every fan and commentator in Europe, few knew the real Didier Drogba. The story of his career is one of late blooming, of a path that took in many winding, unconventional routes before a belated landing on the big stage. He first joined an academy at 15, as a right back for amateur Parisian club Levallois, and didn’t sign his first professional contract aged 21 at Le Mans, a team languishing in the French second division.
Drogba’s early development was stalling: on the day when a 20-year-old Thierry Henry, only a few months older than the Ivorian, won the World Cup with France in 1998, Drogba was sat sprawled on his sofa, eating takeaway pizza, celebrating the renewal of his £700 per month contract at Le Mans, leg in plaster as he recovered from a broken ankle—one of the many injuries that threatened to derail his career before it even began.
At the start of his first full season in Ligue 1, now playing for the small Brittany-based club Guingamp, 24-year-old Drogba got the call he had dreamt of all along. With only a few months of top-flight experience behind him, the new Ivorian manager Robert Nouzaret came looking for him.
Drogba had lived in France with his uncle, Michel Goba (himself a professional footballer in the lower leagues) since he was five. There were all the attendant problems for a young immigrant: the chronic homesickness, the bitter cold. The loneliness that came with being the only black kid in class in those early years was so bad that he spent playtimes with class teachers because none of the other kids wanted to play with him. But, having spent so much time away from his native home, Drogba had become a naturalised French citizen, a golden ticket so coveted by many immigrants in search of a better life.
The dual citizenship raised a question in his mind: who to represent on the international stage? He admits now that he thought about picking France, albeit briefly, but this was the France of 2002—reigning World and European champions with a squad bursting with the fresh, exciting attacking talent of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, and David Trezeguet. His eventual Ivorian debut, the Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against South Africa was, at the time, one of only a few returns to the country of his birth. Drogba had left a young boy and came back a man to play for a nation he barely knew, one that was teetering dangerously on the edge of self-destruction.
While not quite near Les Bleus’ levels, Drogba joined the Ivorians just as the old guard was making way for the first green shoots of a team ripe with talent: the Touré brothers and Emmanuel Eboué, and players like Gervinho and Salomon Kalou soon on the way.
Things moved quickly and, by 2005, he was named captain. From then until 2013, the Ivory Coast were undoubtedly Africa’s most gifted side on paper, favourites to win almost every continental championship they competed in. Yet for all their talent, success at the highest level eluded them. When it mattered most, the Ivorians just couldn’t help but fluff their lines.
Drogba’s reputation as Chelsea’s Big Time Player was well earned with ten goals in major finals. His talents on the field—fire and fury, touch and technique, pace and power—saw him considered one of the most complete strikers in recent memory. He was the scourge of rival fans, always seeming to score when it mattered most. Few players have ever led the line as well or as consistently, but his club career sits in jarring contrast with his failure in two of his country’s most pivotal moments.
Still riding on the euphoria of World Cup qualification and Drogba’s arrival as the team’s totemic leader, the Ivory Coast were in good shape for their first title in fourteen years at the 2006 AFCON. They came second in a group containing Egypt before facing Cameroon in the quarterfinals, a reunion of the two sides that competed for World Cup qualification just a few months earlier.
After 120 painstaking minutes, the game was still level at 1–1. The referee blew for penalties. They struggled to separate the sides too, and with the score at 11–11, Samuel Eto’o stepped up to take his second of the shoot-out and missed. Drogba did nothing of the sort. He set the ball down and started his run up quickly, stuttering it only slightly, before sending the ‘keeper the wrong way and converting the 24th spot kick of the game to take the Ivory Coast through.
Next, was a semifinal against Nigeria, and Drogba was there once again for his country. The man built for the big occasion, carrying the weight of a nation on his broad, capable shoulders, Drogba scored the only goal in a 1–0 victory that dumped the Super Eagles out and set up a final against hosts Egypt.
The match was a replay of their group stage one and, having beaten them in World Cup qualifying, the Ivory Coast were rightly confident of their chances. In a boisterous Cairo International Stadium at full capacity, 120 minutes flew by goalless, and the game, again, went to the tragic theatre of the penalty shoot-out. The two captains stepped up to take their penalties first. And, moments after Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan stuck the ball in the back of the net, Drogba stepped up. He missed. Egypt went on to win 4-2. They were the Champions of Africa. Ivory Coast were not.
That pain felt minute compared to the fate that befell them at the 2012 AFCON, arriving as overwhelming favourites with a balanced squad chock full of talent without the handicap of rampant egos. It was meant to be the perfect storm: Les Elephants blew through an easy group, thrashing co-hosts Equatorial Guinea 3–0 in the quarterfinals before edging Mali 1–0 in a tight semifinal. They were in the final without conceding a goal. The title would be decided in Libreville against Hervé Renard’s unfancied but disciplined Zambia side.
The final, like most finals, was a stodgy, close affair as the Ivory Coast struggled to break down their less talented opponents. With twenty minutes remaining, a penalty was awarded, and Drogba stepped up. Blazing over, high into the Gabonian night, the game proceeded goalless to another shoot-out. Drogba scored, but it wasn’t enough, and Zambia ran out 8–7 winners. Les Elephants had missed out again.
There was no rational explanation for this latest disaster but, for Drogba, a devout Catholic, it just wasn’t meant to be. It was an emotional game for Zambia too—Libreville was the scene of a plane crash that claimed the lives of eighteen players and the manager in 1993 en route to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal—and destiny was finally on their side.
The three World Cups Drogba appeared in offered little joy. The Ivory Coast were drawn in the ‘Groups of Death’ in 2006, but in 2010, when handed a group containing Greece, Colombia, and Japan, they made a hash of things, with manager Sabri Lamouchi reducing Drogba to a bit part player. They came third and were out.
After the tournament, Drogba called time on his international career with 65 goals in 104 games, his country’s record goal scorer. Just months later, the Drogba-less Ivory Coast exorcised their demons as they won the AFCON in 2015. It was a bittersweet moment for their retired hero.
For all the disappointment on the big stage, Drogba remains a huge influence in his homeland and throughout Africa, for one moment perhaps above all others.
In 2007, after winning goals in the League Cup and FA Cup for Chelsea, Drogba won the award for African Footballer of the Year, making him the first Ivorian to do so. Just a few days later, the rebel forces in the Ivory Coast reached a ceasefire agreement with the government.
On the flight back from an AFCON qualifier against Madagascar, three weeks after being named the continent’s best player, Drogba had a light bulb moment. He wanted to showcase his award to the rebels and people living in their stronghold in Bouaké. A quick call to President Gbagbo and the idea was given the green light. Two days later, Drogba was standing in an open-topped car escorted by soldiers who led him to meet Guillaume Soro, the rebel leader. It’s hard to overstate how this could have gone horribly wrong, but Drogba was surprised by the overwhelming positivity to his arrival from old and young soldiers, from Soro to little Béoué. He lobbied that their return fixture against Madagascar be moved to the rebel stronghold instead of the planned location of Abidjan.
In June 2007 his dream became reality, as the Ivory Coast won 5–0 with Drogba scoring the final goal on a day when football was the least important thing on everyone’s minds. Deep in rebel territory, led by the striker from Abidjan, it was a symbolic show of unity and reconciliation orchestrated by one man.
Drogba’s faith had always imbued him with a sense of duty to help others, and the failure of systems and government in his country mean wealthy individuals have ample opportunities to assist those less privileged than themselves.
For years Drogba has been donating to hospitals and orphanages with his wife Lalla—and still does—but there were two incidents made him realise he had to do more. First was Stéphane, the 16-year-old brother of a friend diagnosed with leukaemia who died due to a lack of access to proper healthcare in Abidjan. The other was Nobel, an 8-year-old boy with leukaemia, whose treatment in Geneva was paid for by the striker. Unfortunately, Nobel passed away too, and Drogba began making moves to start his own foundation.
Ten years later, the Didier Drogba Foundation is now a full-fledged charity, partly funded through donations, fundraisers, and every single penny of Drogba’s commercial earnings since its inception. Five clinics are now up and running in Abidjan with more planned to follow. Drogba works with the United Nations Development Programme and, in 2014, gave a seven-minute speech at the opening ceremony of the World Investment Forum to discuss his foundation’s work and released an animated video called ‘Drogba v Malaria’.
“I have been a victim of malaria,” says Drogba in his voiceover, “and I have witnessed first-hand the devastating effects it has on individuals and families… Today we have effective and affordable tools to prevent, diagnose, and treat malaria. But we have to work together to make sure everyone has access to them.”
With Drogba’s help, access gets closer every day.
Drogba may have never won a major title with his country, but he cemented his place in Ivorian culture; a legacy reaffirmed by a whole generation of young children in his homeland who carry the first name ‘Drogba’.
The final question now is what comes next for him after retirement. There’s a gentleman’s agreement in place with Chelsea for one role or the other, and there remains the possibility that a career in Ivorian politics, à la Liberia’s George Weah, beckons.
The only certainty is that whatever Drogba chooses to do, he will, like always, lead from the front.