How football legend Drogba, helped to halt civil war in his home nation

Al-Merrikh Stadium, in Sudan’s second largest city of Omdurman, is not one of the world’s great gladiatorial arenas. Yet this small ground – known as the Red Castle – became the setting for one of football’s most extraordinary tales.

The date was 8 October 2005. The mathematics of qualification for World Cup 2006 were simple. A win for Cameroon against Egypt would see them reach their sixth tournament. Anything less would allow Ivory Coast, playing in Sudan and just a point behind, to leapfrog them and qualify instead – for the first time.

The tag “golden generation” can be a substantial yoke to bear, but the Ivorian squad in 2005 was just that. They were led by the artfully bruising Didier Drogba, with Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Didier Zokora all also shining in the Premier League, a world away in London.

Yaya Toure, then with Greek side Olympiakos and still considered raw, was waiting in the wings. This was a squad that could match anything on the African continent. Despite having lost twice to Cameroon in qualifying, they remained agonisingly close as they took to the pitch in Sudan that evening.

Yet, while Ivory Coast’s footballing stars stood on the verge of history, back home the country teetered on the edge of something dark. A civil war that began in 2002 had divided the country, with President Laurent Gbagbo’s government controlling the south and a rebel faction known as The New Forces of Ivory Coast, led by Guillaume Soro, controlling the north.

Fighting broke out on 19 September 2002 with rebels attacking various cities across the country. Sebastien Gnahore, an ex-footballer who fled Ivory Coast, recalls those times.

It was awful. When I called my sister I could hear the shooting outside the house,” he says. “They all hid under the bed for four days, and only came out to find food.

“All I cared about was whether my family was going to be OK. That’s the only worry I had each morning.”

The initial violence was fierce but short-lived, as both sides became quickly entrenched along a north-south divide. Much of the fighting had ended in 2004, but tensions were rising once again in 2005. The future of the West African country looked bleak.

Modern footballers can seem a world away from the everyday man and woman. The money involved can catapult them into a different realm, and the results can be unpalatable. But the Ivorian players that evening, despite their multi-million-pound lives in Europe, knew much more was at stake. And nobody encapsulated this quite like the man who led their line, and who was about to take centre stage.

Didier Drogba had arrived at Chelsea in 2004 for a reported fee of £24m. His nine-year stay in the Premier League was synonymous with a number of things – including a brutally effective, bulldozing style of centre-forward play and accusations ranging from unsportsmanlike behaviour to outright cheating. Love him or hate him, his achievements in west London were unquestionable.

Four Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups and a Champions League winner’s medal. Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal side frequently found themselves on the wrong end of Drogba’s brutal style, said of him: “He is a winner and he will be like that until the end of his life.”

Drogba was indeed a serial winner, but the pressure on that October night in Sudan was entirely different.

Cameroon’s match against Egypt in Yaounde and Ivory Coast’s fixture with Sudan kicked off simultaneously. Ivory Coast, knowing nothing less than a victory would do, made short work of a Sudanese side second-bottom in the group. In the 73rd minute, Aruna Dindane tucked away his second goal, and the team’s third.

An 89th-minute Sudanese strike was no more than a consolation. Events were unfolding relatively straightforwardly – but nearly 1,600 miles away in Yaounde, the picture was very different.

Cameroon took the lead in the 20th minute, but the game was tight. A 79th-minute equaliser, bundled in by Mohammed Shawky, brought Egypt level and swung the tide back into the Ivorians’ favour. A draw – so long as they beat Sudan – would see them qualify.

With just seconds remaining in Yaounde, and with the score locked at 1-1, Ivory Coast looked set for their maiden trip to the World Cup. Their match in Sudan had finished. Drogba was standing, surrounded by his team-mates. They were all listening to the radio and waiting. Then the crushing news filtered through. Cameroon had been awarded a soft penalty in the fourth minute of injury time.

For every tale of heartbreak, there must be one of joy. Pierre Wome’s spot-kick crashed against the left-hand post and flew wide. The Cameroon players gathered, dazed and despondent in the penalty area, some pulling their shirts over their eyes. On the other side of the continent, Ivory Coast erupted. For the first time in their history, they would compete at the highest level of international football.

“The whole country – every person, every house – was happy. That day we all forgot the country was still divided,” says Hassane Omar, a 20-year-old student in Abidjan at the time.

For all the breathless footballing drama that took place that night, the most seismic event did not occur on the football pitch, but in the cramped away dressing room at the Al-Merrikh Stadium. A post-game prayer led by Drogba had become something of a ritual, but this would be different.

With the celebrations unfolding, a TV camera was ushered into the changing room. The players huddled before it, their arms draped across each other’s shoulders. Standing in the centre, microphone in hand, was the imposing figure of the Chelsea striker.

‘Please lay down your weapons and hold elections,’ Drogba urged

“Men and women of Ivory Coast,” he began. “From the north, south, centre, and west, we proved today that all Ivorians can coexist and play together with a shared aim – to qualify for the World Cup.”

“We promised you that the celebrations would unite the people – today we beg you on our knees.” On cue, the players sank to their knees.

“The one country in Africa with so many riches must not descend into war. Please lay down your weapons and hold elections,” Drogba urged. The clip, available on YouTube, is barely a minute long and ends with the players on their feet once more.

“We want to have fun, so stop firing your guns,” they sang joyously. Back home, the party had already started. There were reports of a conga line outside the Egyptian embassy as Ivorians showed their appreciation for the draw in Cameroon. Even the rebel capital of Bouake bounced to the beat of victory that night.

For all the revelry, and for all the ‘Drogbas’ – bottles of beers renamed in the striker’s honour – Ivory Coast still woke up the following morning in the same situation, as a deeply divided country.


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