In the 21st century, there are very few players who have dominated on the field more than Didier Drogba. The heart of the Ivory Coast’s emergence as a dominant African soccer power, Drogba has been one of the world’s greatest strikers throughout the 2000s and 2010s. But, despite his numerous achievements on the field, his biggest victory may have been off the field. This is the story of how Drogba brought peace to his home country.
Drogba was born in the Ivorian capital of Abijdan, but spent his youth living both in the Ivory Coast and France. He was considered a late bloomer, since he didn’t sign his first pro contract until he was 21. That deal was with French side Le Mans. He played there for a few seasons before heading to Guingamp. Later, he made a move to Marseille, where he burst into the international conversation of soccer’s bright stars. His power, aerial ability and his strength on the ball endeared him to fans. His passing ability helped set up numerous goals for his teammates. His clutch play made him a legend. That legendary status was achieved when he made the move to Chelsea. In his first stint with the London club, he scored 157 goals, won 4 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups, 3 League Cups, 2 Community Shields, and the 2011-2012 Champions League. Drogba also had stops at Shanghai Shenhua, Galatasaray, back to Chelsea, and then to the Montreal Impact. He’s currently with the Phoenix Rising in the USL, where it is believed he is the first player-owner in world soccer history.
With the Ivory Coast is where Drogba became an icon. Joining the team in 2002, he moved into the starting lineup and remained there. In 2006, he became the captain of The Elephants and it is there he made his greatest assist. Ivory Coast was in the midst of a civil war, which had begun in 2002. Ivory Coast was essentially split in two, with rebel Muslim groups occupying the North and a group loyal to the ruling Christian government holding the South. After qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, Didier Drogba, at the time the captain of the team, picked up a microphone in the dressing room and, on national TV, fell to his knees. With his teammates around him falling to their knees with him, he pleaded to the rival groups, asking for peace:
“My fellow Ivorians, 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. [W]e ask you now: the only country in Africa that has all these riches cannot sink into a war. Please, lay down your arms. Organize elections. And everything will turn out for the best!”
Drogba recalled in an interview with The Telegraph, “It was just something I did instinctively. All the players hated what was happening to our country and reaching the World Cup was the perfect emotional wave on which to ride.” It worked, and a week later, both sides had arrived at a peace deal, even if only temporary.
He further kept the peace between the factions after the World Cup. In 2007, with The Elephants in the middle of qualifying for the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, Drogba proposed that the qualifier against Madagascar should be played in Bouaké, which was considered the capital of the rebelling faction. Drogba thought it was a chance to bring everyone together:
“The game itself became a symbol of an attempt to heal divisions. I saw soldiers from the army watching alongside soldiers from the rebel forces. People were heard to say, ‘If Drogba has been to Bouaké, it means it’s safe to return.’ It was amazing to realise how much impact was footballers could have.”
He further asked factions from the north and the south of the Ivory Coast to lay down their weapons and come together to support the team at the match. For at least one day, Drogba wanted peace, and he used his status to galvanize support for the nation to come together.
So, Bouaké was the scene. It was June 3, 2007, and it was the Ivory Coast against Madagascar. It was a packed stadium, with troops from both sides of the conflict watching the game together. The Ivory Coast stopped, with millions united behind The Elephants. Behind a united stadium and a unified country, The Elephants didn’t disappoint, winning 5-0 behind a brace by Arouna Koné and goals by Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Yaya Touré.
Fans invaded the pitch after the match, celebrating with the players. Drogba was a hero, and to the legions of fans around the country, he had effectively ended the civil war.
Didier Drogba will go down as one of the best players Africa has ever produced on the field. Off the field, he will live on as a god to many in the Ivory Coast because of his desire to request peace and work to unite his nation behind their team. Some people say soccer can heal the world. Didier Drogba is the quintessential example. He brought peace to his country. Ivorians will forever be grateful to Drogba for what will be known as the greatest goal of his career.