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Best Feet Forward | Culture | Vanity Fair

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Best Feet Forward

A single soccer match achieves what five years of combat and negotiations could not: an apparent end to Ivory Coast's civil war. The man who brought the warring sides together was not a politician or a gun-toting strongman, but Didier Drogba, the star striker for Ivory Coast.

by Austin Merrill VF.COM July 10, 2007

Didier Drogba being hustled off the field in Bouaké, Ivory Coast, following the Ivory Coast national soccer team's 5–0 victory over Madagascar on June 3, 2007. Photographs by Austin Merrill.

The final whistle blew, and fans spilled onto the field. They scaled fences and jumped from the tops of walls and pushed through gates. They wanted to feel the turf under their feet, to steal an up-close glimpse of the players, to place a hand on a sweaty jersey. I felt a rush of panic. This was not my first soccer match in Africa, and I knew how quickly things could turn chaotic. I recalled stories of crushed spectators and mobs setting out to avenge losses. Not just in Africa, of course. Only a few days before, at a championship game in Athens in late May, police had teargassed hostile ticket holders. Now here I was, caught on the edge of a pitch in the surge of the crowd, desperate to find an escape.

The scoreboard and crowd at Bouaké Stadium near the end of the match.

Some 300 soldiers struggled to contain the celebration. The Ivory Coast national team—les Éléphants—had just defeated Madagascar, 5–0, in a qualifying game for the 2008 African Cup of Nations. The victory had been nearly a foregone conclusion. Many of the Ivorian players are well-paid members of professional squads in Europe, and standing next to the overmatched Madagascar team, the Elephants looked like giants. The 25,000 fans in Bouaké Stadium had roared at every pass and shot, and they'd gone wild with euphoria at each goal scored. But victory, per se, wasn't so much the point. You didn't have to look hard to see that there was much more at stake than just a soccer match. On this day, the Beautiful Game had reunited a country.

Several dozen of the soldiers formed a wall around Didier Drogba, the Ivorian captain and star striker who plays professionally for Chelsea in the English Premier League. Drogba finished this past season at the top of the league with 20 goals and in March was named African Footballer of the Year. But here in Bouaké, in the aftermath of his team's resounding win, he was being praised for other, loftier reasons. The soldiers managed to hold back the screaming fans, but they were also a little starstruck themselves. Several exchanged high fives with Drogba as they protected him; some even pulled out their cell phones to snap a quick photo. To everyone in the stadium, and to millions of others across Ivory Coast, Didier Drogba had just ended his country's civil war.

For nearly five years, Ivory Coast had been divided in two: rebel-held North, government-loyal South. But on a tour of the country in March, Drogba stunned his fellow Ivorians by proposing that the Madagascar game be played in Bouaké, the capital of the rebellion. North and South, unable to reconcile their differences through battle or peace talks, would set aside their guns and come together for a soccer game. And Drogba, already an international star, would become, in the eyes of Ivorians, something of a deity.

"When I saw Drogba say that on television, I got goose bumps," Christophe Diecket, an official with the Ivory Coast Football Federation, told me. "My wife cried. The people on TV cried. We Ivorians, we had this abscess, a sickness, but we had no way to lance it to get better. It couldn't have been done by anyone else. Only Drogba. He's the one who has cured us of this war."

The soldiers—all from the rebel army—hustled Drogba and his teammates off the field and guided the joyous masses to the exits. Up in the stands, 200 government troops looked on. They'd been invited to help symbolize the reunification of the country, and they cheered and sang with the rebel-friendly crowd throughout the day. It was the first time since the start of the war that the loyalist army had been in the rebel capital; the first time in nearly five years that the two sides had been face-to-face in a non-hostile setting.

"When I got here I felt apprehension and hope all at once," Diecket said. "There've been too many deaths—my brother lost his whole family. We know it's time to put it all behind us. Five years is not a lot compared to other African wars, but it's still too much. In life, sometimes you fall down. Drogba and the Elephants have helped us get back up. Now we can't fall down again."

I hoped he was right, but I was feeling no small amount of apprehension myself. I had come to Ivory Coast as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995 and lived in a village northwest of Bouaké that was now in rebel hands. I spent two years there, learning French, building latrines, and talking endlessly about clean drinking water, giving little thought to the wars and civil strife that prevailed in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere in West Africa at the time. Meanwhile, with the economy faltering, tensions were on the rise in Ivory Coast as well. On Christmas Eve 1999, two and a half years after I left, the country suffered its first coup d'état.

Unrest became the rule. There was another coup attempt in September 2002. It failed, but the country spiraled into civil war. I moved back to Ivory Coast and covered the conflict for the Associated Press for more than a year. In December 2003 I left the A.P. and relocated to New York, but I have continued to travel to Ivory Coast to write about the conflict and have watched the country become another African cliché, ruled by guns. No one is sure how many people have died in the war, but the number surely stretches well into the thousands. I've reported on mass killings, interviewed corrupt politicians, and been stopped at countless roadblocks by troops armed with machetes and AK-47s. A French journalist I knew was shot in the head in 2003 by a government police officer.

It had been a long time since I'd thought of Ivory Coast as the tranquil place of my Peace Corps days. But Drogba was intent on changing everything. It began with the run-up to the 2006 World Cup. As the Elephants fought their way to the top of their qualifying group, Drogba led his teammates in prayer following each game, asking for peace back home. When the team officially qualified in October 2005, it sparked days of celebrations and dancing in the streets. People in government-controlled Abidjan, the country's economic capital and its largest city, telephoned bars in rebel territory to order cases of beer for revelers who couldn't afford them. The team's players were from all over Ivory Coast, and their cooperative spirit was hailed by Ivorians as an example of how the warring sides should reconcile.

Drogba, the charismatic captain, became an icon. Young Ivorian men dressed like him, favoring sleeveless T-shirts and hair gel. Women swooned over his classic runway looks—broad shoulders, high cheekbones, sculpted jaw. Musicians wrote songs about him, and billboards with his likeness called on people to display their Drogbacité—their Drogba-ness. One-liter bottles of Bock, a locally brewed beer, became known as "Drogbas," a nod to the star's imposing physical presence. And whenever Chelsea played a game, life in Ivory Coast came nearly to a halt, as everyone watched the flamboyant striker dash across the screens of their flickering television sets.

Ivory Coast,
Didier Drogba,
les Éléphants,
2008 African Cup of Nations,
Guillaume Soro

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