I first became aware of Didier Drogba in the spring of 2004. He was playing his one season for Olympique Marseille, and terrorising defenders in Ligue Un and the UEFA Cup. My team, Liverpool FC, were in the final throes of the Gerard Houllier era, his team was imploding on the back of a few years of poor recruitment. Liverpool would finish fourth that year and scrape into the Champions League for the 2004-05 season, but that campaign of course would be under different management and would finish in spectacular fashion. The UEFA Cup in 2003-04 was a different story though, Liverpool had had few problems in the early rounds, knocking out Olimpija Ljubljana, Steaua Bucuresti and Levski Sofia, while scoring 12 and conceding 4. In the fourth round came the first big test though, Drogba’s Marseille.
The first time I saw him play was in the home leg of the tie at Anfield. Liverpool were leading 1-0 through a Milan Baros goal, when Drogba scored in the 79th minute. Sami Hyypia’s majestic blond bonce cleared a Marseille attack but the ball was picked up in midfield by a Marseille player. He lifted the ball back in to the penalty area, something that if Jamie Carragher had done it would have been called an ‘old-fashioned up-and-under’. Drogba used his speed to get between Hyypia and Steve Finnan, then his strength to hold off the Irishman. He controlled the ball with his left foot and almost in the same movement lashed it home with his right before the advancing Jerzy Dudek could beat him to it. The defender and goalkeeper stayed on the ground, beaten and broken as Drogba ran off to celebrate with the Marseille fans.
It was a very ‘English’ goal, something you could imagine Alan Shearer or John Toshack scoring. In the second leg in France, Drogba scored again as Marseille won 2-1 and progressed to the next round. They would make it to the final on the back of Drogba’s goals, only losing to Rafa Benitez’s marvellous Valencia team. Drogba though had made his mark on European football and signed for Chelsea for £24m at the end of the season.
After seeing him that night at Anfield, and on numerous other occasions in the Chelsea blue, Drogba became one of the players I loved to hate. His petulant moaning, feigning of injuries following the slightest contact only to reappear a few minutes later miraculously healed and using his formidable strength to batter the Liverpool defenders into submission. So frequent and blatant was his play-acting that it must even have annoyed the Chelsea fans on occasion, as it certainly annoyed the fans of other clubs. Also annoying was his habit of scoring vital goals against my team. Time after time he seemed to be able to bully our defenders off the ball, control it instantly and hammer it past the goalkeeper into the net. He was one of the most unlikable players in recent Premier League history.
But still he makes the Political Footballers XI because the Didier Drogba we see in England is not the Didier Drogba the people of the Ivory Coast see. He is quite literally a living legend, and not just for his footballing ability. He is one of those rare players to have used his fame and near-universal appeal (in the Ivory Coast at least) to change the political landscape for the better.
The climate of peace and relative prosperity in the West African nation was shattered violently in 1999 following a coup led by Robert Guei. The coup leaders created ethnic tension, with the Muslim north coming under particular xenophobic attack. In 2002 a mutiny among the army worsened into full-scale civil war leaving thousands dead, wounded and displaced.
Drogba is believed to have played a pivotal role in ending this conflict, reuniting the warring sides and reconnecting the division within Ivorian society. Much like Zvonomir Boban didn’t actually start a war in the Balkans, Drogba didn’t single-handedly end the war, his actions were largely symbolic yet powerful. After winning a World Cup qualifying game that meant Ivory Coast would be going to the World Cup finals in 2006 Drogba got down onto his knees and made an emotional plea live on Ivorian television. Drogba asked for his countrymen to put aside their differences and put down their guns. This request, especially when coming from a public figure like Drogba, cut through the political posturing that had characterised previous peace initiatives. Within a week both factions had indeed relinquished armed struggle and resolved to use peaceful means to solve their problems. Drogba wasn’t finished there though. In order to cement the peace process, he requested that an African Nations Cup qualifier against Madagascar be moved from Abidjan and be played instead in Bouake, the rebel stronghold of the north. At the time he was the BBC African Player of the Year, and a southerner who hadn’t been to the north since before the war started (Bloomfield, 2010:191). Yet his gesture captured the imagination of the Ivorian people and helped to create a national feeling conducive to ending conflict and securing peace once again. A journalist for the newspaper Le Patriote says, “I believe only this team could do that. Drogba’s message got the attention of the people. Football permitted this.”
With 10 minutes left to play in the game the Ivorians were winning 4-0, their team was far superior to the Madagascans, the atmosphere around the stadium and the city was ‘incredible, like a carnival’ (Bloomfield, 2010:196). All the Ivorian fans watching the game were praying for a Drogba goal to put the seal on the victory and the celebrations. Their prayers were answered. Commander Famoussa was one of the senior rebel officers in Bouake, he said of the game, ‘The key moment was Drogba’s goal There were goals before but that was the most important. From the first moment of the match I thought that peace was possible. It made me realise how thirsty people were for peace. But when I [watched the recording of the game] and reflected on what happened, that’s when I knew that peace was possible.’ (Bloomfield, 2010:196-7)
The stadium in Bouake would later be renamed Le Stade de la Paix in honour of the pivotal game that helped to unify the nation once again. Drogba has been mentioned as a possible candidate for political office when he retires from football. His teammate at Chelsea and the Ivory Coast national team Salomon Kalou says, ‘When you’re a leader like Didier, people think that maybe he can be a politician someday. If he decides to he can be a great one. People listen when he is talking.’ (Wahl:2010)
So Drogba played a large role in stopping a civil war and in reuniting his country. A footballer using the power of the beautiful game for something other than personal wealth, fame and glory. Now he is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, a two-time African footballer of the year and an icon for a post-war Ivory Coast. So why are the abiding images of him for many English people (who aren’t Chelsea fans) still one of the whinging diver?
Or being sent off in the Champions League final after needlessly slapping Nemanja Vidic?
Or berating the referee in his flip-flops after Chelsea lost another Champions League tie.
The answer is largely because nobody knew about his other life in Africa until a few articles appeared in 2007. Drogba himself didn’t mention or boast of his role in the war ending. He says, ‘I don’t feel I need to say anything to anybody about who I am in Africa. I know what I stand for and that is all that matters.’ (Hayes:2007) As a footballer in England Drogba has made a name for himself as being a ruthless striker, prepared to use whatever he can to gain a tactical advantage and then exploit that to the full. He has been criticised over his supposed lack of integrity and sportsmanship. Vilified by fans (I include myself in this group), opposition players and managers, journalists and television pundits. But really who are we to criticise him? No-one among us has seen our England torn apart by civil war, and then inspired people to put it back together again. And truthfully one suspects he doesn’t particularly care about how he is perceived in the UK, as Simon Kuper says he is only playing in England for the good of his career (Kuper, 2011:123). What matters to him is what people think of him in the Ivory Coast. And there his star couldn’t shine brighter.
Go here to read the other articles in this series: Political Footballers XI
Bloomfield, Steve (2010) ‘Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First Wold Cup in Africa’. Harper Perennial, Edinburgh, UK.
Hayes, Alex (2007) ‘Didier Drogba brings peace to the Ivory Coast’ in The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/international/2318500/Didier-Drogba-brings-peace-to-the-Ivory-Coast.html
Kuper, Simon (2011) ‘Soccer Men: Profiles of the the rogues, geniuses and neurotics who dominate the world’s most popular sport’. Nation Books, NY, USA.
Wahl, Grant (2010) ‘Soccer Savior’ on SportsIllustrated.com http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1169762/index.htm