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Ivory Coast hopes team can bring peace

Soccer is one of the few unifying factors in war-torn Ivory Coast, and the players hope their appearance at the World Cup will help the peace process at home.

india Updated: May 08, 2006 16:54 IST

Soccer is one of the few unifying factors in war-torn Ivory Coast, and the players on the national team hope their appearance at the World Cup will help the peace process at home.

The Elephants qualified for their first World Cup at the expense of Cameroon. They also reached the final at this year's African Cup of Nations and lost to host Egypt on penalties.

"I don't believe that soccer is going to reunify the country," said Bonaventure Kalou, a Paris Saint-Germain midfielder. "But it will allow the people a moment of rapprochement and help create the climate where we can resolve the conflict."

In Germany, the Ivorians were drawn into the tournament's toughest group, facing two-time champion Argentina, the Netherlands and Serbia-Montenegro in the first round.

That will make it hard for the team to advance to the knockout rounds, but it might bring the people back home a little closer together.

While the team was in Egypt, Ivorians of different political persuasions gathered together to watch the final and cheered in the streets of Abidjan, the main government-held city.

Chelsea forward Didier Drogba is the team's star player, but the Ivorians also have Kalou, Kolo Toure, Aruna Dindane and Didier Zokora to choose from.

"We're like outsiders," assistant coach Alain Gouamene said. "We have nothing to lose and we're going to play as well as we can."

Ivory Coast tumbled into conflict in 2003 and despite a series of peace deals remains divided between an insurgent-controlled north and a government-patrolled south.

Elections are scheduled for later this year and tensions are high in Ivory Coast, where 10,000 UN and French peacekeepers patrol front lines and keep apart the warring factions.

Since the war broke out, jobs are harder than normal to find for Ivorians.

Essential services across the rebel-held north are crumbling and the south is rocked periodically by political unrest or ethnic strife. Many civic organizations, like soccer teams and training groups, have withered under the pressure.

Ivorians hope their team will give them something solid to rally around, and Gouamene wants to give it to them — and help build potential soccer players for Ivory Coast's uncertain future.

"It has been years since there has been organizations to help the young players," Gouamene said. "The World Cup will give them something to look up to."