When terror struck the African Nations Cup, Didier Drogba, captain and talismanic top-scorer for Les Elephants from the Ivory Coast, was ‘very sad and scared.’ But the sensitive and intelligent Drogba realised this wasn’t just about football.
In an interview soon after the attack on the Togo team, he told Sports Illustrated: “When the crisis started in Ivory Coast, one of the first countries to come and help us was Angola. To leave wouldn’t look good for the relations between the two countries.”
For a man who has lived away from his native land for most of his life, Drogba’s connection to the soil of his country, and to Africa, is as strong as ever. He will go wherever the Ivory Coast side travels, and his teammates, both at Chelsea and the national team, hail him as a natural leader.
In a country that has been ravaged by civil war, football was powerful uniting factor, with a golden generation of players from all over the country, including Drogba, Salomon Kalou, brothers Kolo and Yahya Toure and Emmanuel Eboue.
In 2004, Chelsea had a new coach, Jose Mourinho, and the special one picked up Drogba immediately. In his first season, he scored 16 goals, helping Chelsea to the Premier League title for the first time in 50 years.
October 2005 and the World Cup qualifying run was coming to an end. When the Ivory Coast beat Sudan 3-1 to qualify for Germany, Drogba showed maturity, statesmanship and courage beyond his years. He also showed he had the sensibility to recognize his popularity and use his influence outside the world of football.
Drogba summoned a cameraman from the national TV station and asked his team to gather around him. His words will go down in the history of the nation. “Ivorians, men and women, from the north and the south, the centre and the west, you've seen this,” Drogba announced. “We’ve proved to you that the people of Ivory Coast can live together side by side, play together toward the same goal: qualifying for the World Cup. We promised you this celebration would bring the people together. Now we’re asking you to make this a reality. Please, let's all kneel.”
At their proudest moment, the entire Ivorian nation dropped to their knees in prayer. Drogba continued, “Please, put down your weapons, organize the elections and things will get better.”
The speech was played and replayed for months, and tensions in the country eased visibly.
It didn't end there. In 2006-07, Drogba scored 33 goals for Chelsea, winning the African Footballer of the Year award. Soon after, he travelled to home to meet President Gbagbo and make an odd request. He asked for the next game to be moved to Bouake, the stronghold of the rebels fighting the governement. And so they played Madagascar in an African Nations Cup qualifier in June in front of the leader of the rebels, Guillaume Soro. Before the game, Drogba gifted him a pair of boots with the words, ‘Together for Peace’, inscribed. The Elephants won 5-0, and the next day's headlines read 'Five Goals Erase Five Years of War'.
His role in the peace process in his country has led to him being named in Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World list.
On the field, 2009-10 has been his best season ever, and Drogba will be looking to inspire his team through a group that includes Brazil, Portugal and North Korea.
The Ivorians aren’t the luckiest of teams. But, for Drogba and his team, this time there will be a difference. This time he Cup is being played on their soil, the sacred soil of Africa.