Clichés, it seems, exist to be abused. One of these abused pithy sayings is “soccer is more than just a game”.
But when it comes to Ivorian soccer legend Didier Drogba and the career he had, the meaninglessness of that soccer cliché must give way to the worthy celebration of a life lived well on and off the pitch.
In 2004, Drogba was a forward for the historic French side, Olympique de Marseille. When Drogba came to world prominence later that year, it was because Portuguese coach, Jose Mourinho, the hottest coach in Europe at the time, wanted to sign Drogba for Chelsea.
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Mourinho was going to be the coach of English side Chelsea but he insisted in prior negotiations with Chelsea’s owner that he had to be allowed to sign Drogba.
In November that very year, the civil war in Drogba’s native country of Ivory Coast took a more complicated turn. Ivorian air forces hit a French peacekeeping base in the north of the country killing nine French soldiers.
The civil war had been subsiding but what happened to that French base provoked a response from French forces.
The war itself had begun in 2002 between the state military under the command of President Laurent Gbagbo and rebels loyal to the New Forces of Ivory Coast, an umbrella term for a group of disgruntled political parties as well as some interest groups representing northern Ivorians, predominantly Muslim.
Ethnic and religious tensions in Ivory Coast had been papered over as a result of the strong 33-year autocratic leadership of Ivory Coast’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
Henri Konan Bédié, the successor to Houphouët-Boigny, tried his best to continue the nation-making philosophy of the first president. Bédié even went philosophical and coined the term Ivoirité.
Ivoirité was the idea that all Ivorians are connected by a cultural necessity stronger than partisan and religious differences.
In England, Drogba had hit the ground running, paying back the confidence his Portuguese coach had reposed in him. The Ivorian had adapted to the English game quickly, using his over 6ft height, burly frame and pace to glorious results.
Across the channel in France, and in the Francophone world at large, many knew Drogba’s name. But English football is where the hype counts and where you cannot dodge the spotlight.
Weekend in and out, Drogba thrilled Chelsea fans with his displays. At the end of that season, he had scored 16 goals in 40 games, a lukewarm return for a top forward.
But perhaps, what mattered more is that Chelsea won the soccer championship in England for the first time after 50 years. Drogba’s contribution could not be overlooked.
Certainly, Ivorians were not overlooking how one of their own was cheered by all these white crowds in pristine European stadiums. It made Ivorians proud but they were also happy because they needed Drogba in top-shape for FIFA World Cup qualifiers during that time.
Soccer-mad Ivory Coast had never been to the World Cup before 2006. They were one-time African Nations Cup champions but not more than that in international soccer.
The early 2000s were disastrous for thousands of people in the small West African country. If we can speak of silver linens, it was also the period that Ivory Coast produced its best generation of soccer players.
These young men, most of them groomed at French soccer clubs, had come from largely underprivileged backgrounds. Soccer was a means of survival for them.
Ivorian parents would do anything to see their sons playing professional soccer in Europe. Apart from the fact that a family could do with the remittances, a son in Europe means he is not at home where he may be caught up in the war.
By 2005, Ivory Coast’s highly unlikely collection of superstars had coalesced into an amazing team.
There was Didier Zokora, Bonaventure Kalou, Arouna Koné, Yaya Touré among others. And Drogba was their captain.
As captain, Drogba was an outspoken champion for peace in Ivory Coast. He saw beyond his responsibilities on the pitch and focused on his people, the lot who were at the mercy of guns.
He realized that as Ivory Coast’s most famous soccer star, he transcended the partisanship of the war in the country. He was most likely untouchable, which meant he could call for a truce and that he did.
Drogba made promises too. He promised a World Cup berth and then he led the national team to deliver exactly that.
When Ivory Coast played their only three games at the 2006 summer competition in Germany and even earlier at that year’s Africa Nations Cup in Egypt, warring factions in the country had a truce.
They agreed that the noises that ought to be heard could not be mothers wailing over dead sons.
Drogba played 105 times for the Ivorian national side and scored 65 times. He won many plaudits and prizes for himself and his club sides too.
But even he would tell you nothing beats the feeling of knowing a warring nation would momentarily cease a violent conflict to watch you score a goal or two.