October 8, 2005, Omdurman, Sudan.
The uncovered soccer bowl christened The Red Castle in Sudan’s largest city is about to play host to ground-breaking history for Ivory Coast football.
In neighbouring Egypt, the group’s other match, sees the Pharaohs entertaining a Cameroon team needing to win to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Both games kick-off simultaneously.
For the Ivorians they know defeating Sudan is not enough. Not only must they prevail, but they need hope things go their way in Cairo.
Bad news arrives with barely a quarter of the games played. The Indomitable Lions had breached the Egyptian rearguard and led 1-0.
Concentrating on what remained within their control, the Ivorian players retain both focus and professionalism. Aruna Dindane scores in the 73rd minute to ease his side into a 3-0 lead over inferior Sudan.
Fifteen hundred miles north, Shawky bundles home a scrappy equalizer for Egypt and Cameroon are rocked. Ivory Coast’s dream is ON!
The game in Omdurman finishes first. Job done and emphatic victory for Didier Drogba and his team-mates, who surround the Chelsea man, the leader of their team, in the middle of the pitch. They are all listening to concluding radio commentary from the match in Cairo, still deadlocked at 1-1. They look set for their first-ever trip to a World Cup. Only confirmation of the final whistle in Cairo is required.
The game enters the fourth minute of stoppage time, Cameroon are awarded a soft penalty. Ivory Coast players are visibly crushed out on the turf.
Some fall to their knees, most resign themselves to failure, it’s despair all around. How could Pierre Wome, a veteran of two previous World Cups and twice winner of the African Nations Cup miss?
Up steps the vastly experienced left-back, a player with Internazionale at the time. Sure-footedly the kick is despatched, the Egyptian goalkeeper goes the wrong way, but it’s thud of ball on post, rather than rustle of rope that shocks all watchers.
The final whistle sounds moments later. The display of dejection has travelled swiftly north. Cameroon players, dazed, pulling shirts over their heads, not believing what has just happened.
Contrast the scenes of unbridled joy and mayhem back in Abidjan and in Sudan where the footballers of the Ivory Coast have secured a way to their first-ever World Cup finals.
It was of course Ivory Coast’s golden generation, Didier Drogba, just over a year into his Chelsea career, its undoubted leader and talisman. But there was quality throughout. Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue (both Arsenal) already Premier League regulars with Didier Zakora a year away from joining North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
Toure’s younger brother, Yaya, then with Olympiakos in Greece, was also a raw youngster waiting in the wings.
But while the country’s football stars anticipated World Cup glory, Ivory Coast was teetering on the brink. The civil war that had divided the country since 2002 had quietened down by 2004, but the following year saw an escalation in tensions. President Gbagbo’s government controlled the south while the rebel New Forces of Ivory Coast led by Guillaume Soro held sway in the north.
The riches of football, particularly in the top leagues of western Europe can elevate players to a different level, their millionaire lifestyles far removed from what’s going on back home.
But the Ivorian players in their hour of glory had a presence of mind for home, and none encapsulated this more than the muscular striker who would eventually go on to see out the twilight years of his career in Montreal with the Impact.
Didier Drogba joined English giants Chelsea in July 2004 for a reported £24m. Noted for a physical, bull-dozing style the striker faced accusations ranging from unsportsmanlike to outright cheating. What wasn’t in doubt however was his overall effectiveness and achievements at the west London club. Four Premier League titles, as many FA Cups, three League Cups and a Champions League winner’s medal are testimony.
Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal side frequently found themselves on the wrong end of the striker’s rugged style, said: “He is a winner and he will be like that until the end of his life.”
World Cup qualification
On the night of WC qualification, Ivory Coast forgot it was divided. Every household shared the happiness, but for all the breathless footballing drama that unfolded that evening, the most significant event happened not on any green field, but in a cramped away dressing room in Sudan’s Al-Merrikh Stadium.
A post-match ritual had become commonplace at the conclusion of games with Drogba leading his group in prayer, but this evening with the celebrations still unfolding, TV cameras were ushered into the room.
Standing centrally, microphone in hand, was the imposing figure of the Chelsea striker.
“Please lay down your weapons and hold elections,” Drogba urged.
”Men and women of Ivory Coast. From the north, south, centre, and west, we proved today that all Ivorians can co-exist and play together with a shared aim - to qualify for the World Cup.
”We promised you that the celebrations would unite the people - today we beg you on our knees.”
On cue, Drogba and his team-mates sank to their knees.
”The one country in Africa with so many riches must not descend into war. Please lay down your weapons and hold elections,” Drogba urged.
”We want to have fun, so stop firing your guns,” the players sang joyously.
Back home, the party was already underway. A conga line twisted joyously outside the Egyptian embassy as Ivorians showed their appreciation for the draw with Cameroon.
The rebel capital of Bouake joined in.
Bottles of beer were renamed ‘Drogbas’, but the following morning the country woke up seemingly as divided as ever.
Change however was in the air. Over the following weeks and months the video clip was played and played and played again on TV.
Amazingly before long, both sides would emerge not at opposite ends of a war-torn country, but at differing sides of the negotiating table.
A ceasefire between the waring factions was eventually signed.
But the story doesn’t quite end there...
The following year, 2006, while touring the rebel-held area of his homeland having been proclaimed African Footballer of the Year, Drogba announced Ivory Coast’s March 2007 home match against Madagascar, would be switched from Abidjan. It was now to be played in Bouake, the symbolic centre of the rebellion, an unimaginable prospect just two short years previously.
Drogba, a native of the government-controlled south, was transcending the divide, becoming a god-like figure across the fractured country.
When the Madagascar visit finally arrived there was a feeling of something more than football in the northern city. A heavy military presence was contrasted with people riding on tops of cars. Weapons slipped from the grasp of over-excited soldiers and inside the stadium government and rebel troops engaged in football chants.
Didier Drogba topped off the huge celebration with his country’s fifth goal in a 5-0 rout of the hapless and unfancied visitors.
The Messiah wheeled along the running track, arms outstretched in his own inimitable style, players, fans and coaching staff left in his wake. Old enemies celebrated alongside one another in the stands.
It was as though the national team had re-united a country. The Toures from the north, Drogba from the south, it seemed like a unique and true coming together of hostile opposites.
However the uneasy harmony wasn’t to last. Short memories and deep divisions would again re-surface as footballing euphoria faded. Only five years later (2011), Ivory Coast was again gripped in violence resulting in 3,000 deaths, the President arrested and tried for crimes against humanity at The Hague.
Just over a year ago he was acquitted on all charges, but remains to this day in custody in Belgium pending an appeal.
Ivory Coast remains delicate, politically.
The country’s ‘golden generation’ of footballers were to fall short, losing on penalties in two African Nations Cup Finals (2006 & 2008). Their star slid from ascendency as a result. Perhaps it was just simply not possible to again reach the heights of the two huge footballing occasions described in this article.
Drogba retired from playing in 2018, with his place assured amongst the African greats of the game. But for a relatively short spell in the mid-2000’s, the national team, with him as its natural leader, was responsible for something much more than football.
They showed Ivorians could pull together, albeit briefly, and again be the nation it once was. The footballers didn’t end the civil war, but served as a positive force for change, a beacon of hope for a beleaguered country thirsting for peace.
Footnote: Didier Drogba played a total of 41 matches (all competitions) for Montreal Impact. He scored 23 times and contributed 7 assists.