Didier Drogba will be remembered as power-house of a centre forward that led the line so well for Chelsea and Ivory Coast. Here Brian Bowler shows that there is a lot more to Drogba outside of what we saw on the field of play.
Despite a gallant defeat against a very impressive Colombian side in their second group game of this World Cup, the Ivory Coast find themselves in a very good position to qualify for the knockout stages of the competition for the first time in their history. Unless Japan can cause a major upset and beat Colombia, then a draw against Greece would be enough to ensure The Elephants progress to the elite stages of the Brazil World Cup.
It is rather ironic that this year may see the West African side progress furthest in their history, when you consider that their squads for the 2006 and 2010 tournaments were vastly superior to this year’s crop. The likes of Arthur Boka, Didier Zokora, Kolo Toure, Salomon Kalou and most notably Didier Drogba are all now in the twilight of their respective careers but their influence can still be seen.
Trailing 1-0 to Japan in their opening group game, the Ivorian crowd suddenly burst into life. They did not just score, nor had they seen an exciting chance spurned. The excitement stemmed from Drogba’s impending arrival from the substitute’s bench.
Within five minutes of his introduction the Ivory Coast had the lead. Drogba played no significant part in either of the goals, yet everyone in the stadium and everyone watching at home knew his presence on the pitch was the difference. This is the effect the 36-year-old striker has on his team.
Whether it is Keane or Cruyff, Pele or Puskas, Maradona or Maldini, every country has its football icon. To the people of their countries these players share a common trait in that they represent what football means in their native lands, and just the mention of their names garners much discussion and excitement.To the people of the Ivory Coast, Didier Drogba represents this and so much more.
The players mentioned above are icons in the respective countries because of their contributions to football. Drogba’s iconic status in his country goes beyond football; to his people he is more than simply a footballer.
Civil War and World Cup 2006
For much of the early part of the 21st century, the West African country of Ivory Coast had been torn apart by a bitter and violent civil war. As is the case with so many of the world’s war torn countries, its citizens needed dearly something from which they could garner some hope, enjoyment and a sense of unity. In this instance the Ivorian national football team offered such a relief. Buoyed by a crop of talented young players plying their trade in Europe’s biggest leagues, in October 2005 they found themselves on the verge of World Cup qualification, a first for the country.
At this stage Drogba was already a star in his homeland, but his true standing in the country became clear after securing qualification. Minutes after securing said qualification, Drogba made a heartfelt plea from his team’s dressing room, which aired on national television, for the warring parties to lay down their weapons and try to achieve a level of peace. Within a week, after five years of conflict, a ceasefire was agreed upon.
We Irish are sports-mad people and our sporting heroes are some of the most beloved people within our small land. Yet for Colm Cooper, Henry Shefflin, Robbie Keane or even Brian O’Driscoll to hold such a political influence in Ireland is simply unfathomable. So what is it about Drogba that inspires the people of the Ivory Coast so much, and more importantly, why do his words hold so much gravitas in the political landscape of his country?
His platform comes from the fact that he is a world famous footballer, but his iconic and inspirational status stems from the fact that the millions of Ivorian’s who admire him do so because they feel he represents them.
As Drogba puts it,
“Above all, I am one of them.”
Many sports stars do hugely admirable and charitable work all around the world. Some do it for publicity purposes, others do it out of a desire to “give back” to their communities, but very few do it because they feel it is their duty to do so.
When we hear Drogba speak of the joy he felt when peace was restored to his country, it is obvious that this was more important than any amount of money or medals he could earn in his career:
“I felt then that the Ivory Coast was born again.”
The role Drogba played in bringing peace in the Ivory Coast did not go unnoticed and the UN acted on his obvious position of influence in Africa by appointing him as a Goodwill Ambassador of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in the ongoing fight against poverty. His importance in this role was not underestimated by UNDP administrator Kemal Dervis who noted the need for “greater recognition of the wide range of serious challenges we face in Africa…and Didier will offer tremendous help in raising awareness.”
This highlighted the fact that Drogba’s feeling of responsibility was not confined to the borders of his own country but spread throughout the entire continent of Africa. Once again he recognised that he had been fortunate in his life and it was his duty to take full advantage of his position,
“I don’t forget my origins, I have been given opportunities to succeed in life…We all need to contribute to help defeat poverty.”
Drogba has continued to be an influence on the political front since these first indications that his role could be an important one in Africa’s ongoing developmental struggles. In 2010, the Ivorian followed in the footsteps of revered athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan by joining a prestigious group of sportsmen who have been named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.
The recognition came as a result of his ongoing involvement in his home country’s peace process. Finally, in addition to all this, Drogba has helped raise huge funds for various causes in Africa through the work of his Didier Drogba Foundation.
Didier Drogba, while recognised as a fantastic player, did have a bit of a negative reputation during his time in England. He was often criticised for his tendency to go to ground rather easily and often he exaggerated injuries. The flack he received as a result of this was no more than he deserved.
Yet we as fans have our own negative tendency, a tendency to make judgements on players’ personalities based solely on their on field performances. Drogba’s case serves as a prime example that not all footballers are the overpaid prima donnas which they are so often labelled as. It is important to remember that these athletes such as Didier Drogba are more than just footballers.
Brian Bowler, Pundit Arena