The 2006 World Cup will be remembered for a few things – Zidane’s head going into Marco Materazzi’s chest, Italy lifting the trophy for the fourth time, and Gianluigi Buffon’s flawless goaltending abilities.
Yet, one of the most prolific events to happen during that Cup didn’t take place on any soccer field in Germany, it happened off the field in Africa.
Didier Drogba and his fellow countrymen on the Ivory Coast national team helped bring a ceasefire to their country after qualifying for their first ever World Cup in 2006.
Heaven Have Mercy
In 2002, a civil war broke out in the former French colony of the Ivory Coast. The intense fighting was brought on as the Muslim-rebel dominated north went to war with the Christian-government led south, dividing the country into two.
As the battle raged on like any war, casualties were had on both sides. The government did the best they could to try and ease tensions. France, the African Union, and the UN even went in to aid in the conflict and find a resolution but nothing could stop the bloodshed.
There were temporary ceasefires that were agreed upon but then the opposition eventually broke them.
During this time, a star from their country was rising in popularity. Didier Drogba was making a name for himself at Chelsea in 2004. The diabolical striker was a “celebrity” and a hero to members of both sides of the conflict that tore his country in two.
The war didn’t seem like it had an end in sight and Drogba realized he had to do something.
Playing For Peace
In the fall of 2005, Ivory Coast were one game away from qualifying for their first ever World Cup and the team, known as the Elephants, were determined to do it.
Beating Sudan 3-1, the team celebrated as the African giants, Cameroon, drew against Egypt meaning their victory would book them a ticket to Germany.
As the squad was in jubilation, Drogba wasn’t celebrating — he got on his knees on live TV and begged both parties to stop the fighting and search for peace. He also pleaded both sides to not fight while this team was headed to the World Cup for the very first time.
“I left Cote d’Ivoire with a certain image: It was beautiful, its streets were lovely, there was greenery everywhere and people were happy. And when I came back a few years later, I saw a real change. That’s when I started asking myself questions,” Drogba told Al Jazeera in 2013 about why he felt he needed to do something after the victory.
He added: “Inside, we wanted all that stuff to stop. When you play a match and you’re surrounded by rocket-launchers … okay, that’s for the president’s security, fine. But you’re playing with rocket-launchers everywhere. We wanted to play in a more relaxed atmosphere again. So after that game, we were euphoric, and someone whispered in my ear that it was the right time to put out a message. Then we just improvised.”
The message got across to both sides and the feuding factions agreed to lay down their weapons and support the Elephants as they would stampede together in Germany.
Soccer would do more than any government or rebel leader could – win a war.
Following the announcement, Drogba said in a statement: “I have won many trophies in my time, but nothing will ever top helping win the battle for peace in my country. I am so proud because today in the Ivory Coast we do not need a piece of silverware to celebrate.”
He would also put his money where his mouth was spending $10 million of his own money to fund and build hospitals across the country.
The Cup of Life
The Ivory Coast entered the 2006 World Cup with their heads held high. As they were not expected to win the tournament, they knew they had done the job they set out to do already.
Prior to the games, ESPN ran a series of commercial spots featuring the music of U2 and members of the band narrating interesting storylines of countries that did and did not qualify for the World Cup.
One spot, narrated by bassist Adam Clayton told the story of the Ivory Coast with footage of citizens seeing the Elephants fly off at the airport.
The Elephants crashed out of the group stage and would still return to their country as heroes.
In March of 2007, a truce was found between both parties and the war officially ended.
“Seeing both leaders side by side for the national anthems was very special,” Drogba told The Telegraph in 2007. “I felt then that that the Ivory Coast was born again.”
Ivory Coast would qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2014 Cup in Brazil.
Following the 2006 World Cup, Drogba’s career would take him to play for clubs in Turkey, England, and Canada. He retired from international soccer in 2014 following the World Cup in Brazil.
In April 2017, the 39-year-old signed on as a player and part owner of USL side Phoenix Rising.