To most people, Didier Drogba was the face of Chelsea F.C. for nearly a decade. He is the man who delivered the club its first league title in over 50 years and its only Champions League trophy. But what he did on the pitch was nothing compared to what he did off it – he single-handedly stopped a civil war that had been raging in the Ivory Coast for five years.
Tension had been brewing since 1993 when the only president the country had ever known, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, died after 33 years in office, but the conflict ostensibly started in 2000 when the government drafted a resolution right before an upcoming election that required both parents of a presidential candidate to have been born in the country, overtly excluding Alassane Ouattara, a leading contender who enjoyed enormous support in the Muslim-dominated north of the country, especially from poor immigrants from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso who worked on the coffee and cocoa plantations.
Less than two years later, soldiers in the north mutinied, beginning a bloody struggle that would consume the country for the next five years. The war showed no signs of abating until the Ivory Coast qualified for the 2006 World Cup. What happened next elevated the country’s most famous athlete from celebrity to icon.
When I saw Drogba say that on television, I got goose bumps. My wife cried. The people on TV cried. We Ivorians, we had this abscess, a sickness, but we had no way to lance it to get better. It couldn’t have been done by anyone else. Only Drogba. He’s the one who has cured us of this war
Christophe Diecket, official with the Ivory Coast Football Federation via Vanity Fair
A 3-1 win over Sudan, coupled with Cameroon’s loss to Egypt meant the Ivory Coast had punched their ticket to the 2006 World Cup in Germany. It was the first time they had ever qualified for the World Cup. Following the match, with the eyes of a nation fixated on their screens, Drogba demanded the mic and addressed his countrymen, pleading for an end to the war.
Two years later, with tensions again rising in the country, Drogba stepped in again. He convinced the president to move the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations qualifier from the southern part of the country to the rebel-held city of Bouaké in the north in an effort to unite a divided nation. The Ivory Coast thrashed Madagascar 5-0 and the country rejoiced.
Drogba is a legend on the field but the two-time African Footballer of the Year will always stand taller off of it. He may have been the first African player to score 100 goals in the Premier League and returned one of the world’s most popular clubs to relevancy after 50 years of futility, but he left an indelible mark on the world at large.
I have won many trophies in my time, but nothing will ever top helping win the battle for peace in my country.
Some athletes – Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Magic Johnson – are celebrated as paradigm shifters; transcendent figures whose impact resonates beyond sports, but no one will ever do as much for their country as Didier Drogba did.