Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Savior? Or is the anointing premature?

When Chelsea and the Los Angeles Galaxy take to the pitch later this week, one of the potential participants will be praised as a savior.

No, not the savior of a sport.

The savior of a country.

Petros Papadakis and Matt "Money" Smith interviewed this player on their KLAC radio show this afternoon, and told a story about which I was not aware.

Yes, I knew that Didier Drogba was a good soccer player, and that he came from somewhere in Africa. However, I didn't know the country (Ivory Coast, or Cote d'Ivoire to the residents) or its current state (several years of civil war).

Vanity Fair tells how Didier Drogba worked to change all that, in a very simple way.

The Ivory Coast national team—les Éléphants—had just defeated Madagascar, 5–0, in a qualifying game for the 2008 African Cup of Nations. The victory had been nearly a foregone conclusion. Many of the Ivorian players are well-paid members of professional squads in Europe, and standing next to the overmatched Madagascar team, the Elephants looked like giants. The 25,000 fans in Bouaké Stadium had roared at every pass and shot, and they'd gone wild with euphoria at each goal scored. But victory, per se, wasn't so much the point. You didn't have to look hard to see that there was much more at stake than just a soccer match. On this day, the Beautiful Game had reunited a country....

For nearly five years, Ivory Coast had been divided in two: rebel-held North, government-loyal South. But on a tour of the country in March, Drogba stunned his fellow Ivorians by proposing that the Madagascar game be played in Bouaké, the capital of the rebellion. North and South, unable to reconcile their differences through battle or peace talks, would set aside their guns and come together for a soccer game. And Drogba, already an international star, would become, in the eyes of Ivorians, something of a deity.

Although perhaps the celebration may be premature:

On June 29, four weeks after I flew to Bouaké with [Prime Minister and rebel supporter Guillaume] Soro, his plane was attacked by rocket fire upon landing at the rebel capital's airport. The prime minister survived, but at least three people traveling on the plane with him were killed. Reports speculated that the attack was launched by factions within the rebellion who were unhappy that Soro had joined President Gbagbo's government.


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