Friday, March 30, 2007

A Nation Stands Still for a Footballer

The Ivory Coast was once a model of stability. As the world's leading cocoa producer, it was noticeable for its well-developed economy on top of its religious and ethnic harmony.

But an armed rebellion in 2002 split the nation in two. Civil war erupted and split the country between rebel-held north and government-controlled south. Foreign troops patrol a buffer zone in the middle.

Despite numerous peace deals the main combatants in the conflict have struggled to find a lasting political solution. It's the kind of internal struggle that's plagued so many African nations of late.

So it's refreshing when the country can agree on something. This summer, the Ivory Coast went to their first ever World Cup. The scene was bedlam, as people from north and south celebrated their qualification. You might remember the U2 video that talked of a nation putting down their guns to see their national team off to Germany. I'm not sure how accurate that was, but the point is well taken. Football has tremendous power to heal and bond.

This week, Ivorian star and African Footballer of the Year Didier Drogba made an appearance in the Ivory Coast's northern region. He called on the country as a whole to unite in peace. You might think, 'Well, some athlete getting involved in politics ... why doesn't he keep quiet and just play football?'

But footballers have tremendous sway in African politics. They're not just football stars. They are ambassadors of their countries, like Cameroon's Roger Milla.
They make the hop from soccer star to politician, like Liberia's George Weah. Or they call for peace, as Drogba did this week.

His words mean something because of the power and fame bestowed on him. It's not like Michael Jordan calling for world peace. This is bigger than that. This is the Ivory Coast's footballing son, asking for his divided country to be whole again. It means so much more than mere rhetoric.

Holding his African Footballer of the Year award high in the northern province, Drogba said , "I have come here to offer you a golden ball, it's the golden ball for the whole of the Ivory Coast.

"This is only the beginning. In June the whole Ivory Coast national team will be at Bouake for the match against Madagascar (in an African Nations Cup qualifier).

"June 3rd will be a memorable day: it will be the victory for Ivory Coast football, the victory of the Ivory Coast people and quite simply there will be peace."

Delirium from the audience, but will his words ring true? Drogba's words have power. His words have meaning because of his incessant goal-scoring. Football speaks in many different languages, the lingua franca of an entire planet.

Ivory Coast, who lead Group One of Nations Cup qualifying, play Madagascar on June 3rd.

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