June 15, 2014: Les Elephants (Cote d’Ivoire soccer team at the 2014 World Cup) won their first match against Japan. And the drums sounded all night long in Abidjan -where I was for the week.
In this country, Les Elephants soccer team has played a big role in peace and reconciliation.
On October 8, 2005, in the middle of a civil war characterized by regional and ethnic divisions that had left thousands dead, they won over the host country Sudan 3-1 in the final game of World Cup qualifying. Les Elephants would be going to their first-ever World Cup. The team reflected the Ivorians’ ethnic diversity.
The full team took the opportunity of winning to also send a message. Drogba, whose family came from the region of the country that represented one side of the conflict, took the TV microphone and peered into the camera. Behind him, Kolo Touré (whose hometown of Bouaké was a stronghold for the war’s other side) draped his arm around Drogba’s neck and looked on. Behind them, teammates stood on benches and peeked over shoulders so that they, too, could stare directly into homes across their country.
Drogba spoke. “Men and women of Ivory Coast, from the north, south, center, and west. We proved today that all Ivorians can coexist and play together with a shared aim, to qualify for the World Cup. We promised you that the celebration would unite the people. Today, we beg you, on our knees … ”
And at this, the camera followed Drogba and his teammates as they knelt, some arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, with free hands lifted to their heads. “Pardonnez!” Drogba said. Forgive. And again: “Pardonnez! Pardonnez!”
“The one country in Africa with so many riches must not descend into war. Please lay down your weapons. Hold elections. All will be better.”
The clip was played and replayed on television networks around the world. This was the team that had convinced President Laurent Gbagbo to restart peace talks.
The reality was far more complex — by the time the team had qualified and Drogba took the mic, most of the bloodshed had ceased. At this point, the conflict was more political than violent, and either way, the war wouldn’t officially conclude until 2011. But still, the sense that these men had a unifying power was more than a feel-good story sold by international media and continued beyond the World Cup fever. In 2007, Drogba requested that an African Cup of Nations qualifier against Madagascar be moved to the rebel capital in Bouaké. His message was clear: Rebel supporters are Ivorians too. To hell with politics — they had the same right as all their countrymen to watch Les Elephants play.
Today, soccer is played everywhere, either in the city or in the countryside. At the mission we see every other month the match between catholic and muslim women, and our CPAR team is quite good!
I think that secretly everybody wonders if the Ivory Coast has hopes for peace and reconciliation, especially since elections are scheduled for next year. And then I look at kids like Julien, who is hardworking at school, who is good at football and also plays together with kids from other ethnicities as if nothing was different among them. One cannot help but to smile and remain optimistic. If not only for Les Elephants future in the World Cup 2014 stands, but also for the Ivorians’ future in training within this new generation.