The Soccer Desk

Peace-Making on the Pitch: Soccer and Civil War in Ivory Coast


Didier Drogba is not a politician. Neither is Kolo Toure, Dider Zokora nor any member of the 2006 Ivory Coast World Cup team for that matter. Yet there are times when politics and diplomacy fail—times that produce unlikely heroes, even footballers.

The events that transpired in Ivory Coast from 2005 to 2007 are perhaps the best examples of soccer diplomacy, a phenomenon that’s been well-documented from Central America to Eastern Europe. While the connection between sport and politics is often negative—corruption, hooliganism and even war—this is a different kind of story. It’s a story of a nation torn apart by civil strife, an unlikely qualification to the World Cup and the peace that followed. It’s a story worth revisiting and a story we, as fans of the game, should never forget.

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Ivory Coast wasn’t always at war. In fact, the nation had been a model of stability and religious inclusion for three decades under its first president, Felix Houphouët-Boigny. Following independence from France in 1960, the country’s economy grew exponentially and the capital city, Abidjan, was industrializing at a rapid pace. It was here that the Ivorian national soccer team would play matches at a stadium named for its president, sharing the field with local outfit ASEC Mimosas, the most successful team in the country’s top domestic league.

While many may have viewed the national stadium as the city’s foremost landmark, Abidjan was well-known for its varying places of worship. Mosques neighbored cathedrals, including the gleaming Saint Paul’s Cathedral which had been dedicated by Pope John Paul II, and the city remained free of religious tensions. Christianity and Islam were at peace in Abidjan as well as the rest of the country, and Ivory Coast’s strong leadership was able to remedy any ethnic tensions that surfaced. Unlike the rest of West Africa, the nation was a politically moderate center of economy and tolerance due to Houphouët-Boigny’s sound organization, foreign ties and financial prowess.


The Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny sits near Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Abidjan. (Harvey Specter)

Compared to the nation’s overall success, the Ivory Coast national team never accomplished much in the three decades under Houphouët -Boigny. They failed to qualify for any World Cups and had modest finishes in the African Cup of Nations. On the other hand, the country’s Ligue 1, which quickly followed national independence in 1960, was doing well for itself and helped lay the groundwork for the nation’s next crop of talented players. The three professional clubs based in Abidjan—ASEC Mimosas, Africa Sports National, and Stade d’Abidjan—dominated the domestic league and provided most of the national team’s representatives. With a successful professional league and one of the strongest economies in West Africa, Ivorian soccer appeared to be on the rise.

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The 1990s ushered in a new era of Ivorian politics and tensions that overshadowed surprising success on the pitch. Cracks had already appeared in the nation’s economy during the 1980s, mostly due to an over-reliance on agriculture and a staggering growth in population. Poverty rose, living standards fell, and some Ivorians began directing their anger towards the migrant workers and immigrants from neighboring Burkina Faso. Despite the fact that over half of Ivory Coast’s population consisted of Burkinabé, who were technically Ivorian citizens, nationalists targeted the northern regions of the country where many of these second-generation families had settled.

The nation, already heading towards an ethnic split between north and south, was pushed to the brink of violence when the venerated Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993. For the first time in over 30 years, Ivory Coast was without the guidance and leadership of its trusted president. The reality of open, democratic elections led to a mixing of ethnic and political tensions, and violent attacks against the Burkinabé began in 1995. The tensions boiled down to a conflict between the Burkinabé in the northern regions and the Ivorian nationalists based in the south, specifically Abidjan. As the violence grew, it appeared that a formidable combination of racial tensions, xenophobia, poverty, unemployment and political instability was pushing the nation towards the threat of war.

Covered up amid the growing conflict was the Ivorian national team’s victory at the 1992 African Cup of Nations, the country’s first title of any kind. While the Ivorians had entered the tournament on the back of an undefeated run through qualification and boasted its most talented group of players in years, their championship run in Senegal was anything but straightforward. After navigating through the group stage and slipping past Zambia 1-0, the Elephants topped Cameroon on penalties to advance to the final. They came up against a typically-strong Ghanaian side that featured a pair of legendary strikers in Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah—no easy task for a young, inexperienced Ivorian team.

Ivory Coast (orange) met Ghana (white) in a tense final of the 1992 African Cup of Nations. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

Ivory Coast (orange) met Ghana (white) in a tense final of the 1992 African Cup of Nations. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

However, the Ivorian back line held firm and the Elephants took the final to penalties, their second straight round of spot-kicks. What ensued was one of the longest penalty shootouts in international soccer history, a drama that finally ended 11-10 when Ivorian goalkeeper Alain Gouaméné dove to his right and saved Anthony Baffoe’s low-driven shot. The Elephants were champions of Africa, but there were more pressing matters back home. As thick as the tension surrounding both squads was that night in Dakar, the tensions within the Ivory Coast were slowly driving the country apart.

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It was simply all too much. On September 19, 2002—over ten years since the Ivorians’ triumph in Senegal—the country officially entered its first civil war with rebel forces launching attacks in northern cities. The oppression from the nationalist and government-controlled southern regions had finally provoked the Burkinabé into action. Central to the conflict was a law that had been drafted before the 2000 presidential election, outlawing candidates whose parents had not been born in the Ivory Coast. The underlying motivation was clear: keep out candidates who represented the Burkinabé regions—the majority of the Ivorian population. This measure ultimately helped Laurent Gbagbo win the 2000 election (it took a coup to overthrow his opponent, Robert Guéï, who refused to recognize the result).

The civil war quickly became a fight between the government’s forces—including the National Army, nationalist groups, and mercenaries—and rebel groups from the northern regions called the New Forces. Within a matter of months, both sides had launched attacks in many of the nation’s largest cities, with the government holding onto Abidjan and the New Forces fighting out of Bouaké. The rebels had many ex-military members and were well-equipped to counter the strength of President Gbagbo’s forces. France also sent troops into the country to act as peacemakers and defend its nationals; however, the rebels accused the French of siding with President Gbagbo and pushed their attacks farther into the south.


Government troops march in Ivory Coast. (Robbie Corey-Boulet/IPS)

The next few years produced a cycle of cease-fires, peace talks, and recurring violence. Different rebel groups came and went, but the government and the New Forces remained at odds. Three peace documents were signed by both sides in October of 2002 and January and July of 2003, but the fighting still continued to plague the country. Attacks against the French in 2004 also heightened military tension while riots and demonstrations targeted all of the various parties involved. With all of the failed resolutions, peace was hardly in sight.

Instead, a key element of peace was several thousand miles away, stepping onto the Stamford Bridge pitch for his first appearance as a Chelsea player. Didier Drogba was already well-known in his home country, but his move to the English Premier League and ensuing success made him a national icon. Joining Drogba were other stars like Emmanuel Eboue and brothers Kolo and Yaya Toure—the best Ivorian footballers were playing in Europe’s top leagues and earning enormous salaries. In some ways, there was a disconnect between these superstars and the ongoing civil war, Drogba explains. It wasn’t until he put on the orange jersey for the first time that he truly felt the national pride of representing his home country.

After their African Cup of Nations title in 1992, the Elephants had fallen back into a period of mediocrity. However, the new group of young stars, led by Drogba, broke into the national team around the start of the civil war and guided the Elephants into the final round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. In order to punch their tickets, the Ivorians would need to win a group consisting of African powerhouses Cameroon and Egypt in the fall of 2005. The campaign started well but Cameroon delivered a blow to the Ivorians in their third qualifying match, winning 3-2. Still, the Elephants dug in and, despite another loss to Egypt, won the final game in their group to edge Cameroon by one point overall. It was official: Ivory Coast had qualified for the country’s first World Cup.

The 2006 Ivory Coast squad traveled to Germany for the World Cup after the country's first-ever qualification. (AP)

The 2006 Ivory Coast squad traveled to Germany for the World Cup after the country’s first-ever qualification. (AP)

Following their qualification-clinching 3-1 win over Sudan, Drogba addressed the nation and called for an end to the violence: “We’ve proved to you that the people of Ivory Coast can live together side by side, play together toward the same goal: qualifying for the World Cup. We promised you this celebration would bring the people together. Now we’re asking you to make this a reality. Please, let’s all kneel.” Dropping to his knees, he continued, “The only country in Africa with such wealth cannot sink into war like this! Please, put down your weapons, organize the elections and things will get better.” While neither side abandoned its military posts or tossed aside its artillery, Drogba’s words had an immediate impact on the entire nation, easing tensions and giving cause for celebration.

There wasn’t much to celebrate in the World Cup with losses to Argentina and Netherlands, but the Ivorians still managed to defeat Serbia and Montenegro 3-2 for their first World Cup win. Drogba and company were national heroes at a time when the country was badly in need of leadership; the World Cup tournament coincided with an attempt at staging democratic elections, but disagreements between both sides kept President Gbagbo in office. Still, the team’s efforts did prompt President Gbagbo to restart peace talks, and what happened the following year would solidify Drogba’s role in the peace-making process.

Didier Drogba, the face of Ivorian soccer, celebrates a goal. (The Shinguardian)

Didier Drogba, the face of Ivorian soccer, celebrates a goal. (The Shinguardian)

In 2007, the excitement of the World Cup had come and gone but Ivory Coast’s superstars were still prominent figures across the country.  The team was in the midst of qualifying for the 2008 African Cup of Nations tournament and had already beaten Gabon 5-0; up next for the Elephants was a June fixture against lowly Madagascar. While the game appeared to be a formality, Drogba had previously spoken with President Gbagbo and requested to move the match to Bouaké, the New Forces’ stronghold. The leader somewhat surprisingly agreed, and Ivory Coast faced Madagascar in front of a sell-out crowd at Stade Bouaké, a run-down venue that received a new roof, fresh paint, and a refurbished pitch in the run-up to the match. The atmosphere was electric, Drogba recalls, especially when the rebels belted out the Ivorian national anthem. Dignitaries and soldiers from Abidjan made the trip to Bouaké and joined the men they had recently been fighting in the stands. “Drogba’s message got the attention of the people. Football permitted this,” explains Ivorian journalist Lassine Koné. “I believe only this team could do that.”

With the stadium buzzing, Ivory Coast played Madagascar off the pitch and completed their 5-0 rout with a goal from Drogba—it simply had to be him. Even without a post-match address, Drogba still made sure that everyone in attendance knew the significance of the game.  “What I saw there were Ivorians,” he says. “Not people from the north. Ivorians. Believe me, football matters.”

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Football might not have ended the war, but it did show Ivorians the possibilities of peace. Two months before the match in Bouaké, the warring sides had signed another peace agreement and Guillaume Soro, the leader of the New Forces, joined President Gbagbo in heading the nation. Disarmament soon followed, and the pair of leaders signed another promise to hold elections within the following year. They also did away with military outposts and the buffer zone between north and south—President Gbagbo declared that the war was over and Soro said that disarmament was well on its way.

The story doesn’t end there, however. The tensions that led to the rebellion in 2002 have provoked more violence in recent years. In the 2010 elections, President Gbagbo refused to concede victory to Alassane Outtara, an opposing candidate from the north. The New Forces attacked Abidjan and prompted the United Nations to step in and neutralize their offensive, which eventually ended when President Gbagbo was captured and arrested. The aftermath was grim: hundreds of Ivorians were killed and over a million were displaced by this second civil war. Ouattara finally took office with the backing of most international groups and nations, and now leads the process of rebuilding and reuniting the country.

Alessane Ouattara was elected president in 2010 but had to endure a second civil war before taking office. (The London Evening Post)

Alessane Ouattara was elected president in 2010 but had to endure a second civil war before taking office. (The London Evening Post)

Still, dismissing the long-term accomplishments of the Ivorian national team is just as foolish as saying Drogba single-handedly ended the first civil war. The tensions and underlying conflict within the nation are too complex for eleven men to solve, even if those men are superheroes in the eyes of the citizenry. The peace that developed between 2005 and 2007 came as a combination of politics and soccer—granted, any country’s first qualification to the World Cup would come as a major historical event, but Ivory Coast’s accomplishment helped nudge the country towards reconciliation. Drogba’s heroics in Bouaké also brought the two sides together and showed that peace is possible. For 90 minutes, the southern government forces and northern rebels forgot about politics and focused on the national pride created by the Ivorian team.

At its core, soccer is a simple game and shouldn’t necessarily be a means to address complex issues like civil war. But when these kinds of events occur, it shows us the power of the game and what it means in other parts of the world.  Would the Ivorian national team have had the same impact if they lost to Sudan and failed to qualify for the World Cup? Their landmark qualification and ensuing celebration certainly played into the encouragement of peace. Now, the Elephants are the top-ranked team in Africa and regularly challenge for the African Cup of Nations and other titles. They had a disappointing 2010 World Cup—with many expecting them to emerge as dark horses and make it beyond the group stage—but the African vibrancy of the tournament resulted in similarly poignant feelings about their second consecutive qualification.

Ivory Coast has plenty of rebuilding to do after two civil wars and violence that’s spanned fifteen years. Soccer and the positive outreach of the Ivorian team can help, though. It’s not often that footballers play the roles of politicians or diplomats, but what took place in Ivory Coast will serve as an encouraging example of the game’s ability to foster peace and bring temporary relief to a nation torn apart by war.