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How Drogba stopped civil war in Ivory Coast

Al-Merrikh Stadium, in Sudan’s second largest city of Omdurman, is not one of the world’s great gladiatorial arenas. Yet this small ground – known as the Red Castle – became the setting for one of football’s most extraordinary tales.

The date was October 8, 2005. The mathematics of qualification for World Cup 2006 were simple. A win for Cameroon in Egypt would see them reach their sixth tournament. Anything less would allow Ivory Coast, playing in Sudan and just a point behind, to leapfrog them and qualify instead – for the first time.

The tag “golden generation” can be a substantial yoke to bear, but the Ivorian squad in 2005 was just that. They were led by the artfully bruising Didier Drogba, with Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, and Didier Zokora all also shining in the Premier League, a world away in London.

Yaya Toure, then with Greek side Olympiakos and still considered raw, was waiting in the wings. This was a squad that could match anything on the African continent. Despite having lost twice to Cameroon in qualifying, they remained agonisingly close as they took to the pitch in Sudan that evening.

Yet, while Ivory Coast’s footballing stars stood on the verge of history, back home the country teetered on the edge of something dark. A civil war that began in 2002 had divided the country, with President Laurent Gbagbo’s government controlling the south and a rebel faction known as The New Forces of Ivory Coast, led by Guillaume Soro, controlling the north.

Fighting broke out on September 19, 2002 with rebels attacking various cities across the country. Sebastien Gnahore, an ex-footballer who fled Ivory Coast, recalls those times.

“It was awful. When I called my sister I could hear the shooting outside the house,” he says. “They all hid under the bed for four days, and only came out to find food.

“All I cared about was whether my family was going to be OK. That’s the only worry I had each morning.”

The initial violence was fierce but short-lived, as both sides became quickly entrenched along a north-south divide. Much of the fighting had ended in 2004, but tensions were rising once again in 2005. The future of the West African country looked bleak.

Modern footballers can seem a world away from the everyday man and woman. The money involved can catapult them into a different realm, and the results can be unpalatable. But the Ivorian players that evening, despite their multi-million-pound lives in Europe, knew much more was at stake. And nobody encapsulated this quite like the man who led their line, and who was about to take centre stage.

Drogba had signed for Chelsea for a reported £24m in July 2004, a UK record at the time for a striker

Didier Drogba had arrived at Chelsea in 2004 for a reported fee of £24m. His nine-year stay in the Premier League was synonymous with a number of things – including a brutally effective, bulldozing style of centre-forward play and accusations ranging from unsportsmanlike behaviour to outright cheating. Love him or hate him, his achievements in west London were unquestionable.

Four Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups and a Champions League winner’s medal. Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal side frequently found themselves on the wrong end of Drogba’s brutal style, said of him, “He is a winner and he will be like that until the end of his life.”

Drogba was indeed a serial winner, but the pressure on that October night in Sudan was entirely different.

Cameroon’s match against Egypt in Cairo and Ivory Coast’s fixture with Sudan kicked off simultaneously. Ivory Coast, knowing nothing less than a victory would do, made short work of a Sudanese side second-bottom in the group. In the 73rd minute, Aruna Dindane tucked away his second goal, and the team’s third. An 89th-minute Sudanese strike was no more than a consolation. Events were unfolding relatively straightforwardly – but nearly 1,500 miles north in Cairo, the picture was very different.

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