Di­dier is more pop­u­lar in Ivory Coast than the man who runs the coun­try

Sunday World - - World Of Sport - JIM WHITE in Abid­jan KGOMOTSO SETHUSHA

IVORY Coast lost the Africa Cup of Na­tions to un­fan­cied Zam­bia and Di­dier Drogba fluffed a penalty in the final, but the cap­tain and his team are still he­roes at home.

When Drogba and his team ar­rived home in Abid­jan this week, tens of thou­sands of Ivo­rians were at the air­port to meet them.

“We didn’t ex­pect that,” said Drogba af­ter he had picked his way through the chaos and re­treated to the air-con­di­tioned sanc­tu­ary of Abid­jan’s swanki­est ho­tel.

“It’s dif­fer­ent in this coun­try – they still come out to see us even though we lost. I had the chance to play for the French na­tional team when I was younger but I don’t think if I was play­ing for France I would get this. I feel rich with these kinds of ex­pe­ri­ences.”

Drogba ’ s pop­u­lar­ity in his home­land is over­whelm­ing. Drog­bakro vil­lage, a sub­urb of Ivory Coast, has been named by its in­hab­i­tants in hon­our of their coun­try’s most cel­e­brated ex­port.

Ev­ery time Drogba plays, ei­ther for his na­tion or for Chelsea, 37-year-old Kouassi Au­gustin, the vil­lage chief, takes the tele­vi­sion set from his home and sets it up out­side, where hun­dreds gather, cheer­ing their icon’s ev­ery move.

Be­cause of him, ev­ery­one in the sub­urb is a Chelsea fan, and a Drogba vic­tory with a club al­most 8 000km to the north trig­gers a car­ni­val of cel­e­bra­tion that fills the vil­lage and be­yond

– – with noisy cheer for much of the night.

“We don’t need an elec­tion to tell us the an­swer to this ques­tion,” says Au­gustin when asked if Drogba is pop­u­lar enough to be­come pres­i­dent of his na­tion. “He is al­ready big­ger than the pres­i­dent. He is the Ivory Coast.”

When Drogba walks through the Abid­jan ho­tel lobby, the se­date po­lite­ness of the place evap­o­rates as the coun­try’s few well-heeled lo­cals gawp and stare and break into spon­ta­neous ap­plause.

A cou­ple of se­cu­rity guards fail to de­fend their charges’ de­fen­si­ble space, as ev­ery­one crowds in for pho­tos, hand­shakes, a mo­ment’s con­nec­tion with the icon. He obliges them all with hu­mil­ity.

Only a year ago, the coun­try looked a bas­ket case, its elected pres­i­dent – Alas­sane Ou­at­tara – holed up in a ho­tel just up the road from where Drogba was stay­ing, while the dic­ta­to­rial pre­vi­ous in­cum­bent – Lau­rent Gbagbo – re­fused to leave of­fice.

Thou­sands lost their lives in the tribal ruc­tions that fol­lowed; the dis­trict of Abid­jan where Drogba was raised was the last to sur­ren­der to the new boss.

Now Gbagbo is fac­ing a war-crimes trial in The Hague and Ou­at­tara was at the air­port lead­ing the cheers of a united na­tion wel­com­ing home their foot­ball team, en­sur­ing he was the first to squeeze Drogba’s hand. If noth­ing else, it demon­strates the rec­on­cil­ia­tory power of sport.

Through all the tur­moil, Drogba has re­turned his coun­try­men’s loy­alty by re­fus­ing to bail out. He has a home in Ivory Coast and fre­quently re­turns, usu­ally weighed down with cash.

Ev­ery penny he earns in com­mer­cial en­dorse­ments he do­nates to the Di­dier Drogba Foun­da­tion, which pro­vides med­i­cal ser­vices in his coun­try. Drogba’s lat­est goal is to build a kids’ clinic in Abid­jan.

“I am ex­cited, I can’t wait for this hospi­tal to be built,” he said as he pa­trolled the clinic’s site. But

“for the war it would have been open now. We are go­ing to do it, we are go­ing to work very hard.”

The in­spi­ra­tion to build emerged from Drogba ’ s ex­pe­ri­ence of a se­ries of tragedies. In 2009 a wall col­lapsed at the na­tional sta­dium while he was play­ing in a World Cup qual­i­fier against Malawi, claim­ing 19 lives. While vis­it­ing the in­jured in hospi­tal later, some shar­ing beds, some sleep­ing on the floor, all suf­fer­ing from lack of proper med­i­cal su­per­vi­sion, he be­friended a young boy who had leukaemia.

“We need this hospi­tal be­cause we want to get help for peo­ple in Abid­jan,” he says. “To fly to an­other coun­try is very dif­fi­cult for kids when they are sick. There are good doc­tors here and peo­ple who want to work but they need help. The hospi­tal is my big am­bi­tion.”

Drogba says he is blessed, “be­cause my voice can be heard a lit­tle bit more than oth­ers”.

“I can ring the pres­i­dent if I need some­thing but I pre­fer not to do that, I pre­fer to fight and do things by my­self. When I re­ally can’t then I will ask for sup­port,” he said.

“It’s not writ­ten any­where that I have to do this,” Drogba said of his char­ity. “I do it be­cause I know that I will never get this feel­ing any­where else.”

Which leads to the ques­tion: does he share the chief’s cer­tainty that he could trans­late his foot­balling pop­u­lar­ity into elected power?

“I don’t have any po­lit­i­cal opin­ion. I can say what I want, I’m free,” he said. “When I speak ev­ery­body will lis­ten. If I de­cided to do pol­i­tics only half of the coun­try will lis­ten. Am I more pow­er­ful the way I am? Maybe.”

That ’ s Di­dier Drogba, then: the cen­tre-for­ward who is more pow­er­ful than the pres­i­dent. AS Zam­bia fi­nally buried bit­ter mem­o­ries of their 1993 air dis­as­ter with a re­mark­able Africa Cup of Na­tions triumph, Ivory Coast still bat­tle to ex­or­cise their Af­con demons.

For the fourth time in eight years, the Elephants have had their dreams shat­tered.

For the last four edi­tions, Ivory Coast have gone into the Af­con as one of the favourites.

Af­ter all, they top the Caf rank­ings, don t they?

’ But, de­spite be­ing blessed with an ar­ray of such Europe-based stars as Di­dier Drogba and Em­manuel Eboue, the Ivo­rians keep dis­ap­point­ing on the big­ger stage, where guts and team work of­ten seem to work against them. Hav­ing promised a lot lead­ing up to the fi­nals, the Elephants fell to hosts Egypt in the fi­nals in 2006.

Many still re­mem­ber how the Ivo­rians thrashed ev­ery op­po­nent on their way out of the group stage and trounced Guinea 5-0 in the quar­ter­fi­nals, be­fore be­ing stymied by a 4-1 drub­bing by Egypt in the semi­fi­nals.

At the 2010 tour­na­ment in An­gola, Ivory Coast again stut­tered to a quar­ter­fi­nal fin­ish af­ter los­ing 3-2 to Al­ge­ria.

For the cur­rent crop, South Africa 2013 re­main the last op­por­tu­nity for them to bow out of in­ter­na­tional foot­ball with at least one piece of sil­ver­ware.

Pic­tures by Reuters

POP­U­LAR ICON: Ivory Coast fans cheer Di­dier Drogba and his teammates on their ar­rival in the coun­try from the Af­con. IN­SERT: Drogba, left, to­gether with the na­tional team, meets Pres­i­dent Alas­sane Ou­at­tara.

Picture by Gallo Images

BLESS­ING: Ivory Coast’s Di­dier Drogba.

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