Didier is more popular in Ivory Coast than the man who runs the country
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.
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.
BLESSING: Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba.