There are few countries in the world where football’s power to unite, foster peace and drive development has been felt as strongly as in Côte d’Ivoire.
In a recent visit to Abidjan, the country’s footballing capital, FIFA.com spoke with some of the leading figures in the Ivorian game and heard first-hand about the sport’s influence, its unifying effect on the population, and the role FIFA has played in its development.
Football is a deep-rooted source of inspiration for the Ivorian people, one that goes far beyond simple admiration for the superlative talents of national stars such as Didier Drogba, brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou.
Côte d’Ivoire is still dealing with the remnants of a brutal civil war that divided the north and south of the country. And yet, Drogba’s ties with the south and the Toure brothers’ northern roots have never caused conflict in the national team – a fact that has served as a powerful testament to the unifying force of football.
“The Elephants mean a lot to Côte d’Ivoire, because they represent all corners of our country,” said Manchester City defender Kolo Toure. “By playing together for the national team, we represent all communities and give a sense of unity to our country.”
Living and breathing football
Football is the subject that dominates conversations as you walk through the streets of Abidjan, and it does not take long to find that Toure’s sentiments are echoed by fans around the city.
“We’ll never forget the time when [Didier] Drogba asked our ex-president for one of our Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers to be played in Bouake (a rebel stronghold in the north of the country) in 2007,” said Elephants fan Diabate, still emotional at the memory.
“That match united the whole country,” he continued. “And then there was the time in 2005, when the team sealed qualification for its first FIFA World Cup [the following year]. At that moment, it felt like Côte d’Ivoire was one family. We were all behind the Elephants, regardless of whether we were from the north or the south.”
Côte d’Ivoire’s then unprecedented qualification for Germany 2006 went down in history as a brilliant sporting achievement. But it is also remembered for the iconic image of the Ivorian team after their decisive game against Sudan, kneeling in front of state TV cameras and making an impassioned plea for peace in the country.
“It was difficult for us to go back to our country and see that people were killing each other,” said Yaya Toure, Kolo’s team-mate at Manchester City. “I think our older generation needs to change its mentality, and believe in the sense of unity that football can generate. They believe in us, and that’s why we keep going back to our country: we simply want to achieve something great for them.”
Côte d’Ivoire’s current generation has yet to win a major international title at senior level, but results on the pitch have almost been a secondary concern in recent times. Indeed, with Drogba named last year as part of an 11-member, South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to heal the wounds of the civil war, football continues to play a fundamental peacekeeping role.
“It’s obvious that, when talking about Côte d’Ivoire, past events come to mind,” said Sabri Lamouchi, the new national team coach. “But it has become clear that football has the potential to unite the entire nation. This is something about which the Federation, politicians and, most of all, the players, are very much in agreement.
“They [the players] have suffered a huge amount as a result of everything that has happened,” the Frenchman continued. “Even when they’re outside of the country, they continue to keep a close eye on what’s happening at home. That’s why they’re always delighted to return to their country and pull on the shirt of their national team.”
Sport and a better future
In a country where, according to recent statistics, life expectancy is just 55 years for men and 58 for women, football has become a platform for promoting social development through specific initiatives – the fruits of which are growing increasingly evident.
FIFA’s five Goal projects, for instance, have accounted for more than USD2million of investment over the past ten years. These initiatives have resulted in numerous improvements to the quality of the country’s football infrastructure, including a new technical centre, artificial pitches and new headquarters for the Côte d’Ivoire Football Federation and the country’s professional league.
“The implementation of these Goal projects has allowed African football associations to grow in independence,” said Sampon Kablan, FIFA Development Officer for Côte d’Ivoire. “Thanks to these initiatives, African football has been able to lay foundations on which they can work specifically, while staying in touch with the international scene and modern football.
“Last September we held a coaching course in Abidjan, open to both professional and entry-level coaches,” Kablan added. “These courses allow us to make a real contribution to the development of African football at a structural level.”
Francois Bowe, a participant at the coaching course, said: “Côte d’Ivoire is currently the highest placed African team [16th] in the FIFA rankings. This statistic should get us thinking about the future, as we’re the new generation of coaches responsible for maintaining those high standards.”
Women’s football is another area to have benefited from FIFA’s development efforts, with the Financial Assistance Programme (FAP), officially established in Côte d’Ivoire in 1975, proving a particularly effective tool. Indeed, since 2005, the initiative’s beneficiary associations have been required to invest at least ten per cent of their FAP funding into women’s football.
“In recent years we’ve seen a marked increase in the number of schools offering girls the chance to play football,” said Clementine Toure, coach of the Côte d’Ivoire women’s national team.
“More and more families are encouraging their daughters to practise our sport, which is certainly a very positive sign. The FIFA courses have been an extremely useful tool for promoting the development of women’s football and increasing player numbers.”
In Côte d’Ivoire, there seems to be hope of a better future for the country’s men and women – one without violence, and with football at its heart.