In Côte d’Ivoire, the name Didier Drogba stands for far more than football. It’s the incarnation of the power of sports as a tool for development and hope.
When conflicts arise and even when civil war was raging in his country ahead of Les Elephants’ participation at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, Drogba emerged as a strong symbol to play a pivotal role and use the integrative force of football to unite a whole nation.
After all, scoring the winner in the UEFA Champions League final and being a symbol of hope for Côte d’Ivoire are not considered big burdens by Drogba, but as a “feeling of pride” he has embodied throughout his career.
FIFA.com met up with the emblematic striker in Abidjan to discuss the symbiotic relationship between football and development, and his own mission off the pitch.
FIFA.com: To what extent can football be used as a tool for social development in Côte d’Ivoire?
Didier Drogba: I think in recent years it has become clear that football has played an important role here in Côte d’Ivoire, not only on a political level during the crisis that affected the whole country, but particularly with regard to the development of Côte d’Ivoire and of its people. Many players have been trained here and have gone on to become big stars in Europe, like the Toure brothers and Salomon Kalou, so football plays a key role in Côte d’Ivoire.
You played a vital role yourself in 2005 in bringing peace to Côte d’Ivoire. Could you tell us a bit about that and explain how football can be used to bridge the divide that separates the country?
I believe that what we experienced in 2005 was a key moment, an historic moment. We couldn’t help but be swept along by the events, and it was the love of our country, its passion for football, that led us to put out that message, and I believe that because of that, we managed to avoid a tragedy. [After qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in 2005, the Côte d’Ivoire players launched a national appeal for reconciliation.]
In the past, you have played some international matches surrounded by rocket launchers and with a number of weapons in the stadium. What is the situation today?
That only happened once. It surprised us and was because of the situation at the time, when the country was in a state of crisis. It’s part of our history, the history of Côte d’Ivoire, but things have changed since then, lots of things have happened. We’re trying to move forward, we’re trying to get back on our feet, to show people through football that we can live together.
There are other sports in Côte d’Ivoire, but football is currently the most popular one, and it’s the sport that brings the whole country together in my view.
What does the national team, Les Elephants, mean to people here?
The national team means a lot to this country. I think that today – and I choose my words carefully here – it is Côte d’Ivoire’s only unifying force. It’s the national team of Côte d’Ivoire. All our ethnic groups are now represented in the team – Baoulés, Bétés, and so on. They are all there. So there’s a complete cross-section in the Côte d’Ivoire team and I think that it’s the only good example there is today. Of course, there are other sports in Côte d’Ivoire, but football is currently the most popular one, and it’s the sport that brings the whole country together in my view, whereas in everyday life that isn’t necessarily the case.
And what sort of pressure does that mean for you? There’s the pressure of scoring the winning penalty in the Champions League final, but it’s another form of pressure altogether when you know that your whole country is counting on you.
I don’t think of that as pressure, it’s more a feeling of pride that you have been selected out of so many players. I was lucky enough to be selected from millions of people to represent my country, so it’s not pressure, it’s pride, it’s an honour.
Could you tell us what you have achieved so far and what you hope to achieve in the future through your foundation?
The Didier Drogba Foundation was created in 2005 and we made sure we didn’t grow too fast, we have made a lot of donations to orphanages, hospitals, we have tried to grow and to focus more on helping the people who need it. The areas that the foundation works in are health, education and children. We tried to choose areas that affect Africa as a whole; it’s a foundation that doesn’t only operate in Côte d’Ivoire, but all over Africa. We were also able to make donations to Haiti and other countries like Japan that have been hit by earthquakes. So the aim of our foundation is to collect donations, we have organised a number of charity dinners in London with stars who came to help promote our foundation. So we’ve collected some donations with a view to building clinics here in Côte d’Ivoire because after the crisis that hit the country, I think there has been a lack of funds and so it’s a way for me to make a contribution, to help the country in a small way to get back on its feet. There will be more projects and schools, because education is the foundation of everything.
What led you to create this foundation? As a footballer you could have an easy life, do whatever you like...
No, I don’t think so, although not many footballers have set up foundations, they give donations to help. It’s just that they don’t necessarily have the profile that I have. So like I say, I feel privileged because I have a bigger profile, but I know a lot of players who get involved. Take Emmanuel Eboué’s foundation, for example – I was at his gala three months ago, which he held to try and create jobs; people don’t talk about it much because it’s not Didier Drogba, but what he’s doing is fantastic. So we have to encourage this kind of attitude. What led me to do it was, when I come here and see the conditions that my compatriots live in, I can’t change everything, I just do what I can, to make everyday life a bit more comfortable.
It would be really great for this generation to qualify for the Brazil World Cup. And if it happened, we would certainly be aiming higher than finishing third in our group.
FIFA has carried out many projects in Côte d’Ivoire, such as a course for coaches, which took place in September. To what extent do you think that projects like this can help to develop football in the country?
It’s important, I am very grateful to FIFA because a lot of young people want to be like Yaya Touré, Emmanuel Eboué or me, so it’s important to have an organisation like FIFA to support young people and to make sure that educators in Côte d’Ivoire can improve and share their knowledge with young people. So it’s a very good initiative and one that should be encouraged.
Côte d’Ivoire has some of the best players not only in Africa but in the world, but this generation has yet to win any silverware. You came very close at the last CAF Africa Cup of Nations. What is it that you need if you are to win the tournament at last?
If it ever happens, it would mean a lot to the country. For me and my team-mates, of course it would be a great trophy to have, a just reward for these past ten years, when we’ve worked so hard and tried to carry the country. And for the people of Côte d’Ivoire, who have been waiting more than 20 years, it would be truly wonderful.
How has Côte d’Ivoire managed to produce so many brilliant players over the last ten to 15 years?
I think it has been based on sound ideas, on having training centres, but also on continuity. Because in Africa in general, when a new generation comes along, everyone looks after it but no-one thinks about what is to come. You live in the moment, you don’t think about the next ten to 15 years. So I think that Côte d’Ivoire was lucky to have people who were able to look ten years ahead.
What would it mean to you to play in the FIFA World Cup in Brazil?
It would be massive to qualify for the World Cup, for a small country like Côte d’Ivoire, a country that had never taken part [before 2006]. We were the first to do it and it would be really great for this generation to qualify for the Brazil World Cup. And if it happened, we would certainly be aiming higher than finishing third in our group.