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Drogba: Ivory Coast's talisman

Selay marius Kouassi/Twenty Ten

Associated features: Drogba the Icon (Photo gallery), The Didier Drogba fever (French and English Photo feature), Drogba Jerseys (Text feature), Drogba Dependence (Text feature),

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

It is a very cold winter Friday afternoon in Johannesburg’s Yeoville suburb and the sound of drums reverberates around this centre of African immigration to South Africa. The drumming is coming from the ‘Ivoirian House’ and gives me a foretaste of what promises to be a great show of support from expatriate Ivoirians during the friendly match between Ivory Coast and Japan - the last one for ‘The Elephants’ before the kick-off of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

The volume of drums and cheering increases as I push the half-open gate of the ‘Ivoirian House’ and go inside. In the hall, a wide screen television holds centre stage before a row of empty chairs, and an orange-white-green flag hangs on the wall, close to a picture of Didier Drogba – the iconic African striker, and Ivory Coast’s all time top goal scorer.

‘Welcome at home!’ shouts Mr Gaba Etienne, the owner and founder of the ‘Ivorian House’, when I reach the backyard, having followed the cacophony. ‘He is one of ours, he comes from Ivory Coast’, is the first thing Mr Gaba says to some young people who refer to him as Le Doyen (the eldest). This 60-year-old native Ivorian, who settled in Johannesburg 14 years ago, is visibly happy to welcome Ivorians and other West Africans to his place.

The drummers who are visibly warmed by several bottles of beer, start to hit the drums twice as hard as they launch into Drogbacité songs: those composed in praise of Didier Drogba. ‘It is Drogba’s feast today’, said one of them, ‘I wish I could have given you a Drogba beer, but we are not in Ivory Coast, we have to drink what we can get here’, he adds rather emotionally.

Ten minutes before kick-off, the room set to welcome supporters is packed with Ivorians and other West Africans from Yeoville. Among the crowd, I recognized a familiar face, Dimi Stéphane, a former Ivorian goalkeeper and team mate of Didier Drogba, who played in the 2008 African Cup of Nations Qualifiers. Dimi, pleased to be recognized, says, ‘I know these guys, I used to play with them. They will win this match to increase their confidence before the World Cup. I don’t know how many goals they are going to score, but I know Drogba will score at least one goal’.

Dimi, who now plays for Vasco da Gama, a South African second division football club based in Cape Town, is very confident of The Elephants’ success and was impatient to watch the game. ‘Let’s go inside, we will speak later.’

‘See how Ivorians are gathered here, can you ever tell from which part of the country each of these people come from? No, I guess, this is the power of football […] it has consolidated the members of the small Ivorian community living here,’ said Gaba barely audible above the noise of the crowd. ‘[…] It still prevents our community from (suffering from the) ethnic and political divisions the country has known,’ added Le Doyen softly.

A few minutes after the kick-off, when decisive action by Drogba leads to a goal, a fan leaps out of his seat like a rocket, reverently touches the screen and starts the Drogbacité dance. Others run here and there, practically mad with delight. But the joy was short-lived when two minutes later, Drogba is hurt in a collision with the Brazilian-born Japanese defender, Marcus Tulio Tanaka.

The noise in the room stops, as if a tap has been closed. Drogba lies on the pitch for more than two minutes. ‘We are lost if Drogba is injured now’, said Kouamé Marc dramatically, holding his head in his hands. Some of the supporters leave the room.

Drogba is more than just a footballer. The charismatic captain even took the lead in begging his nation’s warring factions to lay down their weapons and join in peace. Many say that it was his intervention that stopped Ivory Coast tearing itself further apart. How far can The Elephants progress without Didier Drogba?

I get goose bumps as I look into Mr Gaba’s red eyes and wonder if I should speak to him or ask him any questions. He hardly fits into his plastic chair and the orange-white-green banner he has wrapped around his neck falls off.

‘Get up, man! You are the most strong, Get up!’ says Konan Arsène, a supporter visibly affected by the image of an impotent Drogba crying on the pitch.

Discussions over Drogba’s injury dominate those watching the match as the star is replaced by Yao Kouassi Gervais, known as Gervhino. Even when Kolo Touré scores the second goal, no one cheers. Supporters at the Ivorian House, it seems, are more preoccupied with Drogba than about winning a warm up match.

Pascal Zagbo’s impassioned response says a lot about the supporters’ attitude: ‘every team has its boss, and for Ivory Coast, it is Didier Drogba. The team can’t manage to play well if he is not there. We can’t replace him. I hope he is not seriously injured and hope he will be ready for the game against Portugal’.

Thirty minutes after the game, I decide to phone Eric Kacou, the press officer of the Ivorian national team to check if Drogba is okay or not. The Ivorian supporters surround me and as the press officer fails to answer his phone, I read despair on their faces, despair that is reflected in my heart.

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