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Drogba’s Success

Selay Marius Kouassi/ TwentyTen

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

Basile Boli, Abou diaby, Roger Boli and Olivier Kapo were all soccer top liners born in Ivory Coast, and bred in France. They opted for the French national football team instead of donning the bright orange jersey of ‘Les Elephants’, the Ivorian National football team. But Didier Drogba, another Ivorian-born and French-groomed player, refused to dump his fatherland.

Why do Ivorian Players feel irresistible attraction towards France’s national football Team?

For years, France’s national football team has attracted African players like a magnet. It still attracts footballers from Ivory Coast, one of its former colonies. It has gulped down talented players from the West African countries and no one can tell how many players it will poach over the coming years.

Many Ivorian players cannot not resist the attraction of France’s national football team for several reasons. France has a long football tradition since its participation at the inaugural World Cup in 1930 and belonging to the France 23 man-squad was (until very recently) the only guarantee for players of African origin to participate in the FIFA World Cup.

On the other hand, France’s national football team is the favourite of Ivorian players because of the traditional links between the two countries, and the common language. Obviously, a player with a French-speaking background and no Anglophone culture can easily find his way in France. However, above all of those reasons the quest for fame and money led Ivorians to turn towards the French football team.

Didier Drogba belongs to the league of Ivorian footballers who left their motherland for France at a tender age. But why did the ex-forward of Marseille, who has dual French and Ivorian citizenship, decide to play for Ivory Coast? What made his Ivory Coast tenure a success?

When Albert Drogba and Clothilde Wazè, Didier Drogba’s parents, decided to move their first child to France 27 years ago, they had been nursing the wish of seeing little Diddy become a medical doctor; a dream that was also shared by the young boy.

“I sent Didier to France to give him the opportunity to have a brighter career. I wanted Didier to become a medical doctor and not a footballer. It was true that Michel Goba, my younger brother and the uncle of Didier, was at that time a professional footballer in France, but I didn’t want Didier to become like him,” confesses Albert Drogba.

The Age Factor

Drogba arrived in France at the age of five, in 1983, and settled with his uncle Michel Goba, a footballer who used to move from one football club to another every season. Drogba followed his uncle around France, moving from one city to another.

They had roamed across Brest, Angoulême, Dunkerque, Abbeville, Tourcoing, and Vannes, to name but a few. By Drogba's count, he moved eight times as Goba bounced from one French team to the next. Yet, the youngster’s unsettled formative years moving around France did not shatter his dream to become a medical doctor.

In France, Drogba played football with kids in his neighbourhood, but had no ambition to earn his living from playing football until the day Goba gave him a brand new white and blue Argentina replica jersey.

At age nine, Drogba registered at the U-12 football Club ‘US Dunkerque’, but his father who flew to France four years later forbade him from playing football because of his bad results at school.

Didier Drogba later got permission to return to the pitch when his results at school steadily improved. He then signed with Le Mans, a 2nd Division club at age 19. Next, he signed at Guingamp, at a time when players like Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet ‘ruled’ the French Championnat and the French national team.

In his autobiography ‘C’était pas Gagné’ prefaced by Jose Mourinho, Drogba acknowledges that he had little chance to be selected to play for the French national football team as he came very late.

‘[…] I had dual citizenship, so I could have chosen to play for the ‘Blues’, but I had never been selected to play with the French U-12 and U-17 squads, […] then I had no alternative,’ confesses the Chelsea star.

But French-born Robert Nouzaret, the then-Ivory Coast coach, who was also a personal friend of Drogba’s, threw the boy a lifeline.

Robert Nouzaret’s Call

When the call to join ‘The Elephants’ came from Ivory Coast, Didier Drogba saw it as a last chance to play for the national football team of a country. However, he felt a bit reluctant to be part of the team because the then ruling military junta had detained some players at a barrack for failing to reach the knock out stage of the 22nd African Cup of nations held in Ghana and Nigeria.

“I had, in fact, the chance that Robert Nouzaret be the coach of The Elephants. He knew me. I had impressed him the day I scored during the Coupe de France tournament with Le Mans against Bastia -a Division 1 club in France managed then by Nouzaret. He did not forget me. He even sent a scout to watch me play and to see how he could sign me. Stroke of luck: he left the island for Ivory Coast!” writes Drogba.

Drogba first donned the sherbet-orange jersey of The Elephants on August 21, 2002, during a friendly encounter against Créteil, a French football club. He scored one goal. But his first official game with The Elephants, on Ivorian soil, remains alive in the memory of most Ivorians.

At Drogba’s parents’ home in Bingerville, a quiet suburb of Abidjan, Mrs Drogba points at the portrait of Didier hung on the wall:

“[…]This is when Didier made his first appearance with The Elephants against South Africa on Sunday September 8, 2002. He did not sparkle that day, but you can see on his face that he was happy to be there”.

Mrs Drogba stares at the portrait and continues: “I was very happy when Didier informed us that he will play for Ivory Coast. It was his own choice; we did not influence him […] since, he has been the leader of his team mates”.

Opportunism

Drogba joined the team at a time when the whole country was tired of the undesired behaviour of Cyril Domoraud and Bakayoko Ibrahim, Marseille defender and Inter Milan forward respectively.

Domoraud and Bakayoko were claiming bonuses before games. Worse! They were fighting over the captain armband, a struggle which affected and divided the team.

When Nouzaret decided that Cyril Domoraud should be captain on the eve of the 2004 African Cup of Nations qualifier played in Abidjan against South Africa, Bakayoko Ibrahim, the top scorer of the team went to war against the French coach and the FA officials. He blasted the coach and the then FA boss in interviews published in sports newspapers.

Nouzaret consequently dropped Bakayoko for insubordination and began the search for another goal hunter. The coach thought of Drogba and gave him tenure with The Elephants. Didier Drogba and Bonaventure Kalou led the Ivorian attack.

The then Guingamp forward did not fail to live up to the coach’s expectation and became a prolific Ivorian striker and later on the talismanic captain of Ivory Coast’s national football team.

Many Ivorian players who played in top European clubs were bitterly criticized for their lack of commitment to the Ivorian national football team. Drogba was beyond reproach.

Patriotism

With no claim, and with more and more dedication to the team and a performance above average, Drogba gained the love of Ivorians, a love that has increased since the football star called the soldiers of the Rebel-held north army and soldiers of government-loyal army to lay down weapons and make peace. He also announced that he would build the biggest hospital in the country where penniless people could get fair and free treatment.

Drogba played a pivotal role in bringing peace back to his country and he tells anyone who will listen that he would leave his football club and return to his country if the situation there required him to.

“I have an elephant’s heart,” Drogba proudly says. “When I hear the national anthem, I feel something in my stomach.”


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