As a footballing country, Cote d’Ivoire only started having real success at the club and international level in the 1990s.
The first African Cup of Nations title that the national team obtained was in 1992 in Senegal. That very same year, Africa Sports reached the summit of continental club competitions by winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1992 and then again in 1999. Its biggest rival, ASEC Mimosas won the Champions League in 1998. These glorious years, however, were dashed by political chaos and instability, which began at the start of the millennium.
Since attaining independence in 1960, Côte d’Ivoire was always known as a haven of peace and tranquility until Christmas Eve in 1999. That was the date that social tensions boiled over, a military coup took place, and the incumbent president, Henri Konan Bédié, fled aboard a French helicopter.
Following the coup, Cote d’Ivoire held presidential elections in October 2000, which ended in a bloodbath. Consequently, a rebellion in September 2002 divided the country into two parts: one under the jurisdiction of the republic and the other held by rebels.
From that moment on, Ivorians gradually stopped showing up on the stadium terraces, and soon enough, the great results of the 1990s also began to fade. The national team, for example, which relies heavily on state funds, strung together catastrophic results. Successive group stage exits at the 2000 and 2002 Africa Cup of Nations were followed by a failure to even qualify for the tournament in 2004. That was especially shocking for football fans as The Elephants had not missed a Cup of Nations tournament since 1982.
In the Interclub competitions, only ASEC Mimosas had any semblance of success, reaching the semi-final of the 2002 and 2006 editions of the CAF Champions League, thanks to their prolific Mimosifcom academy.
As political leaders spectacularly failed to find a way out of the crisis, it was football that was one of the triggers or catalysts for this much sought-after reconciliation. Three dates, in particular, were turning points in touching the hearts of Ivorians.
October 8, 2005:
Despite the lack of state funds, and the recent catastrophic results at the Africa Cup of Nations, Cote d’Ivoire was on the brink of qualifying for its first-ever World Cup appearance due to the emergence of the Mimosifcom academy (which produced the likes of Kolo Touré, Yaya Touré, Didier Zokora and many others) and captain Didier Drogba, who would imminently go on to transcend his immense footballing ability and become a national hero. After beating Sudan in Khartoum, and upon learning that he and his teammates had qualified for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Drogba capitalized on the euphoria to launch a call for peace on camera from the locker room:
Ivorians, from the north and the south, from the center to the west. You have seen, we have proven to you today that the whole of Côte d’Ivoire can coexist, can play together for the same objective, and qualify for the world. You promised us that this celebration would bring the people together, today, we are asking you please to lay down your arms, organize the elections and everything will be fine.
Oussou Fidel hosted a radio show that broadcast in the town of Bouaké. He attested that the qualification was a moment of ecstasy: “The population living in the rebel-held areas and those in the loyalist areas crossed the buffer zone to celebrate this qualification for the 2006 World Cup.”
March 29, 2007
After a spectacular season with Chelsea FC, in which he won the Premier League, the League Cup, and the Golden Boot, Didier Drogba was awarded the African Ballon d’Or. He made a point to ask the government to facilitate a trip to Bouaké, the second-largest city, and the epicenter of the rebel stronghold in Côte d’Ivoire, to present his Ballon d’Or to fans in the north of the country. By all accounts, he accelerated the ratification of a peace agreement that had been signed a few weeks earlier, on March 4.
“Didier Drogba brought joy, he transported the love that the populations in the government areas had for those in rebel areas,” said Dr. Yeboue Boni, a sociologist, and professor at Lorougnon Guédé University in Daloa.
June 3, 2007
A few months after presenting his Ballon d’Or in Bouaké, Drogba and his teammates played their first match at the Bouaké stadium (later renamed “stadium of peace”) since the start of the war. The match was a 2008 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Madagascar and The Elephants thumped the islanders 5-0. One month later the same stadium in Bouaké would host a political ceremony named “Flamme de la paix” to mark national reconciliation, but for Fidel “This match against Madagascar was for many Bouakois the official point of the march towards peace.”
Yeboue Boni, a sociologist based in Abidjan noted: “Football succeeded in reuniting the country during a national team match for 90 minutes. Socially, it allowed populations not to tear each other apart. This generation brought together the capitals of the government and rebel zones: Abidjan and Bouaké.” The Ivorian golden generation emerged from 2004 to 2015 and placed Cote d’Ivoire on the map of world football. In addition to the historic qualification for the 2006 World Cup, Drogba and the team qualified for the first World Cup in Africa in 2010, and followed that up with a third consecutive qualification in Brazil. Although many of the players were past their prime when Cote d’Ivoire finally won its second Cup of Nations title in 2015, it didn’t matter so much, because they left an imprint that transcends sport.