Soccer and Civil War The Ivory Coast's War of the Elephants

Politics and sports often aren't meant to mix. But many in strife-torn Ivory Coast believe the national soccer squad can help end the country's civil war.

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Ivorian star striker and Chelsea player Didier Drogba (foreground center) and teammembers parading in Abijan after their Africa Cup exploits.
AFP

Ivorian star striker and Chelsea player Didier Drogba (foreground center) and teammembers parading in Abijan after their Africa Cup exploits.

United Nations aircraft pass overhead. Gray against the tropical sky, the four-engne planes glide over the dirt markets and slums of Abobo in the North. They fly over the luxury homes of the rich and powerful in Cocody, the watery expanse of the Ébrié lagoon, and the French garrison town of Port-Bouët in the South. They land in rapid succession in Abidjan. And if it happens to be late on Sunday afternoon, their descent takes them over the two or three thousand football matches being played below.

The streets are full of children. Young boys are waiting in the starting blocks as the blanket of heat lifts from this sprawling city of four million on the jagged Atlantic coast. The match of the day is about to begin. Everywhere - in the neighborhoods of Adjamé and Attecoube, in Treichville and Vridi, in Plateau and Rivera, on the beaches, in the parking lots, at the port, under the palm trees. Some of their pitches have two goals, others one: often hockey goals, or piles of clothing. The goalposts are branches, bags of trash, detergent barrels.

Olympic Sport Abobo's youth team is playing in their yellow and blue strips. Their opponents, Etoile Sportive, have their backs to the wall on a pitch of rutted, mustard-brown earth. It's a schoolyard, but deep gullies have been carved out by the rains. The ball bounces erratically, like a rugby ball, and the rotting goalposts threaten to collapse with every goal scored. There are at least two or three balls on the pitch at any one time - made of plastic, leather or knotted rags; clusters of children are playing their own matches around its fringes.

The Tout-Puissants - "The Invincibles" - from Koumassi are playing in red and white. Once they were school football champions of Abidjan. Today they are pitted against Espérance 2005. In the furious melées the ball disappears in clouds of dust. The pitch is as bumpy as a plowed potato patch - and surrounded by scruffy concrete buildings, billboards advertising Omo, huts with hot tin roofs.

After each shot on target, the ball slips through a hole in the net and the teams mob the referee, claiming or disputing a goal. The playing field doesn't end at the touchlines, but at the spectators' feet. The crowds sport their Sunday best, soccer shirts shining doubly bright in the earth-yellow, dust-brown air of western Africa: Juventus, Paris St. Germain, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Barcelona.

Yopougon, the most westerly part of Abidjan, is a far cry from Europe. It could be taken from a photo gallery of Africa. Its streets are lined with stalls selling batteries, sponges and candies. There are markets everywhere, hawking fist-sized snails, bush game, pineapples, and piles of coconuts that look like hairy animal skulls. All around, children and men are playing football. Barefoot or wearing korodjo - white plastic sandals costing 700 francs, about one euro, a pair.

Women in gaudy robes cross the playing fields with heavy loads on their heads. Donkey carts snake through the goals and goat markets spill into the penalty boxes. Washing lines flutter in the background, beside each house. One in five dwellings has a weathered, hand-painted table football game out front. The butcher's shops here are called "God's Will be Done," the bakeries "The Lord is My Shepherd." It was in such a mazelike neighborhood of one-story, windowless concrete buildings, on a pitch measuring some 20 by 30 yards, between grandmothers pounding grain and aunts pummeling the wash, that Didier Zokora - the man they call "the maestro" - kicked his first football.

Zokora wears the number five shirt for the Ivory Coast national team. Eight years ago, when he was 17, he played his first game for the "Elephants." The match - against Tunisia in Abidjan - ended in a 2-2 draw. Zokora took the field at halftime and has rarely been off it since.

There are midfielders who are really strikers and others who would fare better as defenders. Zokora was predestined for the heart of the action. He is built for a team's engine room, for the middle third of the park: where ten thousand opportunities present themselves at any one time and the attacking team has split seconds to make the decisions that count.

Zokora is fast, as he has been since his youth. In the streets around his parents' home, droves of witnesses will vouch for his speed - friends from the old days, aging talents who once played alongside him in the dusty streets. He was not just fleet of foot; he was unusually quick with his hips and shoulders as well. Today this agility still gives him endless options for deceiving markers in one-on-one situations. Zokora can turn on a dime, changing direction in the blink of an eye. He often leaves opponents guessing, long after he has sped by and arrowed another precision pass to a teammate.

There are many ways of describing his career. Simply told, it's the tale of a boy from the impoverished outskirts of an African city who achieved his goals through talent, hard work and religious faith. He was discovered on the street where he lived. His reputation spread quickly: first in his neighborhood, then in Yopougon and soon afterward throughout Abidjan. He joined ASEC Mimosas, western Africa's answer to Real Madrid. He was selected for the country's youth team, traveled with them to tournaments, was spotted and signed. And now - in the weeks and months preceding the 2006 World Cup - a bidding war has started for him. With millions at stake.

At stake for Zokora - still St. Etienne's irreplaceable midfield general - is his breakthrough into the Champions League. Topname clubs are being touted as future employers: Chelsea, Manchester United, Lyon, Juventus and AC Milan. Miraculously, his life seems to be turning full circle: soon Zokora may be donning one of those shirts on the pitch that - as a boy - he saw every Sunday on Abidjan's street corners.

His parents live in a large house in Yopougon. Built behind high walls, it could be a bunker. It was a present from their successful son, financed by the first salaries he earned as a professional in Europe. It's a good neighborhood. Nice cars are parked outside the garages. No market bustle disturbs the day. A metal door in the wall opens into a small garden; Zokora's father Augustin sits like a prince in an ankle-length knitted robe. His brothers are lounging in the shade. Father Zokora has diabetes; the whites of his eyes are yellowing. "I am still alive," he says, "but only because Didier paid for my operations."

Didier's mother Alphonsine is a kindergarten teacher. She still goes to work every day - for €170 a month. It is Sunday. She invites us into her living room. En route we pass a small shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes. The spacious room, so it appears, has been prepared for a feast; bowls of food have been laid out on large tables, and women in opulent garments sit along the wall, crosses around their necks or veils over their faces. The scene has a surreal quality. "Didier gave me a car for my birthday," says his mother. "Just imagine: a BMW with a chauffeur!"

She talks long and lovingly of her child, one of seven. Zokora has five brothers and one sister. His mother recalls the times when her youngster would disappear for days, unable to drag himself away from the endless football matches. She tells how she hid his clothes to prevent him from playing, and how he went out regardless, with just a cloth wrapped around his loins.

When the family of nine still lived in cramped quarters, their kitchen was a sooty black hole in the ground. Half of today's Ivorian national team would be running through the Zokoras' house, boys of 10 or 11 who didn't want to go to school, didn't want to come in for dinner or bed, and instantly forgot about everything the moment they heard a ball bouncing somewhere in the neighborhood.

Does she still keep in touch with the other mothers? Alphonsine Zokora's face goes blank, then she bursts out laughing. She makes a sweeping gesture and says: "They're all here today!" Along the wall of the living room the other women, the festively dressed guests, join in the merriment. They are the mothers of Arouna Koné who plays for Eindhoven; Bakari Kone of Nice; Emmanuel Eboue of Arsenal; Aruna Dindane of Lens; Arthur Boka of Strasbourg; and Jean-Jacques Tizié of Espérance Tunis.

A few are missing. The mothers of Kolo Touré, Eboue's teammate at Arsenal, and Bonaventure Kalou, who plays for Paris St. Germain. They have excused themselves because this gathering is a club meeting - of Amef, the Elephant Mothers' Club. Madame Drogba, the mother of the Chelsea goalgetter, would certainly have attended too, but her family left the country 20 years ago when Didier Drogba was just four.

Zokora's family home in Yopougon is now awash with stories. Well into the evening the mothers chatter happily: women from the North, women from the South, women who worship Allah, and women who pray to the Virgin Mary. This alone is remarkable; division and war dominate every aspect of life in Ivory Coast.

  • Part 1: The Ivory Coast's War of the Elephants
  • Part 2
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