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.

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.

Life for Didier Zokora and the other women's sons could have followed a very different course; things might have turned out far worse. That would be another, very different, way of telling his story. While waiting to join a European team six years ago, at the very moment his wildest dreams were coming true, his country began to fall apart. One piece at a time.

In 1999 scouts from the Belgian First Division club KRC Genk spotted Zokora playing in a youth tournament in Toulon, France. Around the same time, in Ivory Coast, General Robert Gueï and part of his army were seizing power in a coup, ending 39 years of postcolonial calm. A year later Zokora took the plunge and signed for Genk. Despite the cold and the unfamiliar surroundings, he succeeded in establishing himself in a central midfield position. Meanwhile, back in Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo had installed himself as president in a phony election. The new rulers then set about hiving their country's wealth off for their own clans, above all the profits from the world's largest cacao crop. And they launched a debate about Ivorian nationality - a poisonous seed in a land where 60 ethnic groups had previously lived in harmony.

Zokora was in the Genk team that won the Belgian league in 2002. In the European Champions League the club was eliminated in the initial group stages without a single win - receiving a 6-0 drubbing from Real Madrid in the process. In the interim war had erupted in Ivory Coast. The country disintegrated into its North and South. Sections of the army deserted and rallied to the rebellion in the North. Battles broke out along arbitrary ethnic and religious lines. There was shooting and bombing. And dying.

The year after, Zokora attracted his initial suitors - first Lille, then Auxerre, Strasbourg and Nantes. France, until 1960 the colonial power in Ivory Coast, tried to form a government of "national reconciliation." There were calls for the factions to disarm but the efforts were shortlived.

In 2004 Zokora signed a five-year contract with St. Etienne. That same year the unity government in Yamoussoukro - Ivory Coast's small, artificial capital city - fell apart. There were reports of racially motivated murders. Since April 2005 more than 6,000 U.N. blue helmets have been stationed in the country to separate the warring regions with a buffer zone.

Zokora represented his country in the qualifying rounds for the World Cup in Germany. Bar the goalkeeper, all the players were exiles in Europe, each with a heavy heart for his homeland - a country in which most had grown up as children of the North or children of the South. The team represents a mix of ethnicities and religions, straddling all lines of division in the civil war. But all distinctions blurred when battles were won on the pitch, and no one in the team cared who was a "true Ivorian" or an "immigrant."

They were playing football. Against Libya and Egypt in June 2004, against Cameroon in July, against Sudan in September, against Benin in October. They played well. Back home, between matches, they were worshipped like gods. Yet in a matter of months the conflict came to a head. In November 2004 the air force flew raids against targets in the North. In Abidjan militia loyal to the president ransacked foreign travel agencies, French schools and opposition newspapers. A mob marched through the city, terrorizing anyone white in their path. Especially anyone French.

France reinforced its military contingent - Operation Licorne - to 6,000 troops. Preparing for the worst, some 6,000 foreigners were evacuated in a dramatic airlift. The U.N. Security Council convened, and editorials began to draw comparisons with pre-genocide Rwanda. Ivory Coast was no longer the country Zokora knew as a child. It had become an ugly image on the television news.

The crisis persisted into 2005. Zokora's skills aroused interest from Monaco, Lyon and Marseille. The national team fought to qualify for the country's first World Cup finals - in March against Benin, in June against Libya and Egypt. In October the new elections mandated by the United Nations were cancelled: Gbagbo, the incumbent and a corrupt despot, simply extended his tenure by decree.

He profited enormously from the "Miracle of Omdurman." With their 3-1 victory over Sudan on October 8, the Ivory Coast squad qualified for Germany against all odds: Cameroon had missed a crucial injury-time penalty against Egypt, squandering their qualifying hopes.

The Elephants were flown home for a victory parade in a plane provided by the President. Hours before their arrival huge crowds had besieged Félix Houphouët-Boigny Airport in Abidjan. The new national heroes were driven to the President's palace in open-topped cars, flanked by soldiers brandishing Kalashnikovs, in a procession that lasted hours. They were fêted royally, dubbed "Knights of the Order of Merit" by Gbagbo, and each promised a villa worth millions in Abidjan - their reward for World Cup qualification.

Claims that sports and politics are unrelated sound empty to the people of Ivory Coast. The unrest is spreading to the national team and their game - a contagion never more evident than during the African Cup of Nations at the start of the year.

Even after the thrilling wins over Cameroon and Nigeria, a subdued mood prevailed at the team headquarters near Cairo Airport. Young players came down the stairs from the dining room with long faces. The cause was "bad news from home," but rarely on the family front. It was about politics, about bloodbaths, about the war.

Chelsea's star striker Didier Drogba broke off an interview on Italian TV when he realized that the reporter knew nothing of the carnage in Ivory Coast. The players showed little inclination to talk about football when there were so many more important, existential matters to discuss.

Henri Michel, the Elephants' French manager, is a chain smoker and a genius. A pastis devotee, sometimes from noon onwards, he represented his country as both player and coach at the World Cup; he guided Cameroon to the 1994 finals in the United States and qualified with Morocco for France four years later. And now the fortunes of Ivory Coast lay in his hands. In the Mövenpick Hotel garden he kept stooping as though wearing a heavy backpack. "That's the position my boys are in," he said. "They are carrying more than their fair share of baggage. They believe that peace hinges on them." There was no trace of irony in his voice.

A man of the world like Michel, hardened by years of experience with Africa, can occasionally afford to quip in Abidjan, "People of my color are not always welcome." But he worries about his players. They are young; they are naive; they take things very personally. Of course he implores them to focus on the game the moment the ball starts rolling. He preaches the importance of keeping football and politics apart, telling them that shots on goal have nothing to do with shots from guns. But the uncertainty always seems to accompany the Elephants onto the pitch. It's like having a twelfth man in the team. They feel morally obligated to win: victory calms the nerves at home, while defeat makes the fury fester. They want to be the knights in shining armor.

It's doubly difficult to be an Ivory Coast national team member these days. On the covers of sports magazines, Drogba & Co. are featured as fearsome mercenaries, the black power of football. But when the doors close behind them and they take a break from training, they run up astronomical phone bills in fretful conversations with their mothers, brothers and sisters. On the pitch they're preoccupied, unfocused. To them, this is not a game. It's a peace mission.

Didier Zokora leaps down the lobby steps in the Cairo hotel during the Africa Cup. He is 25, a wiry man of medium build; he stands 5'9" and weighs in at 72 kilograms. He seems bigger, almost overbearing, when he's on the pitch. He often plays the clown for the team, dancing when the others slump gloomily in the bus, singing when the others want to sleep. He wears rings in both ears and a gold chain around his neck. At first he seems lighthearted and carefree.

Close up, Zokora's expression seems distracted, distant. It brightens when he tells of his time at boarding school, at the ASEC Mimosas football academy. With its manicured pitches, precision-chalked lines, spacious showers and changing rooms, it is the only training center in Abidjan run to European standards. Zokora lived and studied there. Half of today's national team trained there as well. Zokora describes his arrival in Belgium. At 19 he was shocked at how different Europe seemed from his childhood dreams, how cold the winter was, how salty the food tasted. He says he hadn't known that the Belgians spoke Flemish and often no French; he nearly walked out when he realized that. He describes how the fans imitated apes when he got the ball. He dismisses it today, but his laughter has a hollow ring.

The war is what really upsets him. The crisis at home sours the sweetness of every success. The conflict makes football seem trivial and irrelevant, undermining the players' careers. They are all stranded abroad like vacationers waiting for bad news from home. "Ivory Coast," says Zokora, "was a model, a beacon of hope in western Africa, you know? Now it is the continent's sick child - our child. That's why we're so determined to make it well again."

Zokora has two children of his own, young daughters, Sarah and Nadja. He has lost one child in his life: his beloved brother Armando, who was two years younger but just as gifted. Like Zokora, Armando attended the ASEC academy. He drowned while swimming in the ocean on October 18, 1997, at 15. Didier ran around helplessly on the beach, too far away to save him. He watched as his brother disappeared beneath the waves. Zokora dedicated his career to his sibling, and had Armando's name tattooed in black on his right arm.

Visitors to Abidjan in the weeks following the Africa Cup would have sensed the war only as a distant rumble. Uniforms were in evidence everywhere; there were scores of roadblocks to negotiate and military convoys crawled along the highways. But there was no shooting, and weapons were rarely on view. There was no plundering, no other visible unrest. The city's pulse had settled at a normal rate. People were eating in restaurants and sitting in bars, drinking beer from the squat one-liter bottles they call "Drogbas." They were out on the streets watching European league fixtures on television, huddled in groups of 20 around a single TV set.

This is the war in Abidjan. If the "Young Patriots" are not on the rampage, the war is a TV report from the North or a newspaper article on the peace talks in the Golf Hotel, where negotiators from New York, Brussels and Paris have been seeking a solution since the start of the year. In the lobby, the president's family bodyguards stroll around the tables and promise interviews. Civil servants crisscross the room, toting briefcases to and fro. Perhaps this is the calm in the eye of the hurricane.

Those more interested in soccer than the war should head out of Abidjan to the orphanage in Bingerville. Once the seat of government, the palace of the French colonial administrator, it is a rambling, ornate villa with sweeping verandas. Its façade is made of carved tropical woods and the windows look down out over islands shimmering in the distance. Beyond them, the Atlantic stretches to the horizon.

The flower beds in the front garden form an elephant's head. In the afternoon, when the worst of the heat subsides, the garden fills up with children who have lost their parents through accidents, murders or the civil war. The five- and six-year-old boys wear gray school uniforms. The orphanage, the stifling temperatures and their own plights soon forgotten, they bunch noisily around the ball. Laughing and screeching, they become a blur of bobbing heads and thrashing arms. The ball is nothing but a plastic bag, stuffed with leaves and grass. That's what football is all about: a moment's joy, a few seconds of peace. And that's what counts when the Elephants come out to play.

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