Forget Rio. Spare a thought for the nation holding its breath for 'God'

In Cote d'Ivoire, Didier Drogba is more powerful than the President
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The Independent Online

Beyond the roadblocks on the way into Bouaké, war is a recent memory. This pockmarked frontline city is where the formerly stable French colony of Côte d'Ivoire split in two in 2002 – but now everyone wears orange and thanks God for Didier Drogba.

"I know Drogba," says driver Michel Digbeu. "I live next door to his father and mother. And do you know..."

Everyone in the West African country seems to know the Chelsea striker. But this is not common idolatry. While other football stars endorse sports shoes, the captain of the Elephants supports national unity. And so far he has had more success than both the French army and the United Nations peacekeepers deployed here.

"Orange is my favourite colour," says photographer Thierry Gouegnon, of his dazzling shirt. "I wear the colour every day if I can. You will find a lot of orange garments in Ivorian wardrobes. We wear the colour because it is that of the Elephants, the national team, but also because, largely thanks to Drogba, to wear orange means you back peace, tolerance and unity. It is a statement that goes well beyond football,"

The 32-year-old striker was born in the south of the country, in Yopougon – a suburb of the main commercial capital, Abidjan – but he has hardly ever lived in his homeland. At the age of five he was sent to an uncle in France to be turned into a professional footballer and, it later transpired, a missionary for peace who is now far more influential than even Côte d'Ivoire's President, Laurent Gbagbo.

"When he comes here, he has to stay in a hotel because everyone just wants to touch him or ask something of him," says Mr Digbeu. "He always pops round to his parents but he does not stay long because he has the welfare of the nation to worry about."

Drogba – in various guises – is everywhere. The Bock, a popular beer sold in a one-litre bottle, is known as a "Drogba'' because of its imposing size. Drogbacité, a dance style based on football moves, has revived the country's formerly thriving music industry. Abidjan has a suburb known as Drogba Village, with a team called Drogbakro. Drogba's mum, Clotilde, runs the Maman Clotilde Football Club (MCFC). The Drogba Foundation is building a hospital.

This week churches are praying for Drogba, or rather for his right forearm, which was fractured in a weekend warm-up match in Switzerland between the Elephants and Japan. After surgery, he has been included in Sven-Goran Eriksson's squad for the World Cup, but it is still unclear whether he will be fit to play in their opening match on Tuesday against Portugal.

"They had to keep him in for good luck," said Delvin N'Dra, a 15-year-old striker for MCFC. "Drogba always scores for the Elephants so even having him on the bench could be important."

The team – drawn with Brazil, Portugal and North Korea in Group G – will be lucky to make it into the knock-out stages in South Africa. The Elephants have never progressed beyond the group stage of the finals.

Drogba's status has grown far beyond football. Côte d'Ivoire's crisis began in the mid-1990s when politicians started manipulating the concept of Ivoirité (Ivorianness) to consolidate their power base and turning southerners against northerners.

After a first coup d'état in 1999, President Gbagbo came to power in disputed elections. After a third coup attempt in 2002, the country finally split in two. It remains precariously divided, with Mr Gbagbo constantly delaying new elections. Using the colour orange, Drogba has begun crushing the poisonously divisive concept of Ivoirité and substituting it with Drogbacité, which has come to mean unity.

"The key is football," said Fadiga Kehi Adèle, chairwoman of the Côte d'Ivoire Women's Supporters' Association (Afesci). "The Elephants come from every ethnic group and every region, so they are an example to us."

At least three quarters of the national team's regulars are northerners – including Barcelona's Yaya Touré and West Bromwich Albion's Abdoulaye Meité. "Didier Drogba is from an ethnic group of the south and I am from the north, but all this means nothing to us when we meet to play," Touré has said.

In October 2005, after leading Côte d'Ivoire to the 2006 World Cup finals with a 3-1 defeat of Sudan in Abidjan, captain Drogba asked for a microphone and, live on television, fell to his knees in the changing room with his team mates and pleaded with the warring factions to lay down their arms.

Looking straight into the camera, he said: "Citizens of Côte d'Ivoire from the north, south, centre and west, we beg you on our knees to forgive each other. A great country like Ivory Coast cannot sink into chaos forever. Lay down your weapons and organise elections."

Shortly after being named African player of the year in 2006, Drogba flew with his trophy to the troubled city of Bouaké to share his joy with the northern population. "I am here to show to the whole world that I am one of yours," the Chelsea striker said. Drogba's gesture boosted the confidence of Ivorians, increasing travel to the city, 190 miles north of Abidjan, thus undermining the stranglehold of the war.

But his demigod status came a few months later when he requested that the Elephants' African Cup of Nations qualifier against Madagascar be played in Bouaké. The football authorities agreed.

"I did not believe Drogba could do that. His gesture cemented progress made towards reuniting the country," said Famoussa Ouattara, commander of the (formerly rebel) Forces Nouvelles in Bouaké.

The country's dignitaries travelled to the June 2007 match, and the security arrangements were shared between the government army and the Forces Nouvelles. Côte d'Ivoire won 5-0.

Nearly four years have passed and confidence remains elusive in Bouaké. Rebel roadblocks demand extortionate "tolls''. Schools have reopened, but the teachers have not returned. Civil servants commute to work from the capital, Yamossoukrou, unsure of whether to move back with their families. But things are a lot better than they were, and a lot of people seem to be wearing orange.

Drogba: African footballer of the year

At home in Côte d'Ivoire, the 32-year-old striker's reach extends way beyond the pitch – and into peacemaking

44 goals makes him the Elephants' top scorer

After surgery on his right arm, he has been included in Sven-Goran Eriksson's squad but doubts remain about whether he will play

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