Ivory Coast United

The whole of the Ivory Coast will get behind its football team at the World Cup this summer. But for the rest of the time, it is a country riven by religious and ethnic strife. As two of its most famous sons prepare to play in tomorrow's European Cup final, Mark Gleeson examines the contradictions of a nation brought together by football - and little else

Just over a decade ago, the Ivory Coast was one of Africa's few model countries, booming in economic prosperity and a hub of Francophile enterprise. Their football team, though, was pretty ordinary.

Today it is a country wracked by civil strife, split into two parts, demanding the presence of United Nations peacekeepers, and seemingly mired in an endless spiral of inconclusive talks between rival politicians. The Ivorian side are also off to the World Cup finals in Germany for the very first time.

Against this stark contradiction is the fact that the "Elephants" carry Africa's hopes in Germany, arguably the one side with the ability to emulate the past achievements of Cameroon and Senegal in reaching the last eight of the World Cup finals, even if they have been handed a tough opening-round group against the Argentinians, Dutch and Serbians.

Today, the side provide the fragile glue that holds a disparate nation together, albeit a flimsy fastener for a country hopelessly split along ethnic and religious lines. Qualification for the World Cup set its populace on to the streets in common celebration, although it was not long after October before the skirmishes resumed.

In January, when the Ivorians reached the final of the African Nations' Cup in Egypt, football was again the provider of a respite, as will no doubt be the case for the next month when the whole world focuses in on the football in Germany.

The rebel-held Bouake, once an alternate home ground for the national team, was vociferous and joyous in its celebration of the Ivorian progress to the deciding match at the African championship, as were the ghettos of the coastal city Abidjan. Had the Elephants triumphed in their penalty shoot-out against Egypt, it might have been an even bigger celebration.

Jacques Anouma, who is president of the Ivorian Football Federation and held out as a future leader of African football, says the side have a major role to play in a potential future reconciliation process. "It is already evident that the World Cup crystallises and dominates all the people's opinions at the moment, but for me what is really important is what it could do for the Ivory Coast after the World Cup is over. Will we be able to capitalise on the experience? That we will see with time."

Anouma, who works in the country's presidency, suggests the potential for football to act as a glue is there but did not want to offer up any practical examples of how this could happen. "We want to believe we have done a lot to keep the country calm and to offer people some hope and enjoyment. That is one of the great joys and benefits of football and its role in society."

In the era of the pro-western autocracy of Felix Houphouet Boigny, the Ivorians were held up as an African success story but the death of the president in 1993 after 23 years of benevolent power unleashed long-standing fear and resentment towards a huge migrant population. Houphouet Boigny had invited hundreds of thousands from countries like Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali to settle and work in the country's prosperous cocoa and coffee industries. Among them came the forefathers of the likes of Arsenal's Kolo Touré and the PSV Eindhoven striker Arouna Koné, both expected to play prominent roles for the team at the World Cup.

Houphouet Boigny built a Catholic basilica to rival that at the Vatican in his home village of Yamoussoukro, which he turned into the country's administrative capital, but insisted too on a tolerance of other religions, the vast majority of migrants coming from Muslim countries to the north and west.

Footballing heroes for the Ivorians, during the Houphouet Boigny era, came from both sectors, the striker Laurent Pokou and Abdoulaye Traoré, both of whom play in France and were consummate goalscorers for their national team, a case in point.

But after the president's death, a powder keg of resentment between the Christian south and Muslim-dominated north quickly simmered and then burst out into the open when a policy of "Ivority", a veiled attempt at ethnic cleansing, was pronounced.

It toughened citizenship laws and stymied the political career of the populist prime minister, Alassane Ouattara, who fell foul of the rule that any future Ivorian leader be able to prove both his parents were born in the country too.

Touré, whose brother is also an integral part of the country's World Cup plans, has often made clear his sense of unease at the situation in a country where his success at Arsenal is readily and heartily celebrated, but his northern roots prove an ironic contraction.

Violence has been an integral part of the Ivorian landscape for the last decade now, culminating in massive riots aimed at foreigners, including the sizeable French population, in 2002, which precipitated the arrival of peacekeepers from the United Nations, who together with French troops total some 11,000 in the country.

For Touré, it means a nagging insecurity about the country he will represent in Germany and a massive phone bill from London to Abidjan to regularly check on the health and prosperity of his family. At the African Nations' Cup earlier this year, he readily admitted constant fear for the safety of his relatives. He also made it clear that the squad was well aware of its role in trying to bridge those divisions and that its small group held none of the prejudice that had swamped the country.

Indeed, their French coach Henri Michel has toiled hard to create a family atmosphere for a side bristling with big-name players like Didier Drogba, Bonaventure Kalou and the much sought-after midfielder Didier Zokora.

But the sensibility of the situation has elicited differing reactions from the players, notably Chelsea's Drogba, a southerner whose childhood was spent in France and whose feeling for the crisis felt somewhat shallow.

Maybe he was fatigued at the constant barrage of questions about the team's role in uniting a divided country when he answered, on the eve of the African Nations Cup final in Cairo, with surprising indifference a question about the side's role in seeking to unify their nation. "Our first priority is football and to win the game. We aren't thinking of much else. It's not like we go out there on a mission for the country, we are playing to win for ourselves."

To be fair, Drogba has also repeatedly called for peace in the country in countless other interviews, but perhaps feels little of the angst about the domestic situation that is Touré's burden.

The civil war has no doubt impacted on all the Ivorian footballers. Arsenal's other African import Emmanuel Eboué failed his school exams at the time of turmoil, but was fortunate to be spotted playing street football and is now ready to play a leading role in the European Cup final.

He came through the fabled ASEC Abidjan academy and - via Beveren in Belgium to Highbury - followed in a well-trodden path for footballers eager to escape the ghettos of Africa's populous cities.

Conflict has had little negative impact on a growing industry of football schools and academies which are successfully turning out top-class players. Touré, too, came from ASEC and had also been spotted first in a pick-up game on the streets.

But without a resolution of the political crisis, the potential for a slow decline in the Ivory Coast is real. Both Algeria, where there has been a shadowy civil war, and Cameroon have seen their footballing standards slip. In Cameroon's case not because of any strife, but just a degradation in their infrastructure and organisation.

Yet, football remains a beacon of hope for countries like the Ivory Coast. Its potential to hand individuals an opportunity for a decent lifestyle, and a way out of the mire of poverty, will be rammed home on Wednesday night when millions will sit in front of their TV sets to watch Eboué and Touré play in Paris. Arsenal, too, will take the tension of the strife away for a night as a divided Ivory Coast unites for at least 90 minutes to cheer them on. Could it be a precursor to more escapism in June?

Mark Gleeson is Africa Editor of World Soccer

Role models: Arsenal's Ivorian stars on events back home

* KOLO TOURE

'The only thing we can do for the country as football players is to play very well every game. When they see us play in Europe, they feel a part of us and that gives them happiness and means a lot to us. I can tell you that everyone in the Ivory Coast will be an Arsenal fan on Wednesday, particularly as Eto'o [Samuel Eto'o of Barcelona] is from Cameroon because the two countries don't really like each other. You could say it's a bit like Arsenal and Spurs.'

* EMMANUEL EBOUE

'I've got a big family, like Kolo, and everyone counts on me. I want to do my best for them and I send money to my parents, to my grandparents and, of course, money for the children in the family. I've also tried to help them out by finding houses and jobs for them.

I'm really happy to be playing alongside Kolo because I've known him since we were children and I'm grateful for the way he has helped and encouraged me.'

Elephants in Germany

* WORLD CUP GROUP C 10 June: v Argentina (Hamburg)

16 June: v Netherlands (Stuttgart)

21 June: v Serbia & Montenegro

24 June-27 June: Knock-out stages

30 June: Quarter-finals

1 July: Quarter-finals

4 July: Semi-final

5 July: Semi-final

8 July: Third place play-off

9 July: Final

Out of Africa: The continent's other qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup

* ANGOLA Just reaching the World Cup - for the first time - is an achievement but it will be a surprise if they win a point. Shock qualifiers ahead of Nigeria but struggled in January's African Nations' Cup. Fifa blocked an attempt to improve the squad by recruiting Portuguese of Angolan descent.

* GHANA Surprisingly, given they have won four Nations' Cups, this is the Black Stars' debut. Core of fine players, especially in midfield where Chelsea's Michael Essien is supported by Stephen Appiah (Fenerbahce) and Sully Muntari (Udinese). However, in a tough group and lack depth and experience.

* TOGO Another debutant. Already in Germany, the first to arrive, but that betrays chaotic preparation. Sacked Stephen Keshi, the coach who oversaw qualification but scuffled with Arsenal's Emmanuel Adebayor during disastrous Nations' Cup. German Otto Pfister inherits a team over-reliant on Adebayor.

* TUNISIA First African nation to win a match at a finals (v Mexico in 1978) this is their fourth appearance and third in succession. Yet to reach the knock-out stages, however, and in a tricky group. Mainly European-based squad including controversially naturalised Brazilian Francileudo dos Santos of Toulouse.

... and the absent powerhouses

* CAMEROON World Cup regulars and 1990 quarter-finalists (beaten by Gary Lineker's penalties) the Indomitable Lions were edged out by Ivory Coast after missing an injury-time penalty in their final qualifier. Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o, three-time African Footballer of the Year, failed to step up.

* EGYPT African Nations' Cup champions, for the fifth time, in January, but had home advantage and only beat Ivory Coast on penalties. A strong domestic league, Cairo's Al Ahly are continental champions, but this means too few players have overseas experience - Tottenham's Mido is an exception.

* NIGERIA This time natural talent failed to overcome the habitually shambolic administration. The Super Eagles, having glittered at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, and drawn with England in 2002, missed out to Angola. A new generation, led by teenage sensation John Obi Mikel, will have to wait for 2010.

* SOUTH AFRICA Hosts in 2010 but Bafana Bafana rattle through a manager a year and went pointless and goalless in the Nations' Cup. The joy of 1996, when they celebrated the end of apartheid by hosting and winning the Nations' Cup, is a distant memory. There is money and talent but the administration will concern Fifa.

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