Touré and Drogba raise spirits in their war-torn homeland

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The Independent Football

The cosmopolitan hubbub of Abidjan, the main city of the Ivory Coast, will be consumed by a pleasant distraction today. Two of the west African nation's most celebrated sons will line up to play football against each other. It will provoke a different kind of division, and one which will boost self-esteem and pride for a country preoccupied with the reopening of civil war.

"One half of the country will be red, the other half will be blue," smiles the Arsenal defender Kolo Touré as he anticipates facing Chelsea's Didier Drogba. That the powerful striker moved to Stamford Bridge has much to do with Touré's influence, and not just because, after the failures of players such as Ibrahima Bakayoko and Olivier Tebily, he showed that Ivorians could thrive in the Premiership. "I spoke with him," Touré says. "I said to him, 'You have to come here because it's such a fantastic championship in which to play. The fans and the atmosphere are great'. He came here and saw that and is really happy."

Not that the 23-year-old has any regrets about helping to strengthen the team who are the main threat to Arsenal retaining their League title. "It's football," he says. "It's normal that Chelsea went for him and gave him everything to come here. Even if he had not spoken with me I think he would still have signed for Chelsea."

The two men speak often, usually on the phone, as Touré admits that negotiating the cross-London journey from his home in Enfield, on the northern outskirts, to Drogba's in Chelsea is not one that appeals. "It's too far!" he laughs.

Interestingly, the friends have not spoken as often recently. They are acutely aware of what is at stake right now. "He knows as well as I do that Chelsea against Arsenal is always a big game, and each of us will try our best to win," Touré says. "We don't have to speak about it. I know that it is on his mind to score and on mine to try and stop him." Afterwards they will meet up for a meal. "On the pitch we are not friends, but off it we are," Touré says. "There is battling on the pitch but when it's over we talk it through."

The main motivation for Touré in encouraging Drogba to leave Marseilles and accept Chelsea's offer was to help promote his country, which is finally becoming an emerging force in African - and world - football. "I'm really happy he's here because I don't want to be the only Ivory Coast player to play in England," he says. "We have to show that our country is really good."

Indeed Touré will soon not be the only Ivorian at Arsenal either. The 21-year-old right-back Emmanuel Eboue arrives at Highbury in the January transfer window from Beveren after signing a four-and-a-half-year deal.

The players have helped the Ivory Coast to the top of their World Cup qualifying group, ahead of Cameroon, having beaten Egypt and Libya. There is also talk that Touré's younger brother, Yaya, a striker who plays for the Ukrainian club Metalurh Donetsk, may also eventually make the move, while a whole generation of players is being promoted through the European leagues.

The paths Touré and Drogba took to the Premiership could not have been more different, however, though both were born in Abidjan. Touré is the son of an army officer, while Drogba spent just his first five years in Yopougon, one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods, before he was sent to France to live with relatives in search of a better life. Unusually, for such an energetic talent, Touré stayed until he was 21, playing for the local club ASEC Mimosas before Arsenal's extensive scouting network meant he was picked up for an initial fee of just £350,000.

He is very proud to have come through the Academie Abidjan. Meanwhile, Drogba, three years older, had an extraordinarily itinerant, and at times journeyman, career playing for eight clubs in France before Chelsea paid £24 million to make him the most expensive striker in the history of English football.

"He is very powerful and an intelligent player, a really good player," says Touré. "He wins everything in the air." The two have played against each other once, in a trial for the national team three years ago, and although Drogba scored, Touré is confident there will not be a repeat today. "This is the first time we meet in a really big game and that will be exciting for both of us," says Touré. "It will be a tough game defensively. Chelsea are playing really well but we feel we are back now having won our last two games. And that's good for our minds."

Touré concedes that Arsenal's "minds" have been affected of late. Their form has suffered since that defeat at Manchester United, and facing Chelsea provides the ideal opportunity to rectify that - and close the five-point gap at the top. "We went unbeaten for 49 games and then we have lost only three games," says Touré, referring to the League Cup defeat at Old Trafford and the Premiership loss to Liverpool but also trying to put the "crisis" in context. "Everyone starts to talk but we have stayed strong. We, the players, talk all the time and we tried to get back. And, now, we are back."

Touré's self-belief and enthusiasm have never waned. "I think we have to just do our best, because in football you never know," he says, declaring it as important to beat "Fulham, Birmingham or whoever" as it is to defeat Chelsea. "In our minds it is only about taking the three points," he says. United are also in the hunt, as are Everton. "Everyone is," he says, "so we have to just focus."

It must have been more difficult to focus of late, with events back home - where he has built a house for his father, brothers and sisters in central Abidjan - worsening following the breakdown once again of a peace accord. Still, Abidjan, known as the "Paris of west Africa", has garrisons of French and UN troops and Touré is reassured that his family "is OK". "There have been problems," he says, "but they are protected." He will want to give them something to celebrate today.

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