Didier Drogba can close his eyes and recall the smell of the earth during the rainy season in Ivory Coast, the peaty tang that filled the air during warm afternoon cloudbursts. The childhood memory, a touchstone of his Ivorian identity, is part of what draws Drogba back to Africa. To Abidjan, the city of his birth, where he has acquired the land to build a hospital. To South Africa, home of this summer's World Cup, where his 300-foot-high likeness graces Johannesburg's tallest building. And even to this remote place: a dusty compound in Cabinda, Angola, where he is guarded by more assault weapons than a Mexican drug lord.
It's January. Angola is hosting the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent's biennial soccer championship, and Drogba has journeyed to Cabinda, a tiny exclave separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Drogba, the captain of his national team, known as Les Éléphants, will go wherever Ivory Coast plays, even if it means leaving London and his club team, Premier League giant Chelsea, for games in Sudan or Libya or Angola, which ended its 27-year civil war only in 2002. But Drogba's beloved African soil is again tinged with blood. A few days earlier Cabindan separatists machine-gunned a bus carrying the Togo team, killing two delegation members and the driver and casting the shadow of tragedy on an African soccer celebration.
Black-suited Angolan soldiers with AK-47s patrol outside as Drogba—6'2" and a sculpted 200 pounds—leans back on an orange couch in his living quarters and exhales deeply. "We felt really sad, really scared," he says. "Our families and our clubs wanted us to go back home [because of the attack], and we wanted to go as well. After that we spoke together as a team and decided to stay. When the crisis started in Ivory Coast [in 2002], one of the first countries to come and help us was Angola. To leave wouldn't look good for the relations between the two countries." He pauses, fully aware of the forces at work. "This was more than football. A lot more than football."
Few 21st-century athletes are as familiar with the transcendent power of soccer as Didier Yves Drogba Tébily, 32, United Nations goodwill ambassador, reigning African Player of the Year, three-time Premier League champion. It isn't just that the feared striker has turned Ivory Coast into a fashionable dark horse for the 2010 World Cup, the first to be held in Africa. How many sportsmen have helped end their nation's civil war? "When you're a leader like Didier, people think maybe he can be a politician someday," says his Chelsea and Ivory Coast teammate Salomon Kalou. "If he decides to, he will be a great one. People listen when he's talking."
We salute you, O land of hope,
Country of hospitality.
Thy gallant legions
Have restored thy dignity
—from L'Abidjanaise, the Ivory Coast national anthem
When I hear the national anthem, I feel something in my stomach," says Drogba, whose deep singing voice is better than most players'. "There's something strong coming from there." To hear him talk about Ivory Coast is to detect an expatriate's lament. Drogba left Africa at age five when his parents, Albert and Clotilde, sent him to France, to live under the roof of his uncle Michel Goba, a professional soccer player. By Drogba's count, he moved eight times as Goba bounced around various French teams and leagues. Drogba has dual citizenship in France and Ivory Coast, but if you ask him why he feels such a deep connection to his native land, he doesn't have to think long. "Maybe because from the day I left I was missing my country so much—my parents, everything," he says. "I felt like part of me was left there. Even if I was in France, I always felt part of Ivory Coast."
From the moment Drogba first donned the sherbet-orange jersey of Les Éléphants, on Sept. 8, 2002, in a friendly against South Africa, his national-team career acquired a symbolism that far exceeded the boundaries of a soccer field. It was the first time Drogba had played a competitive game on African soil, and he felt a rush of national pride. But change was afoot outside Abidjan's Félix Houphouët-Boigny Stadium. Days later came an attempted coup against Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, touching off a bloody struggle that divided the nation between the rebel-held north and the government-held south, between Muslims and Christians, immigrants and native-born Ivorians.
Even as the fighting intensified, Les Éléphants kept winning, aided by a golden generation of players from all over the country: from the south (Drogba and Kalou) to the north (brothers Kolo and Yaya Touré) to the east (Emmanuel Eboué). When teammates prayed together on the field, they alternated between Muslim and Christian verses. "In the national team we are all brothers," Drogba says. "After games people would call and say, 'We are so happy. Everybody was in the streets dancing.' And we'd say, 'There's war in Ivory Coast, but people are outside when we win? Is football that powerful? Wow.' That's how we started. We were playing for the country, trying to show a different image from what the news was showing."
Drogba's credibility only grew as he scaled new heights for an Ivorian player in Europe. A late bloomer who says he didn't take soccer seriously until he met his wife, Lalla, Drogba spent four years with Le Mans of the French second division before his breakthrough with Guingamp at 23; then came a 19-goal season at Marseille and a move to Chelsea in 2004. Three league trophies, three FA Cups and 84 Premiership goals later, Drogba is a phenomenon in Abidjan, a city of nearly 3.6 million where his blue Chelsea shirt is ubiquitous. One-liter bottles of Bock, an Ivorian beer, are known as Drogbas owing to their robust size and strength. Musicians write songs in his name. If you visit a nightclub in Yopougon Sicogi, Drogba's home neighborhood, chances are you'll see Drogbacité—an homage in which acolytes copy his soccer moves on the dance floor.
In turn, Drogba has used his popularity—and his influential stature outside politics—to spread a message of peace after three years of bloodshed that left 4,000 dead in a nation of 20.6 million. In October 2005, after Ivory Coast had beaten Sudan 3--1 to qualify for its first World Cup, Drogba called on his teammates and a cameraman from Radio Télévision Ivoirienne to gather around him for an impromptu national address. "Ivorians, men and women, from the north and the south, the center and the west, you've seen this," Drogba announced, his words halting at first but then quickly gathering strength. "We've proved to you that the people of Ivory Coast can live together side by side, play together toward the same goal: qualifying for the World Cup. We promised you this celebration would bring the people together. Now we're asking you to make this a reality. Please, let's all kneel."
In their finest hour a nation's favorite sons dropped to their knees, and so did that nation itself. "The only country in Africa with such wealth cannot sink into war like this!" Drogba concluded. "Please, put down your weapons, organize the elections and things will get better." Drogba's speech was replayed for months on Ivorian television, and tensions eased throughout the country.
There was more to come. When Drogba won the African Player of the Year award in 2007, he flew to Abidjan for a photo op with President Gbagbo and made a nervy request: that Ivory Coast's next game be moved to Bouaké, the northern stronghold of the rebels fighting Gbagbo's government troops. The president accepted, and that June Les Éléphants met Madagascar in a historic Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. Before the game Drogba presented Guillaume Soro, the onetime rebel leader, with a pair of soccer cleats that bore Soro's name and the slogan TOGETHER FOR PEACE. A sold-out crowd of 25,000 roared when Drogba scored the final goal of a 5--0 victory. The headline in one newspaper the next day read, FIVE GOALS ERASE FIVE YEARS OF WAR.
Ending the fighting required more than soccer, of course. The Ivorian government and rebel leaders had reached an agreement in March 2007 that installed Soro as prime minister under President Gbagbo. Nor has life returned completely to normal: Long-awaited elections have yet to take place. But that hardly diminishes the impact of Drogba and Les Éléphants, whose arrival in Bouaké announced to Ivorians who had fled the fighting that it was safe to return to their homes. "I believe only this team could do that," says Lassine Koné, a journalist for the newspaper Le Patriote. "Drogba's message got the attention of the people. Football permitted this."
Drogba still marvels at the scene in the stadium that day, especially the moment when the crowd in the rebel stronghold sang a full-throated rendition of the national anthem. "What I saw there were Ivorians," says Drogba. "Not people from the north. Ivorians. Believe me, football matters." For the first time since the start of the war, members of the government army had entered the rebel capital. In the stands 200 government troops joined in singing L'Abidjanaise with the rebel soldiers they had been fighting for the past five years.
Beloved Ivory Coast, thy sons,
Proud builders of thy greatness,
All mustered together for thy glory,
In joy will construct thee.
On March 29, 2009, the same Éléphants who had brought so much joy to Ivory Coast bore witness to a scene of horror. An overflow crowd at a World Cup qualifier in Abidjan turned into a stampede, killing 22 fans and injuring more than 130. The next day Drogba visited patients—the injured and the sick—at a local hospital. The conditions there shocked him. "There were six kids in the same small room, and some were on the floor," Drogba says. "It's crazy. If you go there your chances to survive and get better are reduced, not because of the doctors but because of the environment."
Drogba hatched a plan with his sponsors from Pepsi and his club, Chelsea. The entirety of his reported $4.4 million endorsement fee would go toward the construction of a hospital in Abidjan through the Didier Drogba Foundation. With services in pediatrics, oncology and gynecology, the hospital plans to offer inexpensive consultations to ordinary Ivorians while training Ivorian doctors and treating 250 to 500 patients a day. After acquiring donated land, Drogba raised an additional $675,000 at a charity ball in London last November that featured appearances by his Chelsea teammates and the Senegalese-American singer Akon. "Now is the time to show people in Europe and around the world that we are going to rebuild our country," Drogba says. "It's a big fight, so that's why I started to raise money. It's not enough. We need more, not only to build the hospital but to run it afterward." More charity events are in the works, and Drogba's foundation is accepting donations on its website.
For now Drogba has no plans to enter the political arena as did his friend George Weah, the 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year, who lost the 2005 election for the presidency of Liberia. Drogba is on good terms with Gbagbo and Soro and keeps his political leanings to himself. "That's why people respect me in the country, because they don't know who I am supporting," Drogba says. "And they will never know. I love my position because when I have something to say I can come and say it. When I speak, I only speak for the people in the country, not for the politicians."
Perhaps it's no surprise that Drogba refrains from using the widespread term Group of Death to describe Ivory Coast's first-round draw for the World Cup, which includes world No. 1 Brazil, No. 3--ranked Portugal and an unknown quantity in North Korea. "We are the unluckiest team," says Drogba, laughing, as he recalls drawing powerhouses Argentina and the Netherlands in '06 and losing to both, 2--1, to end Les Éléphants' World Cup run. "But let's see what we can do. Let's play!"
This time there will be a big difference. The World Cup will be played on African soil. Sacred soil. "Our soil," Drogba says. On June 15 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 11 men in orange will line up shoulder to shoulder, and the Ivorian national anthem will ring out louder than ever:
Proud citizens of the Ivory Coast, the country calls us.
If we have brought back liberty peacefully,
It will be our duty to be an example
Of the hope promised to humanity,
Forging together in new faith
The Fatherland of true brotherhood.