Ivoirians will be watching closely as the draw for the tournament takes place in Leipzig on Friday, because for the first time in its history, Ivory Coast has earned a place among the 32 nations that make up soccer's global elite. The tragedy, of course, is that the Francophone nation, once the anchor of stability and economic growth in West Africa, will mark its coming of age as a soccer power at a moment when civil conflict threatens its very survival as a nation-state.
The country has been wracked by political unrest and civil war since a military coup in late 1999, and the resulting power struggles have opened up long-dormant ethnic divisions. Today, Ivory Coast is divided in halfa rebel army controls large swathes of the north and west; government troops hold the south. A fragile ceasefire is policed by French troops, while the United Nations and African Union struggle to patch together a political solution that will stick.
The one symbol that appears to unite all parties to the conflict, however, is Ivory Coast's beloved national soccer team, the Elephants. Apart from winning the African Cup of Nations in 1992, the Elephants have regularly performed poorly in international competitions. The team was so bad at the African Cup of Nations in 2000 that the military government locked the players in an army camp to protect them against angry fans.
But over the past two years, even as the conflict worsened back home, the Elephants have trampled all opposition in the qualifying tournament for next year's finals, knocking out even African soccer giants Cameroon. Two months ago, after sealing qualification for Germany, the teamwhose players are drawn from both the north and southreturned to Abidjan to a rapturous acclaim. “People came from everywhere, everywhere, irregardless of political affiliation,” Ollo Kambiré, sports editor at Abidjan newspaper 24 Heures told Eurosport. “This is proof that when Ivoirians are united, they're capable of great things, and we hope this will show politicians and be a catalyst for true peace in this country.”
With a lineup featuring European club stars Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Kolo Toure (Arsenal), Bonaventure Kalou (Paris Saint-Germain) and Aruna Dindane (Racing Club de Lens), the Elephants are capable of upsetting some bigger name teams in Germany, just as fellow Africans Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal have all done before them. But Ivorians hope that the team's performance will help unite the nation as well. “Together they're fighting for the pride of the country,” says Walter Mokoena, editor of South African-based football magazine SoccerLife Four Four Two. “If people get swept up in the euphoria of the three weeks or a month then they may realize they can also achieve peace when there's no football on.”