Ivory Coast’s triumph at the 2015 edition of the African Cup of Nations was a historic moment for the West African nation. Côte d’Ivoire had won Africa’s most prestigious trophy back in 1992 but had since seen the nation fall into turmoil, beleaguered by political instability and civil strife. Despite being faced with immeasurable hardships, the Ivorian’s have managed to produce some of the finest African footballer’s of recent times, with the likes of Wilfried Bony, Gervinho and the Touré brothers (amongst others) all recognized as household names across Europe.
Indeed it was the quality of these global stars that led Ivory Coast to their second ever AFCON title in Equatorial Guinea, finally living up to the tag that this Les Éléphants side is one of the greatest teams from Africa to have graced the football pitch. The joy and celebrations of claiming victory were a truly spectacular sight yet when Captain Yaya Touré raised the trophy in triumph at the end of the match there was a hollow feeling that something, or rather someone, was missing.
That someone, is Didier Drogba.
The 6 ft 2 striker from the town of Abidjan is without equal in the history of Ivorian football. It was Drogba’s nine goals in qualification that guided the Ivory Coast to their first ever appearance at the World Cup in 2006 where Drogba fittingly scored Côte d’Ivoire’s first ever World Cup goal. Les Éléphants only won one match and failed to progress beyond the group stage but it was a landmark moment that laid the foundation for their current success. Drogba’s phenomenal goal scoring record in qualifying then carried the nation to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa which, for the first time ever, had been hosted on the African continent. Despite winning once and drawing another, the Ivorians were once again eliminated in the group stages.
Drogba scored in each of the World Cup tournaments, against Argentina in 2006 and Brazil in 2010 (though he would later fail to score in the 2014 edition).
The influence Drogba displayed on the world stage was amplified on the African continent with the two-time African Footballer of the Year scoring a total of 12 goals in AFCON qualifiers across his career. More impressively, Drogba racked up an impressive tally of 11 goals at the tournament proper on his way to becoming the nation’s highest ever goal-scorer with 65 goals – 35 ahead of his nearest teammate. His influence and importance in front of goal was matched by his influence and importance with the armband on with the Chelsea legend leading his country to the final of the 2006 and 2012 editions of the Africa Cup of Nations – on both occasions finding himself on the losing side.
At the age of 36 and following a disappointing World Cup performance, Didier Drogba announced his retirement from international football in 2014. The nation’s record scorer amassed an incredible 104 caps for Ivory Coast – a feat bettered only by Didier Zokora and the aforementioned Kolo Touré. He had supported, served and led his nation for 12 years from his debut in 2002, in the process cementing his place as the greatest of the greats in a golden generation in Ivorian football.
That the Ivory Coast should be crowned as the Africa Cup of Nations champions less than a year after Drogba’s retirement is one of the most damning reflections of how cruel football can be. That Drogba, who had led his men into footballing war for more than a decade, would fall right before the final blow was struck is poetic in the most twisted of ways. His contribution as a captain, as a goal scorer and to the guiding of Ivory Coast to that first ever World Cup laid not just a foundation for Ivorian footballers in the future to grow from, but a standard to which they should aim to achieve.
The Ivory Coast has never had, and many never have another player like Didier Drogba, and it is a true footballing tragedy that their greatest ever player wasn’t there to share in what may well be one of their greatest ever moments.