Soccer provides succor to war-torn Ivory Coast

The team lost its first-ever World Cup match Saturday, but simply qualifying has rallied the country.

On most days, Charles Blé Goudé rallies young people in the streets, whipping up support for government forces in the country's intermittent civil war and, in the eyes of the UN, inciting ethnic violence. But for a few hours on Saturday, Mr. Blé Goudé ensconced himself in a hotel suite, kicked off his shoes, and sank into a sofa.

The national soccer team, the Elephants, was going to beat Argentina in its first-ever World Cup showing. The fiery loyalist leader could feel it.

During the match, he leaped up on the couch: "Play the ball, guys. Look, he's wide open!" When Argentina scored the game winner, he buried his face in a pillow.

In this West African country, divided in two since a failed coup in 2002, the Elephants have become something between a welcome respite and salvation.

Soccer pushed politics to the sideline when the Elephants qualified for their first World Cup last fall. Since then, the team – made up of players of various ethnic backgrounds from both the rebel-held North and the government-controlled South – has represented national unity, something that the country desperately needs if it is to preserve its tenuous peace while moving toward disarmament and fall elections.

For Alphonsine Zokora, the mother of team midfielder Didier Zokora and a member of the Elephants Mother's Club, ethnicity isn't an issue. "We're unified. We don't look at ethnicity," says Mrs. Zokora, referring to the club to which all the players' mothers belong. She says their sons get along fabulously, often playing traditional drums together and going out to nightclubs. "The team can help bring peace to Ivory Coast," she says.

Aimé Dieudonné Briere de l'Isle, an Ivorian soccer analyst, says the team's positive impact on the country's woes could be huge. "The national team is the team of all Ivorians. You wouldn't believe what's happening in the besieged zones when the team wins. It's something incredible. Everyone sees themselves in the team."

Others are skeptical. "It's complicated," says Youssouf Fofana, a former Elephant who played in the 1990s in Europe alongside international soccer star – and runner-up in Liberia's recent elections – George Weah. "At the least, [the team's makeup] allows the Ivorian population to feel concerned about the team's performance," says Mr. Fofana, now director at Ivory Coast's top soccer-training academy. "But to have national reconciliation, that's another problem."

Nobody denies that the team is a breath of fresh air after four years of crisis. The current push is for elections, slated for Oct. 31. But much remains to be done. Opposition and pro-government militias in the south are still armed. Last week's disarmament of some pro-government militias was postponed because of miscommunication. And with several government ministers at the World Cup in Germany, many here anticipate another month of slow progress.

Crucial for fair elections is the identification of millions of residents who have lived for years Ivory Coast without documents. The majority are not considered "true Ivorians" by many southerners, angered as people with origins in poorer neighboring countries claim Ivorian nationality. Seven pilot ID programs have been set up as a trial for a more widespread identification campaign, but some government officials fear that citizenship is being handed out willy-nilly.

"Ivoirité," used to denote if a person is truly Ivorian and used in the 1990s to exclude northerners from the political process, has fractured the trust among the more than 60 ethnic groups here. Northerners have been harassed, often accused of harboring rebels.

The national team, however, seems immune to nationalism and xenophobic taunts. Even the coach, Henri Michel, a Frenchman, is accepted in a country where fierce anti-French sentiment simmers.

For Mr. Briere de l'Isle, it doesn't matter how far the Ivorians advance in the World Cup. If they lose to the Netherlands Friday, it could put the second round out of reach. But in some ways, Briere de l'Isle says, they have already succeeded. "It gives Ivory Coast prestige. We're the country that has been in war for four years. It's another way for the world to look at us."

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