There’s a biblical saying that no one is a prophet in their own land; but Didier Drogba likely hasn’t read that verse.
Welcomed by hordes of adoring fans wherever he goes in his native Ivory Coast, Drogba is no stranger to glory nights. Champions League final success in Munich in 2012, Premier League title celebrations, and playing for his country on the biggest stage of all, the World Cup; the 44-year-old did it all in the beautiful game.
But in retirement, the former Chelsea striker has focused on giving back to the community around him, and to the African continent.
Founded in 2007, the Didier Drogba Foundation aimed to improve access to healthcare and education, help eradicate poverty, empower women, and fight against hunger.
In the intervening years, it has brought electricity to schools, built health centers and donated to orphanages all across the Ivory Coast.
To recognize the foundation’s achievements, Drogba has been awarded the inaugural CNN “Off the Pitch” prize, in partnership with Dubai Globe Soccer Awards. Now in its 13th edition, this year’s ceremony on November 17, comes just three days before the beginning of the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
“It means a lot to me and to the people working at the foundation,” Drogba told CNN’s Becky Anderson. “Every time we get support, it’s the people, kids, women that benefit the most. I’m really proud of it.
“Playing with the national team and getting all the love and the support from Ivorians and from Africans,” added Drogba, when asked what inspired him to set up the foundation.
“I think if I managed to have such a good career, it’s also because of their support.”
The CNN award is recognition of Drogba’s impact on wider society and culture as well as his charitable work.
The other nominees were both charitable foundations established by clubs, Real Madrid’s and AC Milan’s. CNN praised both for helping make the sport more inclusive through global projects that educate young people about the game and how it can benefit them.
Drogba is also being commended for his work as a World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador, a role in which he helps communities improve their physical health and overall wellbeing.
In particular, he was an advocate for good health practices during the Covid-19 pandemic and Tedros Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, praised Drogba as a “proven champion both on and off the pitch.”
“I believe movement is life. So, the more you move, the more you are active, the more you are healthy,” Drogba told CNN.
“We’ve seen it during this pandemic where Covid has killed a lot of people and the pandemic has been really, really difficult for people who are not really active or for people who had some problems already.”
Drogba was presented with his award virtually by CNN ahead of the ceremony in Dubai, where the nominees for best men’s player include recent Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema and the Frenchman’s Real Madrid teammate, Thibaut Courtois.
In the women’s category, FC Barcelona star Alexia Putellas and England defender Lucy Bronze are in contention.
Drogba the peacemaker
Drogba is no stranger to inspiring his countrymen, having played a remarkable role in encouraging a ceasefire during the first Ivorian Civil War.
The national team had just made history, securing the country’s place at the 2006 World Cup, their first ever appearance at the global tournament with a 3-1 victory away over Sudan.
The captain, Cyril Domoraud, then invited the media into the changing room after the game and handed the microphone to Drogba, then the team’s star striker.
“Men and women of the Ivory Coast,” he said down the lens, his face stern and sincere. “From the north, south, center and west, we proved today that all Ivorians can coexist and play together with a shared objective: to qualify for the World Cup.”
The bloody civil war would kill an estimated 4,000 people and displace over one million. Drogba’s speech and the team’s qualification for the World Cup helped convince the government and opposing New Forces to hold a ceasefire and restart peace talks.
In early 2007, the two warring sides signed an official peace agreement, causing then president Laurent Gbagbo to declare the war was over.
“It worked out well because this message went on the television news for lunch and at night every day for six months. And we managed to get [a] ceasefire. So that’s the impact, a message like this one from a football player can achieve [that],” Drogba told CNN.
Despite his influence on Ivorians and a recent failed bid to become president of his country’s football association, Drogba emphasized that he has no political ambitions.
“This has nothing to do with politics. I want a healthy continent,” he said. “I want a place where Africans can go abroad, play and come back to their countries and enjoy and have a good life. That’s all I want.”