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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 January 2006, 00:56 GMT
Soccer unites divided Ivory Coast
By James Copnall
BBC News, Abidjan

Ivory Coast has been split in two since rebels seized control of the north of the country in September 2002, underlining a north-south divide that has dragged the country into the mire.

The Ivory Coast national team trains in Cairo, Egypt
Ivory Coast's football team has players from both north and south
Since then the country has slipped from the "African miracle" of the 1970s and 1980s to a divided nation that makes the news for all the wrong reasons.

The national football team, the Elephants, are determined to help change that.

As a start, the team qualified for the World Cup, a first in Ivorian history, thanks to a last-day win over Sudan and Cameroon's draw with Egypt.

That sparked roars of joy and a weekend of partying in both the government-held south and the rebel-held north of the country.

The Elephants were each given a luxury house by the head of state, Laurent Gbagbo, and were warmly congratulated by the rebels and the opposition parties.

Team spirit

The team were aware they had a unique opportunity to plead the cause of unity.

Dropping to one knee in the changing room after the decisive match, the captain, Chelsea star Didier Drogba, led his team-mates in a plea for peace.

We stopped so we can watch the Elephants at the Nations Cup. When they get knocked out, we will be on the streets again
Protester
"Ivorians, we ask for your forgiveness," they said. "Let us come together and put this war behind us."

The players, who come from both the north and south of the country, are regularly held up as an example the rest of the country can follow.

Ethnic and political differences are put aside in the interests of team spirit, and the results are a shining example to all - or at least, so goes the theory.

The players certainly stick closely to the line.

"We have a real responsibility, because our country is at war," Arsenal defender Kolo Toure states.

"We want to show that there is more to Ivory Coast than fighting, and we know all the country is counting on us to give a good account of ourselves."

Cup of Nations

Now the Elephants face Morocco in the opening stages of the African Cup of Nations - and Ivorians all over the country, whatever their political beliefs, will rally behind them.

This week supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo took to the streets to demonstrate against the UN.

The protests were called off on Thursday, and one demonstrator thinks he knows why.

Map of Ivory Coast
"We stopped so we can watch the Elephants at the Nations Cup. When they get knocked out, we will be on the streets again," he told the BBC.

The Elephants present a harmonious image of an otherwise divided country. But scratch beneath the surface and football often shows the same tensions as Ivorian society in general.

A few years ago, the then sports minister Genevieve Bro Grebe is reported to have said: "There are too many northerners in the team."

Fans of the former Marseille and Everton striker Ibrahima Bakayoko have claimed he was kept out of the team because he is from the north.

Whatever the truth of that, all Ivorians, from the north and the south, will be behind the Elephants in Egypt.

Winning the Nations Cup would certainly bring this deeply divided country a little bit closer together - and would show the world there is more to Ivory Coast than war and political turmoil.

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