Didier Drogba can close his eyes and recall the smell of the earth during the rainy season in Ivory Coast, the peaty tang that filled the air during warm afternoon cloudbursts. The childhood memory, a touchstone of his Ivorian identity, is part of what draws Drogba back to Africa. To Abidjan, the city of his birth, where he has acquired the land to build a hospital. To South Africa, home of this summer's World Cup, where his 300-foot-high likeness graces Johannesburg's tallest building. And even to this remote place: a dusty compound in Cabinda, Angola, where he is guarded by more assault weapons than a Mexican drug lord.
It's January. Angola is hosting the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent's biennial soccer championship, and Drogba has journeyed to Cabinda, a tiny exclave separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Drogba, the captain of his national team, known as Les Éléphants, will go wherever Ivory Coast plays, even if it means leaving London and his club team, Premier League giant Chelsea, for games in Sudan or Libya or Angola, which ended its 27-year civil war only in 2002. But Drogba's beloved African soil is again tinged with blood. A few days earlier Cabindan separatists machine-gunned a bus carrying the Togo team, killing two delegation members and the driver and casting the shadow of tragedy on an African soccer celebration.
Black-suited Angolan soldiers with AK-47s patrol outside as Drogba—6'2" and a sculpted 200 pounds—leans back on an orange couch in his living quarters and exhales deeply. "We felt really sad, really scared," he says. "Our families and our clubs wanted us to go back home [because of the attack], and we wanted to go as well. After that we spoke together as a team and decided to stay. When the crisis started in Ivory Coast [in 2002], one of the first countries to come and help us was Angola. To leave wouldn't look good for the relations between the two countries." He pauses, fully aware of the forces at work. "This was more than football. A lot more than football."
Few 21st-century athletes are as familiar with the transcendent power of soccer as Didier Yves Drogba Tébily, 32, United Nations goodwill ambassador, reigning African Player of the Year, three-time Premier League champion. It isn't just that the feared striker has turned Ivory Coast into a fashionable dark horse for the 2010 World Cup, the first to be held in Africa. How many sportsmen have helped end their nation's civil war? "When you're a leader like Didier, people think maybe he can be a politician someday," says his Chelsea and Ivory Coast teammate Salomon Kalou. "If he decides to, he will be a great one. People listen when he's talking."
We salute you, O land of hope,
Country of hospitality.
Thy gallant legions
Have restored thy dignity
—from L'Abidjanaise, the Ivory Coast national anthem