Didier Drogba celebrates scoring in World Cup 2006 qualification for Ivory Coast
Al-Merrikh Stadium, in Sudan’s second largest city of Omdurman, is not one of the world’s great gladiatorial arenas. Yet this small ground – known as the Red Castle – became the setting for one of football’s most extraordinary tales.
The date was 8 October 2005. The mathematics of qualification for World Cup 2006 were simple. A win for Cameroon in Egypt would see them reach their sixth tournament. Anything less would allow Ivory Coast, playing in Sudan and just a point behind, to leapfrog them and qualify instead – for the first time.
The tag “golden generation” can be a substantial yoke to bear, but the Ivorian squad in 2005 was just that. They were led by the artfully bruising Didier Drogba, with Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, and Didier Zokora all also shining in the Premier League, a world away in London.
Yaya Toure, then with Greek side Olympiakos and still considered raw, was waiting in the wings. This was a squad that could match anything on the African continent. Despite having lost twice to Cameroon in qualifying, they remained agonisingly close as they took to the pitch in Sudan that evening.
Yet, while Ivory Coast’s footballing stars stood on the verge of history, back home the country teetered on the edge of something dark. A civil war that began in 2002 had divided the country, with President Laurent Gbagbo’s government controlling the south and a rebel faction known as The New Forces of Ivory Coast, led by Guillaume Soro, controlling the north.
Fighting broke out on 19 September 2002 with rebels attacking various cities across the country. Sebastien Gnahore, an ex-footballer who fled Ivory Coast, recalls those times.
“It was awful. When I called my sister I could hear the shooting outside the house,” he says. “They all hid under the bed for four days, and only came out to find food.
“All I cared about was whether my family was…