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Premier League hall of famer Drogba seeks to revamp Ivorian game despite divisive presidential campaign

11:20 BST 21/04/2022
Didier Drogba Ivorian FA presidency election 2022
The former Chelsea striker is one of three candidates standing in Saturday's election but his candidacy has caused incredible controversy

Many in Cote D’Ivoire hailed Didier Drogba’s decision in 2020 to snub an administrative role at his former club, Chelsea, in order to enter the Ivorian Football Federation (FIF) presidential race.  

It was widely seen as another act of patriotism from the former Elephants captain, who is calling for a “thorough reform” of the nation’s football set-sup, with a particular emphasis on the the domestic sector.

However, his message however resounds more with ordinary football fans than the major stakeholders of the sport. 

As with most FAs, the FIF election is not an open one. Only presidents from top-flight clubs and two lower divisions – D2 and D3 – are allowed to vote.

“Drogba would win the election in a landslide if fans were allowed to vote," Rash N'guessan, a producer at Radio Cote d'Ivoire Sport, tells GOAL. "But, that is not the case now. He has to deal with people who do not swoon over his popularity."

That is not all. To be eligible to run for the top post, a prospective candidate must fulfill certain stringent criteria, the strictest being the endorsement of at least one of the interest groups.

They are: the Association of Ivorian Footballers (AFI), the Association of Former Footballers of Cote d'Ivoire (AAFCI), the Coaches Commission, the Referees Commission and the Doctors Commission.

An aspirant needs the stamp of at least one of these groups in order to validate his candidacy.

That was the hermetic defence the former striker could not breach for months, leading to the suspension of the electoral process by FIFA, the scrapping of the incumbent FA and the naming of a normalisation committee.

“It is hard to explain but many people have the feeling that FIFA and CAF (Confederation of African Football) are smoothing the path for Drogba because of his reputation in football. Why should the laws of an election be changed because a candidate failed to meet them? 

“The body’s former president, Sidy Diallo, voted twice with those laws. Why must they be twisted or reviewed now because of one individual?” says Kone Ibrahim, a contract lawyer and former football coach.

However, many locals were astounded to realise that the most popular personality of the nation could not obtain just one endorsement needed to push through his bid.

It remained a talking point for many months in many quarters, including the country’s presidency.

The most astonishing part was Drogba’s failure to clinch the support of the Association of Former Footballers of Cote d'Ivoire (AAFCI), of which he is a member and honorary president. The association, which endorsed Drogba’s rival, came under fire for not supporting one of its own.

However, in a statement, former Tottenham midfielder, Didier Zokora, who is also a member of AAFCI, gave their side of the story.

“Nobody is against Drogba. He caused all the woes for himself. Imagine, as a member of our association and honorary president, Drogba has never attended a meeting with us, even when he is in town,” Zokora said.

“Initially, long before the election issues, we met Drogba and asked him to run for the post in order for us to be well represented. He declined saying he had other priorities.

"And then we turned to work with another candidate. We had been preparing his campaign for the past three years.

"Suddenly, Drogba emerged, saying he wants to run for the seat. He did not even inform us or solicit our blessing. We heard it in the news,” he said.

FIFA and CAF claimed that the Ivorian FA election rules were contradictory, notably Article 47, which imposes an endorsement from the interest groups, mandating the newly installed Normalisation Committee to carry out its review. 

After months of tortuous talks with several clubs, most of whom were averse to any form of modification, the Committee, headed by Dao Gabala Mariam, achieved a consensus that allows a candidate to get endorsement from any FA recognised entity, even clubs.  

With preliminary hurdles done away with, Drogba is now poised to take his chances.

However, standing in the way are two opponents capable of preventing the talisman from being elected.

Drogba is running against two former FA vice presidents – Sory Diabate and Idriss Diallo. Each of them boasts of more than 25 years of experience in domestic football.

Drogba’s detractors claim the two-time African footballer of the Year lacks the technical knowhow of local football. 

However, Drogba’s campaign, tagged 'Renaissance', believes opponents of the 44-year-old are shying away from the “real debate".

“What do they mean by experience in domestic football?" Drogba's campaign manager, Eugene Diomande, tells GOAL.

"Did that prevent Kalusha Bwalya from doing a good job at Zambia’s FA? Did it stop Cameroonians from voting Samuel Eto’o who has started off very well?

"Look, they know Drogba has the best programme, thus they are afraid all the clubs’ chiefs would vote for him even with eyes closed."

Drogba, who has just been inducted into the Premier League hall of fame, has promised to improve football infrastructure – stadiums and training facilities – across the country to allow clubs play in optimum conditions.

Much of that process, though, is already under way anyway, as the country prepares to host the Africa Cup of Nations next year.

He wants to double annual subsidies given to clubs in the three upper divisions.

Each Division One club normally gets 75 million CFA francs (£115,000/$150,000), but Drogba says they will get 150m (£230,000/$300,000) each under him.

Division Two clubs will take home 40m (£62,000/$80,000) each, instead of 20m (£31,000/$40,000), while Division Three teams will be given 30m (£46,000/$60,000) each instead of 15m (£23,000/$30,000).

That’s not all from the former Olympique Marseille ace. He wants to offer a brand new bus to each club in all three divisions to ease their logistical challenges.

The type of bus he promises costs around $200,000 (£155,000). There are a total of 77 clubs in the three leagues.

Where would he get the funds from? Drogba reiterates that he has the backing of local and international partners, without mentioning any names.

He says he will use his pedigree to secure headline sponsorship for the top flight and the other leagues. There have been no sponsors since 2010.

He also promised to tackle the issue of poor player salaries. Most of the clubs pay their players less than 50,000 francs (£77/$100) per month, with many owing months in arrears.

Drogba assures that his plan to professionalise the leagues would improve salaries, but some observers have little faith in that possibility.

“Drogba has one of the best programmes but I am afraid," says sports journalist Max Ake. "Most of what he has promised would go to the purses of club owners, who decide what to give to their players.

"The players, who are the main actors of the sport, might not get anything worthwhile at the end of the day. It is not a new thing here."

It has been difficult for journalists to determine who amongst the three candidates is leading in the polls ahead of the vote due to a confidentiality code of conduct imposed by the organisers.

However, the lucky candidate will have other issues to deal with once at the helm of affairs.

The Elephants have been woeful in international competitions since their 2015 Africa Cup of Nations triumph. Ivorian clubs have been performing very badly for more than a decade now in continental competitions, while attendance at domestic league games has completely dried up.

Ivorians no longer show interest in their clubs. There have been reports of mismanagement of grants from the government and Fifa to the Ivorian FA. The incoming chief will be greeted with a full plate.

On Saturday, April 23, in Yamoussoukro, Cote D’Ivoire’s political capital, Drogba will have the prayers and wishes of millions of fans across the country as a small group of people decides his fate and future in the sport.