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Jan 10, 2010

Drogba: Africa must unite through sport

It may be impossible to focus minds on football after the horrors that descended upon the Togo national team on Friday, but that is the agenda Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba is doing his best to promote as the African Cup of Nations kicks contentiously into gear.

Togo coach Hubert Velud has been among those suggesting football authorities should call-off the continent's showpiece tournament following the machine gun attack that led to the inevitable withdrawal of Emmanuel Adebayor's Togo on Sunday, yet Chelsea striker Drogba believes the moment has come for Africa's football family to unite.

The sporting battles scheduled for Angola will need to be an electrifying spectacle if they are to lift the dark cloud currently hovering over the event, with news that the death toll in the terror attack had risen to three heightening the sense of shock that has descended on the sporting public.

However, Drogba is urging the African football community to put on a show to remember in the African Cup of Nations and with the World Cup finals a matter of months away, he believes his Ivory Coast side are capable of putting the continent on the sporting map like never before.

"People have an opinion of Africa and it is not so good, but we have to let sport unite us all," says Drogba. "They see us as being behind the rest of the world in financial and in sporting terms, but this year give us a chance to show people a different Africa.

"Africa has some problems, we all know that, but we all have a chance to make 2010 the special year that puts this continent on the sporting map forever. We have this Africa Cup of Nations and then there is the big prize of the World Cup.

"All of us in the Ivory Coast squad believe we can create history and becomes the first African team to win the World Cup. There is no outstanding favourite for the tournament and we also have the massive advantage of playing in Africa this time. In the past, it's always been a story of so close for African teams, but now we have players who are proven at the top level of the game and they have the experience to compliment their talent. The Ivory Coast are ready to be winners at last.

"Just imagine what it would mean to the people in our country and to the whole of Africa if we won the World Cup. It would be one of the greatest sporting moments of them all and we can be the heroes who make it happen. This is our chance of a lifetime.

"First we have to prove we are the best in the African Cup of Nations and as this will be the last time I play in this competition, I have to avoid the pain of not winning it once in my career. I will sweat from every pour to make it happen."

Drogba's confidence in his Ivory Coast side is backed up by their tag as favourites, with fellow Chelsea star Salomon Kalou, Arsenal's Emmanuel Eboue and the Toure brothers of Kolo (Manchester City) and Yaya (Barcelona) giving them with a powerful depth of talent.

Yet the facts don't support Drogba's boasts that they are the dominant African force as the last two editions of the Nations Cup have seen the Ivorians fail to live up to their billing, with their semi-final defeat against Egypt two years back exposing their tendency to freeze at the big moment.

Some 18 years have passed since the team known as the Elephants triumphed in the African championships and their challenge this time has not been made any easier by a group draw that sees Drogba preparing for a meeting with second favourites Ghana, who will be led by his Chelsea pal Michael Essien.

"The draw has not made it easy for us in this competition or the World Cup," reflects Drogba, who has been spared a meeting with Adebayor following Togo's withdrawal. "Ghana will be tough opponents in the group stages in the Nations Cup and then you look at the teams we have been put next to in South Africa summer. Getting Brazil and Portugal in our World Cup group means there will be no room to start slowly, but I see this as a positive.

"Our team has been in development for a long time and now the Ivory Coast needs to prove we are ready. We are all proud to represent a nation where the people do not have the good fortune all of us in the team have enjoyed in our lives and it is important that we help to make our people happy.

"I know some Chelsea fans who don't understand why we go away in January every couple of years, but we cannot let our country down. It's not perfect to leave in the middle of the Premier League season, but the organisers insist it is like this."

Drogba's positive words cannot disguise the damage the attack on the Togo team bus has done to the image of African football, with question marks over the continent's ability to stage this summer's World Cup bound to be raised in the coming months.

South Africa will be better equipped to stage a major event when compared to the troubled outpost of Angola, but there are still grave concerns over the safety of spectators preparing to visit crime hotspots such as Johannesburg this summer.

After numerous reporters covering the Confederations Cup in South Africa last summer were victims of muggings and car-jackings, many came to the conclusion that the World Cup will provide a jamboree for the criminals who recklessly tarnish the country's beautiful landscape.

While security is bound to be tightened around all the competing teams after the events in Angola this week, the spectators dreaming of a holiday of a lifetime at South Africa 2010 need to act with common sense to ensure their holiday of a lifetime does not turn into a nightmare this June.

It would be a tragedy if the biggest stories of the World Cup finals took place away from the football pitches of South Africa, though the events of the last few days have reminded us all that bringing the game's ultimate competition to a continent still in its development phase can only be viewed as a gamble for all concerned.

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