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Divided Ivory Coast Unites Behind Soccer Team


For the first time, Ivory Coast has qualified for soccer's premier international tournament, the World Cup. The teams unexpected qualification set off celebrations across the war-divided country and temporarily calmed political tensions.

Saturday morning on the last day of qualifying, few people gave Ivory Coast's national team, the Elephants, any chance of going to the World Cup next year. Not only did the team have to win an away match in Sudan, but perennial African soccer giant Cameroon needed to be held to a draw at home against Egypt.

And so, when in the last minute of injury time in Cameroon, the home side missed a penalty kick for a final score of one-one, the streets of Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, erupted into one giant party.

Across the city, young people threw up barricades in the streets. Not, as in the past, for protection during Abidjan's periodic street battles, but to make room for people to dance.

The victory was celebrated throughout the country, and on both sides of the U.N. patrolled buffer zone that divides the nation.

Many of the Elephants' players have origins in the north, which has been under rebel control for three years. And in Abidjan, where people with origins in both the north and the government-controlled south live in often uneasy proximity, Ivory Coast's qualification for Germany 2006 gave them a rare opportunity to forget about politics.

Edmund Togba, a self proclaimed supporter of President Laurent Gbagbo, says he can feel that the war is over.

He says people celebrated the Elephants' victory all night, and the party was still going on Sunday morning.

Ismael Dagnogo, a Muslim with northern origins, says, even though the victory came during the holy month of Ramadan, he and his friends spent the night bar hopping. Not to drink, he says, but just for the atmosphere.

He says politics no longer exist in Ivory Coast.

But the country will soon have to turn their attention back to the war. An African Union summit recently recommended that President Gbagbo remain in power after his mandate expires later this month.

Elections scheduled for October 30th have been deemed impossible. And opposition leaders had been calling for the creation of a government of transition.

The rebel New Forces criticized the A.U. decision. And the opposition bloc has yet to announce its position.

But in Abidjan, at least for now, everyone is wearing the national colors: orange, white, and green.

Along with Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, and Angola will also be making their first appearances in the World Cup in Germany next summer.

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