As Ivory Coast prepares to play in its first football World Cup, many in the war-divided country are pinning their hopes of peace on the sport. Politicians recently organized a friendly match between the top two local teams to show Ivorians that the spirit of football can unite the country.
In Ivory Coast, politicians and citizens alike say they hope football can bring President Laurent Gbagbo's south and the north, which has been under rebel control since 2002, together in a spirit of reconciliation.
Many of Ivory Coast's top dignitaries, including Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny and leader of the rebel New Forces Guillaume Soro, gathered Sunday in the de-facto capital of the rebel-held north, Bouaké. They were there to watch the symbolic reconciliation match between league leaders ASEC Mimosas and Africa Sports.
But at the last minute Ivorian champions ASEC dropped out after murmurings of security concerns and insufficient pay.
The Abidjan Youth Club jumped in for absent ASEC, only to be beaten by Africa Sports 1-0.
At half time, Banny told the many thousands of spectators that football will bring the two sides together.
"Everything is possible through sport," he said. "We will unite around the round ball, which, he said, is the same for everyone. A ball rolls in the same way for everyone and because of that it is a powerful symbol of reconciliation."
The peace process has faltered though. Last year when October's planned elections fell through, the international community gave Mr. Gbagbo another year to organize new elections. But both sides are unwilling to make compromises and U.N. observers are privately skeptical elections will be held this October.
A member of the New Forces political front, Ben Souk, told VOA the spirit of football can take Ivorians a long way.
"The mentality of the players can bring peace," he said. "But not football, because football is a sport. We are trying to bring politics to change the mentality. T hat is why you see the people here. Everyone here, we are together to try to change the mentality."
The Elephants, as the national team is known, bear the hopes and expectations of many Ivorians. When they play for the first time at the World Cup in June, many Ivorians believe every win will bring peace one step closer.
The rap group Koosh dOzone performed for the dignitaries ahead of Sunday's match. They refuse to take sides in the conflict. Their members are both from the north and the south.
Lead singer Fimo Capone says they will be performing a song about the Elephants, which talks about how they will unite the country.
He says, they will be singing about the national team, because, he says, the team stands for peace. He adds that, everything the team has achieved has brought Ivorians closer together. And, he notes, if they go far in the World Cup, they will have done a lot to bring Ivory Coast closer to peace.
Capone says Ivory Coast is not really divided.
He says, the politicians say the country is divided, but he says that is not true. It is the politicians themselves, he explains, who are divided. But, he believes, the population is not divided.
Few are openly skeptical about the real difficulty of uniting Ivory Coast. Privately members of the New Forces have acknowledged that football will not make the political hurdles disappear overnight.
For now, the players on the national team say they are prepared to take on the responsibility of being a force for peace.