Didier Drogba is a remarkable man. In his native Ivory Coast, his voice reaches all. In 2007, during an earlier outbreak of the fractious politics that plagues the West African country (currently the nation is facing another dangerous political standoff), it was Drogba's intervention that helped the nation avoid the chasm of civil war. Out of Africa, he plies his trade as a gifted soccer player at Chelsea Football Club, one of the game's most competitive teams. He is a leader there too. When the ball finds his feet a buzz whirls through the crowd. Lethal could best describe his talent for finding the net. He can fly.
But last year, a virulent flying host stung the wings on his feet. Drogba contracted malaria and he has never been the same. Agued by fevers, doctors diagnosed the ancient scourge that kills a million people annually, sickens many more, and threatens billions. In the 2009-10 season, Drogba hammered in twenty-nine goals for Chelsea. This season he has nine. His explosive power sapped.
The impact of malaria in Africa is immense and may offer one contributing explanation why sub-Saharan soccer has not emerged as strongly as other developing regions of the world. In Africa, a child dies from malaria every forty-five seconds. The fabric of premature deaths, sick populations and lost output is a suit of poverty in a closet filled with bad facilities and the smell of musty corruption. Soccer's image of African soccer snaps the nostalgic print of innocence, bare-footed, ragged kids kicking a ball amongst the corrugated dry beds of the shantytown, composed as the transforming marvel of the world's game. But the exotic is no replacement for a thriving soccer culture rooted in health. The clinical supremacy of the first world, manufactured athlete will always lord over the scrappy talent of the bare footed. Had Didier Drogba spent his youth in Abidjan, and not in France, goalkeepers would not have been stung by his strikes.
Deaths from malaria in Africa dropped last year by 10%. Millions of nets have been distributed to protect people from the mosquitoes that carry the parasites. David Beckham has given his name to supporting the work of charities like Malaria No More. Should poverty and malaria be shown the red card in Africa, the extra men and women available to the continent's teams may come to dominate the global game.