How Ivory Coast civil war nearly ruined Eric Bailly’s European dream

Eric Bailly is nearing a return for Manchester United after taking part in first-team training on Monday.

Eric Bailly was affected by the second Ivorian civil war which started in November 2010 and nearly missed out on his first European trip to commence his professional career.

The civil unrest was a political crisis with the then incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo failing to vacate his seat of power until he was captured after losing to present leader Alassane Ouattara at the polls.

The war which lasted for over four months killed thousands of civilians and almost stopped Bailly from going for his trial with Espanyol.

The former Villarreal defender was playing in a competition in Burkina Faso when scouts from the Spanish club spotted him and invited him for a three-month trial in Spain.

Closure of airports in Abidjan due to the violence nearly marred Bailly’s memorable trip but Espanyol were still keen on seeing him despite the delayed trip and he waited for months.

Years after overcoming his struggles, the 25-year-old who just started training with the rest of his Manchester United teammates, recalled moments before the life-changing trip.

“By now my father was watching all my games. Everyone in our neighbourhood had heard that I had travelled to Burkina Faso, and I think he was starting to realise that the kid could actually go somewhere,” Bailly wrote on Player Tribune.

“When he met up with his friends to play draughts, they had heard about the tournament too. “So your son plays football, eh?” they said. “You have to take care of him.”

“One day shortly after, my sister and I came home after we had been somewhere. My mother was in the kitchen cooking, earlier than usual. Suddenly I saw my older brother run into the living room. Weird. When I saw my father sitting on the sofa, I expected the usual cleaning assignment. But he said nothing. He was just smiling.

“I went to my room to get changed. When I came back, my father put his hand on the pillow next to him. “Come and sit here,” he said.

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“I sat down. The fabric felt almost new, unlike the pillow in my father’s spot, which had been worn out through years of Chelsea games and news bulletins. My mother came out from the kitchen and sat next to us. My older brother was sitting on the floor. It felt like a family meeting — but the only person they had called was me.

“I was sure that I had done something very wrong.

“There is nothing wrong,” my father said. He loved talking, especially when he felt he had authority, and now he was speaking like a judge about to bring down the gavel.

“We had your coach here,” he continued. “He just left, but he was here and ate with us. He had some news to give us.”

“Well … ” my father said. “The club wants you to go for a three-month trial. Espanyol.”

“I jumped out of the sofa and grabbed my mother. I hugged my father. Tears were streaming down my face. I said, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.”

“It was the happiest day of my life. I had a route to professional football. To Spain! That night it was impossible to sleep, impossible. My father ordered everyone to keep the news inside the family, because if people in our neighbourhood found out then everyone would come out to celebrate, even though I had only been offered a trial. But I was too distracted to even pay attention to that. I just keep telling myself the same thing. “It can’t be … it can’t be … And as it turned out, it couldn’t.

“Shortly after, war broke out in the Ivory Coast.

“That year we had had our first elections in 10 years. To keep things short, the two politicians disagreed about who had actually won it, which triggered violence across the country. One of the many things that happened was that the airport in Abidjan was blocked, which meant I couldn’t fly to Spain to train with Espanyol.

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“It really killed me. My dream seemed to be ruined.

“What was I supposed to do now? I had no idea if I would get another chance at Espanyol. But I had too much to worry about to even think about that. The crisis made it hard to buy food. I had to go outside and carry drinking water back to the house in a bucket that I placed on my head. My parents, my sister, my brothers, we all suffered. And yet many people suffered far more than we did.

“The war went on for months. When it was finally over, I heard that Espanyol were still interested in me. They had not forgotten me.

“Ten months after they had spotted me in Burkina Faso, I’d be off to Spain for a new trial.

“I was so grateful. Most people at Espanyol had never seen me play in person, just on some video recorded in Burkina Faso. They could have said, “Well, the kid cannot come, let’s look elsewhere.” There’s plenty of talent in Africa, right?

“Still, I knew it was only a trial. They had not offered me a contract. If I failed to get one, the flight to Burkina Faso would be worthless.

“On the day I was leaving for Europe, my whole family came with me to the airport. The day before I had felt unwell because I had never been so far away from home. This would not be a short trip to a neighbouring country — it would be three months, in Europe, alone. That is a lot for someone who is used to always being with his family. We were all crying at the airport.

“In that moment those three months felt like three years.”

After developing through the ranks at Espanyol, the Ivorian centre-back made his La Liga debut at the club in October 2014 before joining Villarreal the following year where he eventually completed a move to Manchester United in 2016.

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