I love Didier Drogba. I’ll put that out there now, because it explains what’s going to come.
I’ve loved Didier Drogba since the season he (practically)
single-handedly dragged a pretty average Marseille team to the 2003/04 UEFA Cup Final, only to see Fabien Barthez dismissed early, and Valencia triumph easily. He was a Trojan that season, particularly in Europe (knocking out both Liverpool and Newcastle en route to the final; the Newcastle goal was a particularly sweet strike) and despite only playing one year in the colours, remains as loved as any player at the Velodrome. It was obvious he would move to a more wealthy club, and when Chelsea came calling, Didier moved on.
That’s when my relationship with Didier changed. He obviously felt, and still feels, deeply for OM. Things he has done and said over his Chelsea career only serve to highlight that. This season, before the Napoli game that has been so publicised these last couple of days, Drogba said he expected the atmosphere to be like that of the Velodrome. He has given numerous interviews saying how much he loves the fans of Marseille. His second goal for Chelsea was against Paris St Germain. He went spare; leaping around everywhere screaming ‘Allez l’OM, allez l’OM’. I’m sure I found that a lot funnier than a lot of his new fans, who struggled to take to him. I was now a passive Drogba observer hoping for his personal triumph, but not entirely sure I wanted to see it in a Chelsea shirt.
This is where the agony really comes in. On his game, and on his day, Drogba remains unplayable – as you may have seen for the small portion of the game on Saturday night that he was involved in, and the Barcelona tie (particularly the home leg). He is strong, powerful – that goal against Spurs? – and when the mood takes him, can fizz in shots from anywhere and make goalkeepers look like spectators. However, my favourite thing about Drogba’s game is his defending. I have never seen a striker take such pleasure in, or execute so well, defensive headers, particularly from corners. Admittedly, his willingness to defend was his undoing when fouling Ribery on Saturday evening, but I’d much rather a striker willing to do that than not.
Even when on his game, however, there can be an element of
theatricality about Drogba. I can’t excuse a lot of it, and I wouldn’t seek to try. There must be some reason for it, but it makes a very big, powerful man look both weak and silly – doing it in pink boots only adds to that feeling. There are occasions, as against Barcelona, when it can use up time and gain a few seconds of rest, for his team-mates and there are games – Saturday’s springs to mind, when it doesn’t happen at all. Generally, Drogba is playing for a good team, be it Chelsea or the Ivory Coast, and they tend not to be struggling in the games so his ‘schauspiel’-ing hinders only his own team and his own reputation. This petulance seems to be the over-riding impression of Drogba in the eyes of a lot of English fans; I suppose having been exposed to it for eight years, it must have long since progressed beyond annoying.
Despite all that, though, the memory of that one season with Marseille burns brightly in my heart. The more I see, and the more I read of Drogba the man, the more impressed I am with him. The work and the money he has put into the Didier Drogba Foundation, in the Ivory Coast, are staggering. The positive influence he had on the factions of the civil war in the Ivory Coast, again, are staggering. Even the reaction of the African populous during the most recent Cup of Nations to Drogba was, the same, staggering. His team are nicknamed the Elephants, and his influence over the people of West Africa, obviously most particularly the Ivory Coast, is of a similar scale. Didier Drogba, off the field, is a very good man and, even if you can’t appreciate him on the pitch, you should appreciate that.
Of course, the footballing life of Didier Drogba has been chequered. He, himself, knows that. Up until Saturday night, Chelsea had brought him Premierships, FA Cups and League Cups, but never the competition they most wanted themselves – the Champions League. An honour roll of triumph highlighting only the failure. No longer. The Ivory Coast have brought only further agonies – the recognition of the qualification for the World Cup, but the pain of being so close so often in the Cup of Nations.
It was to the failures in the Cup of Nations and Champions League that my mind turned on Saturday evening. The Champions League
disappointments Drogba had suffered, both self-inflicted (in the final of 2008) and infortuitous (the ghost-goal semi-final against Liverpool), as well as the late Iniesta winner for Barcelona. There was a steeliness about the 2012 Chelsea Champions League campaign that seemed to say enough is enough, and that was embodied nowhere better than in Drogba who ran himself into the ground for the cause. The first leg of the semi-final against Barcelona, his goal was out of nothing, but reward for his efforts.
In the FA Cup Semi-Final, Drogba scored a breath-taking goal against Spurs. It was hit with such ferocity that it looked as if the net may break when it hit the back of it. In conjunction with his Champions League Final header, which was no less powerful, we have recently had a tribute to the best of Drogba in two of the most important games – as well as a goal in the FA Cup Final for good measure. Rising to the big occasion is something he has made something of an art form in a blue shirt and, should he move on, the most potent memories of him will be of the striding colossus scoring goals from the gods.
So there we were, 120 minutes into Champions League Final on Saturday. Drogba had run until he could barely move, then run some more, for the cause. He had scored in (another) Final, and we were headed to penalties. In January, I watched, happy to see Zambia win the CAN on penalties, but desperately sad for Drogba, who ballooned a late penalty – though he scored in the shoot-out that night. In 2006, I saw Drogba score twice in a penalty shootout (twice! – it ended 12-11 – he scored CIV’s first and last) against Cameroon, another semi-final winner (Nigeria), and then miss his kick in the penalty shootout to decide the final. Just as English fans must dread games going to penalties, Drogba, having seen his teams lose two Cup of Nations’ finals that way, and a Champions League Final must find his heart sinking when the 120 minutes are up.
Yet he stood up once again, to take the fifth and crucial penalty. I shed a tear, watching a man walk forward with the weight of his own, and his club’s, and his whole nation’s, destiny on his shoulders. He scored. For the first, and only time, I cheered a Chelsea goal. That is the power of football. That is the power of Drogba. It can make you do things that you would never normally do, and enjoy them when you do.