The Didier Drogba Legacy

DIDIER DROGBA was born in Abidjan, the Côte d’Ivoire’s capital in the south, in 1978. At the age of five, he left Ivory Coast for France, where he would spend three years living with his uncle Michael Goba, a professional footballer in the lower tiers of French football. Drogba’s parents soon also travelled to France and by 1993, the trio were living together on the outskirts of Paris.

Despite the presence of his parents, Goba was a major influence on Drogba’s development as a footballer. Goba was a journeyman, playing for French Second Division outfits such as Brest, Angoulême CFC, Dunkerque, Besançon and SC Abbeville. Goba not only ensured that his new companion kept on top of his school work but was also adamant that young Didier, who started his youth football days playing as a right back, reinvent himself as a striker. “What are you doing stuck back there?” Goba once told him. “Get up front. In football, people only look at the strikers.”

At 15-years old, Drogba joined the semi-professional club Levallois SC, gaining a reputation as a prolific scorer in the youth team and impressing the coach with his professional attitude. His performances earned him a place in the senior squad, where he scored on his debut. Drogba thrived under the club’s technical director, Srebenko Repcic, a former Yugoslav international. “Didier played in the Under-17 team, but I got him in the senior side because I thought that would be good experience,” Repcic recalled. “Mentally he was very strong and he was a hard worker. There were things in his game that we looked at and he worked very hard at them.” Repcic cited Drogba’s desire and motivation to become better at Levallois. Drogba would take the train to and from training, and wouldn’t get home until very late at night.

In 1998, the Ivorian, then on apprenticeship terms with second tier French side Levallois, signed with Le Mans in the same division. Despite having offers from French giants such as Paris St-Germain, Drogba still didn’t believe he could make it as a professional. While playing for Le Mans FC, Drogba was still studying accountancy at the city’s university, having a back up plan incase his career were to go astray. At times it seems like it was about to. Due to Drogba never playing at an academy during his adolescence, the Ivorian was not accustomed to daily training and weekly matches. His coach at Le Mans, Marc Westerloppe later remarked, “It took Didier four years to be capable of training every day and playing every week.” Drogba’s early career was also marred by a slew of injuries that included breaking his foot when he tripped over a sprinkler, and a broken metatarsal, fibula and ankle. His career continued to stall, to add to this, he was a fairly inconsistent goal scorer. “I was playing well one game and then the game after I was sh*t,” he said of his origins as a professional footballer with Le Mans. “That’s not the way you have to be when you want to be strong in your career.”

Drogba continued on the sidelines with Le Mans, with one of the first real sparks of his career coming due to luck. En Avant de Guingamp signed Drogba because of an injury to Stephane Guivarc’h, the forward who played for France in the 1998 World Cup final. Guingamp, a small team who were in the first division, took a gamble on the Ivorian who was struggling to find game time for a second division team. Nevertheless, Guingamp manager Guy Lacombe paid approximately £80,000 for him in January 2002. It was a bizarre signing, especially considering two years and 18 months earlier in 2000, Stade Rennais FC deemed Le Mans’ asking price of £100,000 for Drogba too steep and spent £8m instead on Mario Turdó (there’s a reason you don’t know who that is, he scored only 20 goals in 400 career matches, it was a truly catastrophic signing for Rennes). Injuries had plagued Drogba’s career in the early years, yet the injury to Guivarc’h was one of the best things that could have happened to the talented striker. Today any player at 22-years old, struggling to make the first team at a second division team would never be given the chance to move up a division. But for Drogba, Lacombe saw in him what many did not, not even Didier himself believed in himself to the extent that Lacombe did.

Guingamp, deep in a relegation battle relied on Drogba to give them a chance of hope, and Drogba did just that. Didier scored on his debut, and scored two more goals in eleven matches to help Guingamp stay up. Drogba was crucial to his team’s survival, and he continued his great form in the following season. Drogba made an explosive start to the new campaign with an injury-time equaliser against Olympique Lyonnais. He scored 17 goals in 34 games in that season, truly breaking into the French football scene. Drogba credited winger and teammate Florent Malouda (they would later play together again at Chelsea) for his success that season. Drogba earned a move to French giants Olympique de Marseille in 2003, and £3.3m was all it took for Guingamp to give up a player who would become a world beater.

Also in 2003, Drogba made his debut for the Ivorian National Team against South Africa. It was the start of something remarkable. Drogba’s contributions to the Ivory Coast both as a footballer and as an icon meant more to his nation than any last minute goal for Chelsea ever could.

Marseille manager Alain Perrin was sacked and replaced by José Anigo early on, and Anigo gave Drogba the chance to play in his desired centre forward role. Despite a disappointing domestic campaign where Les Olympiens finished in 7th place in the league table, Drogba had another excellent season. Scoring 19 goals in 35 Ligue 1 matches, Drogba was third in the league’s golden boot race, finishing behind Djibril Cissé and Alexander Frei. Drogba did win Ligue 1 player of the month in January and May, and won the French league player of the 2003-04 season. The Drogba-led Marseille made the final of the UEFA Cup (precursor to Europa League). He netted 11 times in 16 matches in UEFA competitions that season, and his contributions were almost enough to win the UEFA Cup before losing 2-0 to Valencia in the final.

With many clubs courting Drogba, looking to lure him away from the Stade Vélodrome. It was Chelsea who won his signature, more specifically, Roman Abramovich. Drogba was one of the first major signings of the Russian’s Chelsea era. A then club record signing of £24m brought the Ivorian to Stamford Bridge. In addition to Drogba, Abramovich introduced Paulo Ferreira, Arjen Robben, Petr Čech, and Ricardo Carvalho. Abramovich also signed manager José Mourinho, who had won the UEFA Champions League the season before with FC Porto.

Drogba did not immediately go on a scoring spree during his first season at Chelsea, like he did at Marseille. It took him time to adjust to English football. The Ivorian scored 16 goals in 41 appearances in all competitions, yet his contributions were overlooked as the performances of John Terry, Frank Lampard, Arjen Robben, and Eiður Guðjohnsen were crucial to Chelsea winning the league that season. Chelsea would have another title winning campaign during the 2005-06 season, and Drogba burst onto the international scene in 2005, but not for his footballing at Chelsea, it was for his actions on and off the field for the Ivory Coast.

When Drogba and his family left the Ivory Coast for France in 1993, they left the country during a state of significant change. The Ivory Coast gained independence from the French in 1960, they were led by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who was president for 33 years up until his death in 1993. Houphouët-Boigny failed to name a successor, and the power struggle after his death caused economic and political instability that took the Ivory Coast decades to recover from. Houphouët-Boigny’s consolidation of power kept ethnic tensions under the surface, and different ethnic and cultural groups were able to cohabit. Violence between northern and southern factions broke out in the mid-1990s. As we saw with the Arab Spring, the death of Félix Houphouët-Boigny forced the nation to grapple with the democratic process for the first time.

Ethnic tensions rose due to voting rights, as at the time a quarter of the nation’s population were of foreign origin. While Houphouët-Boigny suppressed these tensions, nationalist and xenophobic politics rose in the new era of Ivorian politics. Migrants from the northern border country of Burkina Faso had settled into the northern part of the Ivory Coast for decades and violence began to ensue against the foreigners.

The first Ivorian Civil War began in September of 2002, when troops (many of whom were from the north) mutinied and launched attacks against many southern cities. In one day, rebels had control of the north of the country and had killed former President Robert Guéi. The Muslim rebels in the North had support from the government of Burkina Faso, while the Ivorian government forces secured Abidjan.

Violence continued for the next couple of years, as a redundant cycle of ceasefire and failed peace agreements led to frustrated conflict. Armistice talks had taken place in October 2002 and in 2003, but no permanent resolution had been found and the nation continued to be characterized by riots and demonstrations. Much of the fighting had ceased by the end of 2004, but Ivory Coast was still torn in two: the New Forces controlled the north, basing themselves in Bouaké, while the government and their supporters operated from the capital Abidjan. The Ivory Coast was essentially split into two polar nations, rather than a single, sovereign state. The once prosperous African nation was now four years deep into a civil war that had killed over 4,000 people and displaced over a million civilians.

Football unified the Ivorians, and their National Team was on the brink of qualifying for their first ever World Cup in 2005. Going into the last qualifying match, the odds were stacked against the Ivorians. In a group that consisted of Cameroon, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and Benin; only one nation would make it to the tournament. Cameroon were on top with 20 points, while the Ivory Coast was in second with 19 points. Egypt holding Cameroon to a 1-1 draw meant that the Ivorians only needed a win over Sudan to qualify for the tournament. A 3-1 win over Sudan confirmed the Ivorian’s spot in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

The players had just made history, securing Ivory Coast’s place at the World Cup, their first ever appearance at the global tournament.

Though cameras showed the celebrations that went on, Drogba had a more pressing issue on his mind. Drogba called in the Ivorian national travelling media, grabbing a microphone and getting on his knees to make a statement. Down on their knees, arms together held in unison, the footballers began to plead to put an end to the fighting. With Kolo Toure on his side, with Muslims and Christians all together, Drogba addressed the media.

“Men and women of Côte d’Ivoire, from the North, South, Centre, and West. We proved today that all Ivorians can co-exist, and play together with a shared aim, to qualify for the World Cup. We promised you that the celebration would unite the people. Today, we beg you, on our knees… Forgive! Please lay down your weapons, hold elections, and all will be better.”

While the moment was extremely dramaticized, in modern media, Drogba’s plea convinced Ghabo to restart peace talks. Drogba also told the FA to organize a friendly in the rebel capital of Bouake, an occasion that brought both armies together peacefully for the first time.  On 4th March 2007, a peace agreement was signed between the government and the New Forces in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. On 16th April, the UN buffer zone between the two sides began to be dismantled, and government and New Forces soldiers paraded together for the first time. Gbagbo declared that the war was over.

The Presidential elections that were scheduled for 2005 were postponed for five years. And the preliminary results showed a loss for Ghago, in favor of his rival, former prime minister Alassane Ouattara. Disputes over the election led to a resumption of fighting that continued until a few years ago.

After qualifying his nation for the World Cup, Drogba returned to London to continue playing for the Blues. Drogba’s time at Chelsea transformed the club. Thanks to Drogba’s presence, Chelsea became a legitimate title contender for almost every season he was there. While Mourinho was not around for long enough to see the fruits of his labour, Drogba became the main man at Stamford Bridge.

When Roberto Di Matteo took over as manager, Chelsea were out of the top four, and in need of European football for the following season. One match of that season solidified Drogba as a big-match player, and a Chelsea legend.

Saturday 19th May 2012, the Allianz Arena in Munich – home of Bayern Munich. The Champions League final looked as if it was going to be a victory for Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern. That is until the storied Ivorian put his head on the end of a Juan Mata corner in the 88th minute, and as they say, the rest is history. The winning penalty in the shootout from Drogba made Chelsea European champions for the first time, and the Ivorian striker etched his name in European football history.

After eight seasons at Chelsea, scoring 100 goals, Drogba traveled the world to play more football. After winning the Champions League, Drogba spent six months with Shanghai Shenhua in China, and one and a half seasons with Turkish club Galatasaray where he scored the winning goal in the final of the 2013 Turkish Super Cup. Drogba returned to Mourinho’s Chelsea in July 2014, and after spending a season at his second stint with the Blues, he travelled to America, where the Ivorian is slowly becoming an Icon in American football.

Drogba signed a Designated Player contract with Major League Soccer side Montreal Impact. He scored a hat-trick on his first MLS start, the first player to do so in the league’s history. He was September’s MLS Player of the Month after scoring 7 goals in his first 5 games in the league. Once the honeymoon period at Montreal ended, things turned for the worse. Drogba’s 18 months at Montreal Impact were marred by injuries and controversy. Unable to play many games because the field was made of artificial turf, Droga let his team down. Interim Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink revealed interest in bringing on Drogba in a short-term coaching capacity after Drogba made a visit to Stamford Bridge to watch a Chelsea match with Hiddink and owner Roman Abramovich. Montreal then reiterated their intent for Drogba to finish his contract with the club. Yet Drogba failed to make a decision, leaving his future with Montreal up in the air. Drogba publicly confirmed his intent to play with Montreal for the 2016 MLS season.

On 12th April 2017, after four months as a free agent and declining a move to Brazilian club Corinthian, Drogba signed for USL side Phoenix Rising FC, he also became an owner of the club making him the very first player-owner in football history. He made his debut for the club on June 10th, 2017 and had a goal and assist leading the team to a 2–1 victory over Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2. In July 2017 Drogba attracted attention after scoring an impressive last-minute free kick in a game against Orange County to tie the game.

In recent years, footballers have taken an interest in owning American football clubs. But it’s not the top league – MLS – that they’re interested in. They’re throwing themselves into second-tier competitions such as the North American Soccer League and United Soccer League. Paolo Maldini co-founded Miami FC in 2015, while Demba Ba, Eden Hazard, Yohan Cabaye, and Moussa Sow recently co-founded a San Diego club that will start playing in 2018.

While Drogba’s legacy in the United States is still growing, he has already etched his mark on European and African football. Scoring almost 300 club goals, winning the Premier League and FA Cup on four occasions, and winning the Champions League. Despite Drogba never winning a trophy with the Ivory Coast National Team, he reached the AFCON final twice, and scored 65 goals in the process, the all time leading scorer for the nation. 

By Malek Shafei with artwork by @declassebr

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