Drogba was one of the last of his kind…but so much more too

Matt Stead

Johnny’s love for Didier Drogba is strong…


Who’s this then?
Didier Yves Drogba Tébily is now 42 years of age. A 6′ 2″ Ivorian striker, he is often rated as one of the greatest African footballers of all-time and at his peak, he was easily one the best strikers in Europe. Not just a great 21st century goalscorer but a great 21st century person, who has used his wealth and status to build a hospital and even to help end civil war! To say the very least, he is a remarkable, intelligent and important man.

Born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, he was sent to France aged just five and was a late starter as a professional, signing for Le Mans in 1999 at 21. He initially struggled with the physical demands and suffered injuries, playing four seasons with them before a transfer to Guingamp for £80,000. His second season saw him score 21 in 39 and help the club to a best top-flight finish of seventh.

This got Drogba a £3.3million move to Marseille. Now 25, he had a fantastic season, netting 32 in 55, five of them in the Champions League and six in the UEFA Cup. This campaign really helped raise his profile more widely. He ended the season winning the National Union of Professional Footballers Player of the Year award.

Chelsea, now managed by Jose Mourinho, couldn’t get the thick end of £25million out of their capacious Russian pockets fast enough. His first two seasons in west London won him two league titles, scoring 16 each time.

He kept breaking all sorts of records for the Blues. In 2006/07 he became the first Chelsea player since Kerry Dixon to score 30 goals in a season, ending with 33 in a mighty 60 games. He also became the only player in English football to win both domestic cup finals while scoring in each in one campaign. He was named African Footballer of the Year and was second only to Cristiano Ronaldo for PFA Player of the Year.

For a couple of years it looked like he might leave Chelsea. His form suffered a little, not helped by injuries. He was sent off in the 2008 Champions League final against Manchester United for slapping Nemanja Vidic, with whom he’d always had a physical rivalry.

The following season he legendarily lost his rag after a loss to Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final, raging around the place in a proper funk. The gist of his protests was that the referee was biased against Chelsea and had made a proper mess of officiating the game. He had a point.

Remarkably, he was into his early 30s when he had his best goalscoring season with Chelsea, putting 37 away in just 44 games to win a league and cup Double. Two less stellar seasons followed but he bowed out in brilliant style by scoring the winning penalty in 2012 to win the Champions League. It was the perfect, storybook conclusion.

He nicked off to China to hoover up cash from Shanghai Shenhua, playing 11 games and scoring eight goals.

The final six years of his career saw him playing for Galatasaray, Montreal Impact, Phoenix Rising and possibly unwisely returning to Chelsea for a year under the now miserable Mourinho.

He retired aged 40 having played 679 league games and scoring 297 goals.

His international career had him play 105 games and score 65 times. His record of 42 goals in 63 competitive games was especially remarkable.

Away from the pitch, his popularity and heft as a player led him to being instrumental in helping end the civil war in his homeland. He was part of a Truth And Reconciliation Commission to oversee the peace process. This all led to Time magazine naming Drogba one of the world’s 100 most influential people for 2010.

Pepsi paid him three million big ones for his endorsement and he gave it all to help build a hospital in his hometown of Abidjan.

He finished his career with two Golden Boots and his 36 Champions League goals for Chelsea is the most scored for an English team in the competition.

Throughout, he looked very cool. With high cheekbones and a relaxed but serious resting expression, coupled with big broad shoulders, he was always an impressive presence.


Why the love?
While he was often a controversial player, accused of diving and play-acting and playing dirty when the occasion demanded, he emerged with tremendous authority and a noble air to his game.

Typically used as a target man, he was capable of scoring all manner of different types of goals. He could strike a mean free-kick, thrash a 35-yarder, dink it, use close control to slot home, or simply hold a man off like he was a troublesome fly to bury it in the corner.

At his peak he could occupy an entire defence all on his own by intelligently using his physicality, not just to bully defenders but to distract them while his teammates got busy. The fact he holds the record for most assists in the Premier League by an African player at 54, shows how successful he was at this.

Being the big lad up front is not an easy role to play by any means. Football snobs have long downplayed it as though it is all about brute strength and buttocks, but the truth is far more nuanced. Although the position has largely fallen out of favour now, Drogba was one of the last truly skilled technicians at the job.

And here’s the thing. While the snobbery around physical football and the sheer obsession with passing the f**king ball a thousand times somehow robbed us of the target man, Drogba was loved and admired precisely because he didn’t do that. Bossing a defence is a marvellous thing to witness from the stands. It is just very, very impressive and thrilling, the way fannying around with the ball, knocking it this way and that, for minutes on end, simply is not. Here is the proof.

He also had the excellent goal celebration of arms outstretched stabbing at the air, like a flightless bird trying to fly: understated but dynamic.

Of course he was a diver and he was dirty and he would go down at the slightest touch from an opposition player. You might argue he didn’t have to, that he could’ve bossed it without resorting to such tactics, but even though his peak years are only 10 to 15 years ago, it was a different game back then. A far more physical game, a far tougher game. If you didn’t hold your own, no-one else was going to hold it for you. If you didn’t get the first elbow in, you’d be on the end of one sooner or later. In that sense, he was just being incredibly competitive and uncompromising. He very effectively compromised defenders by undermining their sense of security when going up against them. They knew he’d be down and winning a penalty at the first opportunity, so they stood back a little, giving him a few more inches of space to work in and in that way the threat of his diving was far more effective than the dives themselves.

It is also interesting to note that his legend is based on being a crucial goalscorer in crucial games. His goal record in finals is amazing: nine for Chelsea. While others were more consistently high scorers per season (he only breached 20 twice) few have been such an important striker to his team. A cold look at his stats reveal decent but not interstellar numbers. He tended not to pad out his numbers with three or four in 5-0 wins against relegated sides, but if you wanted someone to score a penalty to win you a trophy, here was the man you needed.


What the people say
I think Drogba was the sort of player appreciated more in the ground than on TV, as tends to be the case for all players who rely on more direct play. Watching a long arcing pass to a striker be pulled down and crashed in from 25 yards, when you can see the whole movement from start to goal, is one of the game’s great joys that has too long been denied us. It simply doesn’t look quite as good on TV. Unsurprising then that many got in touch with the memories of Drogba.

We start with a 4_4_haiku:

‘What a player he was for us, before he went on to bigger things. Him and Florent Malouda together in that 2002-2003 season were fantastic.’

‘FA Cup record holder: Only player to score a goal in four different FA Cup Finals.’

‘He helped prevent a civil war in Cote d’Ivoire. Enough said!’

‘I really enjoyed watching Drogba, with the highlight for me being when he slapped Vidic in the Champions League final and got sent off. A wonderful moment, and it meant that he couldn’t take a penalty in the ensuing shootout.’

‘One of the last examples of the big, bustling, traditional No. 9, qualities he combined with a great deal of skill.’

‘Unplayable for two PL seasons (06/07 & 09/10). didn’t score enough goals in his other seven but contributed in other ways – perfect striker for Lampard. the very definition of a big-game player: finals, derbies, European nights.’

‘A monster of a player and an even bigger personality. Arsenal’s nemesis and a serial winner. Incredibly good in both boxes, he was crucial at defending set pieces. Does lots of charity work too. You just knew he’d score that penalty against Bayern in the 2012 CL final.’

‘An absolute tour de force, on his day as good as anyone. Match winner, and a Chelsea legend! Shithouse hair though.’

‘A player I used to loathe as a United fan during our mid-late 2000’s rivalry… 2012 as he stepped up to score in the CL final penalty shootout I was for him..MoM..dont know what changed.. respect ability and acknowledgment of great person/player.’

‘Absolute legend. Like all the best players was a complete shithouser and more often than not when he stepped on the pitch against Arsenal you knew the win was in the bag.’

‘The majority of my mates loved him when he was in his pomp and still regard him as one of the best we’ve seen in his position now.’

‘A footballing force of nature. Everything he did felt seismic. And a knack for scoring the most important goals.’

‘Remember him playing for Marseille against Newcastle in the UEFA Cup in 2003 maybe? Was magnificent, completely stole the show. I wasn’t surprised to see him turning up at Chelsea after that.’

‘Arsenal’s nemesis, cup final specialist. Terrorised entire defences on his day. One of the most complete and devastating strikers in Premier League history.’

‘United fan. He was the one Chelsea player from ‘that team’ that I feared. A beast, a battering ram of a CF who could bully you or finesse you into submission. That shot as well. He was a warrior. A player you wish played for your team. Seems like a good man outside football.’

‘I remember him taking Newcastle to pieces for Marseille and thinking wow – looks like we’ll hear more from him.’

‘When on top form, completely unplayable. Hated his diving, always felt he would rather win a penalty than take the gilt edged chance he had created for himself. The best defenders must have dreaded playing against him.’

‘Truly a big game player!  Amazing what he did off the pitch too which gets very little recognition (in my view).’

‘Shevchenko was once the best striker around. Then he left AC Milan & his crown went to Drogba, who’d evolved into a goal machine at Chelsea. To think that during DD’s 1st season at the Blues everyone carried on about his lack of goals, although his work rate up front was insane.’

‘Convinced myself had it not been for Drogba we might have won the UEFA Cup that year but he was just out of this world. Couldn’t get near him.’

‘Cheating diving b*stard. That aside, a fantastic striker, powerful, fast. Would have loved him in my team.  Also seemed a genuinely decent chap off pitch.’

‘The King, The Big Game Player, Legend, Icon, so many words to describe this man.’

‘Striker who always had the heart for a fight, add power, pace and lethal finishing and you have one of the best strikers the Premiership has seen.’

‘Left field one, but my memory is a reserve match v Arsenal – recovering from injury. Obviously the elder statesman in the Chelsea side, but encouraging and helping Arsenal kids too. Congratulating good defending & ‘keeping. Advising Arsenal players afterwards. That stuck with me.’

‘Potentially the most epic formally long haired bald dome amongst us presently. It’s the kind of dome one would meet at the end of a long trail following a lifelong quest for enlightenment.’


Three great moments
THAT penalty v Bayern. I love the way he approaches the ball, firm, resolute, unexpressive, in control, drawing on all his 34 years of experience to keep control of this most pressured of situations. One kick to win the Champions League. And it was NEVER in doubt he’d score.

Tremendous free-kick ahoy. Pick that one out!

Now that is a real header. The power! Ooof.


What now?
He’s continued his humanitarian interests after retirement. In December 2018 he became Vice President of the international organization Peace and Sport

Two years after his retirement, Drogba doesn’t seem to be interested in being a coach or manager in the slightest. And fair play to him for that. Perhaps coming late to professional football meant he had already developed a hinterland of other interests and finds life without football not a problem.

In recent days he was appealing for peace following unrest after a recent poll. He’s just been given a golden visa by Dubai. Maybe he’ll take on some sort of more formal political role at some point. Given his status and inclination to really make a difference to people’s lives, it seems more likely than for most ex-players.

In the meantime we will forever remember his glory years as one of the best strikers in the world.

John Nicholson