He is the embodiment of what modern-day football fans are supposed to despise. First, there’s the diving. Then there’s the rolling around in mock agony which often accompanies the diving. And of course, there’s the moaning. And the moaning. And the moaning. And the moaning.
But somehow, for us at least, all his flaws can be airbrushed in an instant with the swing of a boot, a powerful header, or a precisely struck free-kick, followed by a typically charismatic and elaborate goal celebration. Ladies and gentleman, meet Didier Drogba.
Born in March 1978, the Abidjan, Ivory Coast-born Drogba had to wait another 21 years before he finally put pen to paper on his first professional contract. Having spent a large part of his early life in France, Drogba began his footballing career in the North-West of the country with Le Mans.
Reportedly struggling to cope with the demands of professional football, Drogba’s time at Le Mans was hampered by injuries, although he did manage over 60 games in his four years at the club, scoring 12 goals in the process. The fledgling Drogba was then allowed to move on from Le Mans, with Guingamp signing the striker for a fee of around £80,000 in 2002.
It was here where Drogba’s potential began to show, with 45 appearances for the club producing 20 goals, almost a record of a goal every other game. It was at Guingamp where Drogba was introduced to, and flourished with, the winger Florent Malouda, with the two players becoming friends. Drogba was no doubt eager to link up again with the Frenchman in the future, and we all know how that turned out don’t we?
Although it may have been down to Malouda’s crosses, it was Drogba’s goals which were grabbing the headlines and attracting the plaudits. It wasn’t long before he was on the move again, with French giants Marseille sealing a £3.3m deal for the striker at the beginning of the 2003/04 season.
Despite the fact that he only stayed at l’OM for a solitary season, Drogba firmly established himself as a fans’ favourite at the club. A highly successful season for the Ivorian culminated in him winning the Player of the Year award in France, while bagging 19 goals in only 35 games. He particularly caught the eye in Marseille’s UEFA Cup run, in which the French side made it to the final of the competition before bowing out against Valencia in Gothenburg.
Meanwhile, Chelsea had just completed their first season in the megabucks world of Roman Abramovich, finishing 2nd in the Premier League and reaching the 5th round, quarter-finals and semi-finals of the FA Cup, League Cup and Champions’ League respectively. Having disposed of amiable manager Claudio Ranieri, the club replaced him with the ruthlessly effective José Mourinho. The Portuguese maestro in turn disposed of strikers Mikael Forsell, Carlton Cole, Hernán Crespo and the prolific Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink as he looked to shape his own squad.
Needing a new forward to spear an attack which already boasted the talents of Eidur Gudjohnsen and Mateja Kezman, Mourinho turned to Drogba, completing a £23.8m move on the 20th of July 2004.
The scattergun approach to signings in Abramovich’s first season had been calmed somewhat, with a quality over quantity policy implemented for the 2004/05 season. Drogba was seen as overpriced at the time, especially as his first campaign only brought ten league goals as he again struggled with injuries.
However, his link-up play and involvement in many of the side’s team goals proved his talent, and he and the club were rewarded with the Premier League title and the League Cup, with Drogba scoring a memorable – albeit scrappy – goal in the final against Liverpool.
As Chelsea continued their assault on English football in the 2005/06 season, Drogba continued where he left off from his debut campaign. The Community Shield was won against Arsenal, with Drogba’s strength a key component to the win as he easily shrugged off Gunners’ defender Phillipe Senderos to bag a brace.
Chelsea cantered to the league title again, and Drogba managed another 15 goals in total during the season, with 11 assists in the Premier League alone also under his belt.
However, the relative harmony at Stamford Bridge was disrupted somewhat in the build-up to the 2006/07 season. Drogba was linked with a move back to Marseille, a transfer which he seemed to welcome before doubling back on his comments and pledging his future to Chelsea. Also, despite a settled, successful system, Michael Ballack and striker Andriy Shevchenko were brought in as expensive luxuries.
Drogba went from being the star attraction up front for the Blues to sharing equal billing with the hard-working but goal-shy Shevchenko. But although the Ukrainian didn’t set the world alight, Drogba enjoyed his best season at the club to date, scoring an impressive 33 goals in a long season which featured successful cup runs in both the FA Cup and the League Cup, with Drogba scoring the winner against Manchester United in the former, and a key double against Arsenal in the latter.
During this season, Drogba also added some personal awards to an ever-growing trophy cabinet. In January 2007, he won the Ivorian player of the year, and followed up that award in March with the African Player of the Year trophy. His club achievements didn’t go unnoticed either, as he finished second in the PFA Player of the Year award.
But after the highs come the lows, and for Drogba the 2007/08 campaign was to be the lowest of the low. The 15 goals spread over the season are unfortunately not the main talking point.
Following an average start to the season, and after a reported breakdown in the relationship of Mourinho and Abramovich, the club’s most successful manager left the club by mutual consent in September 2007. Drogba was devastated, resulting in the infamous quote: “I want to leave Chelsea. Something is broken with Chelsea, The damage is big in the dressing room,” which was printed in the equally infamous France Football Magazine.
Drogba looked a different player from then on, although his appearances were limited compared to previous seasons due to a knee operation and international duty with Ivory Coast in the 2008 African Cup of Nations tournament.
Despite the increase in mood swings and – at times – noticeably withdrawn body language, Drogba did provide a hugely memorable moment in the Champions League semi-final second leg win over Liverpool. Taunted pre-match by Reds boss Rafa Benitez, who called into question Drogba’s diving antics, the Ivorian hit back on the pitch with a vital brace, sliding on his knees in the direction of Benitez after the powerfully-struck first goal.
However, Drogba let himself and the Chelsea fans down in the Champions League final, needlessly slapping Manchester United defender Nemanja Vidic with just minutes left of extra-time and picking up a red card. Chelsea lost on penalties with crucial misses from John Terry and Nicolas Anelka proving costly. Drogba, goalscorer supreme, would surely have been on the list of penalty takers had he stayed on the pitch.
2008/09 brought a new period of upheaval to the club, with Luis Felipe Scolari taking the reins at Chelsea. Drogba’s future was again up in the air, and injuries combined with a lack of fitness kept him off the pitch for the beginning of the season. Anelka spearheaded the attack and raced into an early lead as the Premier League’s top goalscorer while Drogba kicked his heels on the sidelines.
Although he managed to make an goal-scoring appearance against Burnley in the League Cup penalty defeat, Drogba threw a coin into the away fans’ section following his strike and picked up mass criticism and a three-match ban. Drogba also seemed to reach a new low against Manchester United in a league game at Old Trafford, where Chelsea were trounced 0-3. Drogba barely got in the game and displayed body language which seemed to suggest a complete lack of effort or desire.
Anelka remained the main striker until Scolari’s time at Chelsea came to a premature end. Guus Hiddink was brought in and it was as if a dark cloud was no longer hanging over the club. Drogba performed another u-turn and began to look like his old self again, and his mini-renaissance under the Dutchman brought key goals against Juventus (in both games), Portsmouth, and Coventry City.
However, just seven goals in 30 games so far this season for the 30 year old Drogba has cast some doubt over his future at Chelsea. Constantly linked with a move away, with Mourinho’s Inter Milan a likely destination, it remains to be seen whether or not the Ivorian will be at Stamford Bridge next season. An upheaval has been promised by the club’s hierarchy, and Drogba could well be a victim of the Chelsea cull.
But if he does go, how will he be remembered by the fans? A diving, play-acting prima donna? An enigma? The man who seemed to look for a move away from the club at every given opportunity?
Or a proven goalscorer and a vital cog in our recent success?
Didier Drogba: forever a mystery. But for the time being, he’s our mystery.