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Illustration by Federico Manasse

Saturday 19 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’ men from the Bavarian superclub. That is until the ultimate big-match player put his head on the end of a Juan Mata corner in the 88th minute, and as they say, the rest is history. Chelsea were European champions for the first time, and the Ivorian striker etched his name in European football history.

Didier Yves Drogba Tébily, or as he is known less formally, Didier Drogba, was born in Abidjan in Ivory Coast. It is a city of some five million inhabitants, nearly 20 percent of the country’s entire population, and is the economic centre of the nation. It is also one of the largest French-speaking cities in Africa.  

Living outside of Ivory Coast for many years did not dampen the passion Drogba felt for his people. He took up their cause and made it his own, putting his larger-than-life personality into the political process of a war-torn country, trying to improve the lives of his native countrymen. 

Working from afar, Drogba was able to bring attention to the civil war that had been raging in Ivory Coast for several years. Since the death of the popular president Félix Houphouët-Boigny, and a heavy influx of immigrants, mostly from Burkina Faso, the sitting government had put in restrictive immigration laws that had divided the country. 

While Ivory Coast was in qualification for the 2006 World Cup, in which they succeeded, the Drogba-led footballers helped to negotiate a halt in the hostilities, and ultimately a peace agreement between the warring factions. Drogba’s message of peace and a unified country was critical in bringing about the ceasefire. The national team convinced the government to hold a match in the rebel territory as a gesture of goodwill.  

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The 2006 World Cup was a first for the Ivory Coast, and they have qualified for both subsequent tournaments in South Africa and Brazil. They are now seen as a powerhouse of African football. During this most productive period of Drogba’s career, he was the King of Stamford Bridge, playing for Chelsea in London. He was part of the resurgent squad that would bring glory days to the west London club.  

It was José Mourinho who put the finishing touches to the side with the purchase of Drogba from Marseille, where he had been Ligue 1 player of the year in his single season with the club in 2003/04. Marseille finished third in France and reached the final of the UEFA Cup, the precursor to the Europa League.  

Once the amazing crew built around Drogba, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Petr Čech and Ashley Cole was settled, they went about setting Premier League records for most points in a season. While Mourinho was not around long enough to see the fruits of his labour, Drogba became the main man in SW6, stirring the fans’ passion for a club that had been the bridesmaid, but never the bride. 

When Roberto Di Matteo took over as manager, Chelsea were mired in sixth place in the Premier League. The club needed to win the Champions League final or they would miss out on European football the following season. At this point, Drogba, always a big-match player, saved his best for last, scoring the equalising goal against Bayern Munich then delivering the decisive penalty kick after 120 minutes of riveting football.  

After eight tremendous seasons at Chelsea, Drogba traveled the world in search of football, playing for Galatasaray, Shanghai Shenhua, Montreal Impact, another brief stint with Mourinho’s Chelsea, and is presently on a new adventure in the US as owner/striker for Phoenix Rising of the USL.

At 39, Drogba still chases the game. As he continues to play with passion, his love for football is only equalled by his passion for his native land. Drogba will influence generations of Ivory Coast youth players for years to come. He is a true giant of the game, but a gentle giant at that 

Writer  |  Jim Hart  

Editor  |  Andrew Flint