How an ageing Didier Drogba went to Galatasaray and became a legend

How an ageing Didier Drogba went to Galatasaray and became a legend

Didier Drogba’s short spell at Galatasaray often goes unheralded outside the walls of Istanbul. Heroic performances and difference-making displays elevated the Ivorian onto a pedestal reserved for the game’s greatest in the capital of Turkish football. Very few players become a club icon, even fewer do it at more than one club; Drogba may be the only one to do it in just under 18 months.

After stepping up for Chelsea in the Champions League final in Munich, the veteran striker took a step back from the spotlight of European football in search of something new. A move to Shanghai Shenhua saw him link up with former teammate Nicolas Anelka, but things soon turned sour in China.

Whether it was a lack of stimulation in a more-than-mediocre league or the yearning of a return to the big time, the 34-year-old accepted an offer from Galatasaray in January and swapped huge money for modest earnings in Turkey. Shenhua came up with a couple of stumbling blocks but, with his wages unpaid by the Asian side, Drogba asked FIFA to invalidate his contract so he could put on the red and gold of Gala.

An arrival befitting of royalty welcomed him to Istanbul because, after all, he was still the king of Europe. In a squad that already contained familiar faces in Hamit Altintop, Felipe Melo, Burak Yılmaz, Selçuk İnan, Fernando Muslera and Emmanuel Eboué, Drogba and the newly-signed Wesley Sneijder brought real star quality to Fatih Terim’s team.

Fenerbahçe were mounting a challenge to Gala’s Süper Lig crown as the Champions League knockout stages beckoned for Drogba and co. It wasn’t until midway through February that the veteran made his debut for the Lions, coming on as a second-half substitute against Akhisar Belediyespor in Akhisar. A typically brutish header gave him his first Gala goal and the visitors the lead. Yılmaz doubled that advantage two minutes later which secured an eventual 2-1 victory. At this stage of the season, games were coming fast and each player didn’t have time to get up to speed.

Despite spending a few months in a league where the quality and tempo was far below what Drogba had been used to after a decade in the Premier League, the striker slotted straight into Terim’s strike force and showed no signs of struggle. Jermaine Jones’ equaliser meant Drogba’s home debut ended on level terms against Schalke in the first leg of the round of 16 in the Champions League. The two legs sandwiched a couple of poor results against Eskişehirspor and Gençlerbirliği as Galatasaray drew blanks in both encounters and picked up just one point between them.

Drogba was the spearhead of Gala’s attack in Gelsenkirchen and struck fear into Joel Matip and Benedikt Höwedes in the Schalke defence. An early strike stung the palms of Timo Hildebrand before goals from Yılmaz and Altintop saw the visitors come from behind to lead the tie. Michel Bastos notched Schalke’s second on the night and brought them to within one goal of seeing off their Turkish opponents. Drogba, who made up part of the defence as Schalke launched a late siege, watched from his own half as Umut Bulut secured Gala’s progression in stoppage time. Wild scenes on the touchline and back home coincided with the ball hitting the back of Hildebrand’s net to mark the club’s furthest Champions League run for 12 years.

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Real Madrid, still on the hunt for their elusive Décima, stood in the way of Gala’s first semi-final in Europe’s premier club competition. There was a small sense of nostalgia as Drogba came up against José Mourinho, Ricardo Carvalho and Michael Essien at the Santiago Bernabéu three weeks later. By then, Terim’s men had picked up some encouraging form domestically and were well in charge of the title race. Gala’s historic hopes were dashed first by Cristiano Ronaldo, then Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín as Los Blancos took a commanding lead into the return leg at the Türk Telekom Arena.

Although his leadership and link-up contributions to the team were evident, questions were being asked whether Drogba could still make a goalscoring mark at the top level. One fortunate lob from the edge of the box and one downwards header from the Ivorian put those doubts to rest during the weekend after the trip to Madrid as Galatasaray came back from a goal down to win against Mersin İdmanyurdu.

With the continental tie all but settled, the Lions were looking to restore pride in front of their own fans as Real Madrid visited Istanbul a few days later. An early Ronaldo strike might just have been the best thing that could’ve happened to Gala. Freed from the clutches of fear, those in red and gold unleashed a second-half show of spirit that saw them cement themselves in club folklore. Eboué crashed in a stunning long ranger in the 57th minute before Sneijder slotted home to put the hosts ahead on the night.

Those in the stands no longer cared about making the last four; they were just enjoying their side taking the game to one of the world’s biggest clubs. Soon after, Nordin Amrabat fronted up against Pepe on the right side of Real’s penalty area. In the middle, Drogba was tussling with a 20-year-old Raphaël Varane. With a mixture of momentum and sheer strength, the veteran pushed the defender back towards his own goal before Amrabat stole a yard on Pepe and sent a cross towards his striker.

With Varane shielded from the ball, Drogba improvised and back-heeled it into the far bottom corner and sent the home faithful into raptures. Sneijder grabbed the ball from the back of the net and was followed back to the halfway line by a prancing Drogba, arms flung out from his sides in trademark fashion.

Almost a year on from making the difference at the Allianz Arena in the same competition, Drogba couldn’t work another Champions League miracle, but he did provide Galatasaray fans with a moment of magic to cherish. Another Ronaldo goal came in added time to condemn the hosts to elimination but the huge relief that the Portuguese showed in his celebration was a testament to his opponents’ performance.

The end of the campaign brought more positives followed by a negative that tried to overshadow all the good that was going on at Galatasaray. Two Drogba goals against Elazığspor brought the Süper Lig crown to within two wins away. Sivasspor couldn’t stop the eventual coronation a fortnight later as they fell to a 4-2 defeat at the Türk Telekom Arena as Fenerbahçe lost at İstanbul Başakşehir. That title was the 20th in the club’s history, surpassing Fener’s 19 as the highest in Turkish football.

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Bad blood and bitterness were in the air as the two sides met a week later at Fenerbahçe’s Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium. Come full-time, the result was the furthest thing from the visitors’ minds, with various reports of racial abuse towards Drogba and Eboué from the Fener supporters.

Afterwards, Drogba launched a scathing attack on Galatasaray’s Facebook page on those that had abused he and his compatriot: “You called me monkey but you cried when Chelsea beat Fenerbahçe in 2008. You called me monkey but you jumped in front of your screen when I won the Champions League, you called me monkey but you got mad when I became champion with Galatasaray. The saddest thing is that you called me monkey and forgot that you jumped [for] my ‘monkey’ brother who scored twice,” he continued, referring to Pierre Webo who scored twice for Fenerbahçe during the game.

Despite the numerous reports and this statement, no action was taken against Fenerbahçe or the fans involved by the authorities. The game was also unfortunately remembered for the death of a Fener fan, with reports stating he was stabbed by a visiting supporter. It might’ve dawned on Drogba then that he wasn’t just fighting against defenders up front in a football game, he was battling against a football culture that needed a figurehead to call out its troubles.

After haunting Arsenal once again in the Emirates Cup over the summer, the striker lined up against Fenerbahçe at the start of the following season in Turkey’s Super Cup in Kayserispor’s Kadir Has Stadium. Justice was served on the football pitch thanks to Drogba’s extra-time header that settled the match and saw the silverware go to the red and gold side of Istanbul. 

After three draws in their opening four league fixtures, a daunting trip to an unbeaten Beşiktaş began badly for Galatasaray as the hosts took the lead. The restless visitors were soon soothed when Drogba converted Bruma’s low cross to equalise shortly before the hour mark. The former Chelsea man bared down on goal shortly after and lifted the ball over Günay Güvenç to haul Gala in front.

A hotly-contested affair bubbled up and boiled over as Felipe Melo saw red in stoppage time as the red mist descended. Fans from both sides invaded the pitch with hellbent intentions of wreaking havoc, with the referee abandoning the meeting. Gala were awarded a 3-0 win by default despite copping some of the blame before coach Terim left his post for the national team. 

In his place came Roberto Mancini, fresh from a shock FA Cup final defeat to Wigan with Manchester City. Despite this managerial setback, the Italian’s career commanded respect from the good and the great of the Gala dressing room. A couple of weeks earlier, in Terim’s final continental game in charge, Carlo Ancelotti had brought his Los Blancos back for reputational revenge after the defeat at the Türk Telekom Arena a few months earlier.

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Ronaldo restored pride against the Lions with an imperious treble that helped the visitors to a 6-1 win as they started the road to their eventual tenth European triumph. Antonio Conte’s Juventus joined Gala and Real in this Champions League group, along with FC Copenhagen. Mancini faced his compatriot in his homeland and it was an uncharacteristic mistake from an Italian defender that allowed Drogba to steal in, round Gianluigi Buffon, and slot past a despairing Andrea Barzagli.

A relieved Leonardo Bonucci watched as Arturo Vidal levelled from the penalty spot and Fabio Quagriarella netted a late winner – or so the hosts thought. As an optimistic long ball was sent in Drogba’s general direction, the 35-year-old tussled with Giorgio Chiellini, leapt higher than the defender, and headed the ball into Bulut’s path. Just like there had been before, jubilation greeted a late Galatasaray goal in the Champions League as the Turkish champions saved a point in Turin.

Drogba’s name adorned the team sheet back at home against Copenhagen before defeats in Denmark and Spain took their fate to the last fixture with Juve. A win would take them through, but only a win. Istanbul snow and hail halted proceedings after 31 minutes as the match was postponed until the following afternoon.

Service was resumed with white patches dotted around the pitch and a moat of snow between the players and fans. The game was goalless going into the final five minutes as another punt forward headed towards Drogba. This time, no one in black and white wanted to challenge him and his knock-down fell at the feet of Sneijder on the edge of the area. The Dutchman took the hi-vis orange ball wide before firing it back past Buffon and into the bottom corner.

After 15 years of football at the highest level, you’d have thought Drogba had seen it all. When he finally caught the celebrating Sneijder up, the sheer euphoria on his face was the same as it was in Marseille, London and Munich – he wanted this just as badly as anything before. Juventus were beaten and Gala found themselves in the last 16 at their opponents’ expense.

Meanwhile, the goals were flowing from Drogba’s boots in the Süper Lig as another league title seemed on the cards. A sentimental Champions League draw saw the striker head home to Stamford Bridge the following spring to face Mourinho, John Terry, Frank Lampard and co. A hero’s welcome in west London was all Drogba took away with him as Samuel Eto’o and Gary Cahill ensured Chelsea’s quarter-final place.

Fenerbahçe took home the league crown in May as fitness problems stagnated Drogba’s, and Galatasaray’s, campaign. Turkish Cup glory was a fitting send-off for one of the club’s most highly-regarded figures. One Süper Lig, one Turkish Cup, one Turkish Super Cup, 53 appearances and 20 goals were the numbers that made up Didier Drogba’s Galatasaray odyssey, but the monumental moments of single-handed heroics, glorious memories and legendary status will be what he’s remembered for most at his second home.

By Billy Munday @billymunday08

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