At his peak, Didier Drogba was a force of nature: all power and strength, physicality and indefatigable hustle. He redefined what was expected of a centre forward, bringing so much more to his game than goals. He was a high-energy, high octane phenomenon who would go on to become a club legend at Chelsea and one of Africa’s finest-ever players.
Drogba’s abilities would make playing with a lone striker a fashionable approach to the game, heralding the end of the age of the poacher-striker. While arguably not as prolific as some out-and-out strikers, he was a far more complete player making a greater overall contribution to the team. His powerful, physical style combined with searing pace, a fine touch and technique, and the always burning and occasionally explosive fire inside made him a central figure to any team he was a part of, rather than the loner up front waiting to become involved.
He demanded to be involved throughout, and his ability to retain possession of the ball made him ideal for the lone forward role he came to symbolise and would mark him out as a great team player. Drogba was supreme when it came to leading the line, and he did so with impressive consistency and an intoxicating blend of powerful poise and daring devilishness. It was no coincidence that some of his era’s very best defenders would cite Drogba as the toughest striker they’d had to face.
Renowned in his prime for his power, Drogba hadn’t always been this way. In fact, as a young part-time player at Ligue 2 club Le Mans, the late-blooming Drogba initially struggled to cope with the physical demands of playing and training. This was in part due to his having never been a part of a football academy or real structured coaching set up through his childhood; his complicated family circumstances dictating otherwise.
Born in the Ivorian capital of Abidjan, Drogba’s formative years took on an itinerant style, spending time living with his uncle – himself a professional footballer – in France as well as stints back in Abidjan. By the time he was 15, his parents had made a permanent move to France too, settling in the Parisian suburb of Antony. It was here that Drogba began taking football more seriously, impressing as a prolific goalscorer in the semi-professional lower reaches of French football.
For the teenage Drogba, though, football still wasn’t the sole driving force. He went to Le Mans to study accountancy at university, and consequently moved to play for the local club. But his physical struggles left him still looking in on the world of professional football from the outside. Only as a 21-year-old did he sign his first professional contract and make his first-team debut for Le Mans.
These struggles were surely part of what made Drogba the player he was. He gained the hunger and desire in being made to force his way into the professional game through a route that was far from the easiest. It also meant he retained a certain rawness and grit that would serve him well as his career progressed. He may have been a late developer in footballing terms, but once he knuckled down and pushed on in the game, success soon followed.
In early 2002 he moved to Guingamp, initially helping the club to avoid relegation from the top flight. The following year he fired them to an unprecedented seventh-place finish, scoring 17 times and linking up well with another star in the making in Florent Malouda. Guingamp couldn’t retain a striker of such renown for long, however, and that summer he was on the move again, to Marseille. His stay in France’s south coast would be an even shorter one, as the 2003/04 season saw him rise to greater prominence.
It was his part in Marseille’s run to the UEFA Cup final, and the curtailed Champions League campaign that preceded it, that brought Drogba to wider attention. No sooner had that debut Marseille campaign ended did the bigger clubs of Europe came calling. Chelsea, in the dawning days of their Abramovich and Mourinho revolution, saw Drogba as the perfect man the lead the Chelsea attack and crucially to get the best out of the attacking instincts of the likes of Frank Lampard.
Drogba signed for the Blues in July 2004 for £24m, but endured a stuttering start to his first Premier League season, with injury keeping him out for a time. When he returned, though, he was central to the team’s march to the Premier League title, and he also scored an extra-time winner in the League Cup final win over Liverpool. His all-round contributions were enhanced by the fact that Drogba developed a canny knack of scoring when it mattered most.
Save for a couple of very productive goalscoring seasons at Chelsea, he was never the most prolific of strikers, but come the big games he was immense. Lampard noted the difference in Drogba when it came to the big games, describing the big attacker as “a different man” on those occasions. “He was like an animal. His preparation, the intensity in his eyes, and then he always produced.”
A second league title came the following season, but oddly it wasn’t until the year after that Drogba’s goalscoring feats really hit the mark. In 2006/07 he scored 33 goals in all competitions, which bested his tally for the previous two league-winning seasons combined. With 20 of those coming in the league, Drogba became the first Chelsea player to win the golden boot since Kerry Dixon more than two decades earlier.
Beyond the league, his notable knack for the big-time goals continued. He scored both of Chelsea’s goals in the League Cup final win over Arsenal, and the winning goal in the FA Cup final against Manchester United, becoming the first player to score in two victorious English domestic finals.
It was in the Champions League, however, that the club’s ambitions and Drogba’s destiny both lay. In 2008, Drogba scored two goals in a 3-2 semi-final second-leg victory at Stamford Bridge, sending Chelsea to their first Champions League final. For Drogba, what could have been his defining night turned sour, however.
In the rain of Moscow, against Manchester United, Drogba was sent-off minutes from the end of extra-time for a petulant slap on Nemanja Vidić. In the ensuing penalty shoot-out, Drogba had initially been earmarked for Chelsea’s fifth penalty, but in his absence the Blues’ captain John Terry took his place. He slipped, and the rest is history.
Murmurs of a departure from Chelsea abounded, but Drogba remained. It wasn’t until the back-end of the following campaign that Drogba would emerge from a lull in his lofty standards, but the Champions League would again be the scene for despair rather than joy. Having lost out rather controversially in a fiery semi-final with Barcelona, the already substituted Drogba was one of a number of players to vociferously confront the referee. Drogba took things a bit further and, in an apoplectic rage, he yelled “it’s a fucking disgrace” into a live television camera and into millions of homes around the world.
Yet Champions League redemption would eventually come to Drogba in 2012, again as the central figure in a decisive, dramatic contest, but it had been a dramatic journey by that point. As if to re-emphasise his love of the big occasion, more FA Cup final goals came in 2009 and 2010, with the latter coming off the back of Drogba’s most prolific season in England; keeping up his record of having scored in all six English cup finals he played in.
In all, he scored 29 league goals in 2009/10, claiming a second golden boot in what was a phenomenal season for both club and player. He claimed the golden boot in scoring a final day hat-trick, as Chelsea took the league title on their way to a domestic double. This was peak Drogba. He had all of the interlinking, supreme team play that had made him such an effective lone striker but had married this to a truly prolific season in front of goal. So good was he that year that nearly a third of all of his 104 Premier League goals for Chelsea came in one season alone.
As successful as he was for his club, when it came to international duty Drogba was partially cast as a nearly-man. That’s not to say he didn’t have some incredible highs representing the Ivory Coast, and in many ways his service to his country would reach far beyond what he achieved on the pitch. But, in spite of leading his side to within touching distance of glory – Africa Cup of Nations runners-up, World Cup qualification – when it came to the crunch, he was unable to deliver. Whether this was in missing a vital shootout penalty in an AFCON final loss to Egypt in 2006, or in leading his team past the group stage of a World Cup, Drogba couldn’t drag his side as far as he’d have hoped.
But he achieved something far more significant: Drogba was influential in bringing peace to a nation struggling after years of civil war. On sealing qualification for the 2006 World Cup, while the team’s celebrations were being shown live back at home, he asked for the microphone and sank to his knees as he spoke to his countrymen about their World Cup success, urging those at home to lay down their arms and embrace unity and political change. His plea was played on national television for weeks, as its effect impacted on those from the political elite to the oppressed rebels.
A year later, he paraded his African Player of the Year award in the rebel stronghold of Bouaké, before insisting that an AFCON qualifier against Madagascar should be moved from Abidjan to the rebel city, in a show of unity and reconciliation celebrating the fact that peace had been restored just a few days earlier.
On the pitch, Drogba’s legacy was such that forward play was a far more integral part of the team’s play, and that so much more was expected of the strikers than mere goals. He made playing with a lone striker a legitimate and successful tactic, bringing the best from his undoubtedly stellar attributes.
Over the course of the decade, how strikers played had changed vastly, and much of this was down to the attributes Drogba brought to his game, redefining the role. But Didier Drogba left a legacy off the field too, as not only the most international symbol of his nation but as a unifying force for change amidst a turbulent period in its history.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams