I never imagined, back in the Autumn of 2004, that this young forward—the emerging figurehead of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea revolution—would go on to be revered across the continent in such elevated terms. In truth, I was dubious about this broad, bustling striker who seemed to hit the deck at every opportunity; despite the odd flash of brilliance, there was too much of the theatrical, the pleading, the petulance.
He was, famously, a "slow-starter," and whilst many would-be stars are feted from their mid-teens, Drogba’s rise was far less spectacular. At 23, playing on the Cotes d’Armor with En Avant Guingamp, he was languishing on the periphery of the team, still struggling to find his feet in the French leagues.
However, slowly and surely the towering forward began to express himself as a powerhouse forward. Before long it was evident that Drogba had the lot. Capable of outmuscling even the strongest of centre-backs, capable of leaping higher than the tallest, and, in bursts, potent enough to outmanoeuvre and outthink the wiliest of defenders.
It became apparent that Chelsea had an absolute gem on their hands.
It was on the big occasion where the Ivorian frontman excelled, and it was on the higher stage where the affection that existed for him among the Chelsea faithful became a full-blown love affair.
Manchester United were slain in the 2007 FA Cup Final thanks to Drogba winner, so too Portsmouth three years later, and Liverpool in last summer’s showpiece. Against Everton in 2009, Louis Saha’s opener was cancelled out by the Ivorian, before Frank Lampard’s winner sealed the cup for the Pensioners.
It was against Bayern Munich in last year’s Champions League final that Drogba’s array of talents, and penchant for the highest billing, saw the Blues secure Europe’s premier trophy, becoming the first London club to do so. A menace all evening, it was the Drog’s sensational last-minute header that took the tie into extra time, before he held his nerve to step up and score the decisive, and ultimately, winning, penalty.
The spot-kick was to be his last contribution to the Chelsea cause, and the summer saw him depart, leaving an incredible legacy behind him, and supposedly paving the way for Fernando Torres to take the scoring mantle and fire the West Londoners into the future.
While we all know how that one turned out, the Ivorian’s travails across the globe since that fateful evening in Munich have brought with them both celebration and consternation. Having left "the project" at Shanghai Shenhua under a cloud, with the club still claiming that he remains under contract, the controversy—never too far away when Drogba is concerned—has followed him to new club Galatasaray.
After scoring for Gala on the 15th of February merely minutes after entering as a substitute against Akhisar Belediyespor, the ball was in the net, the high-profile striker tearing off celebrating the adulation of his new supporters. Champions League opponents Schalke weren’t so enamoured, however, and are currently threatening to lodge an official complaint about the eligibility of the striker. Schalke, like Shanghai Shenhua, clearly believe the striker’s rightful place is in China.
I am inclined, however, to consider Drogba not within the European or the East Asian context, but within the African context, where, as his career draws to a close, we can begin to assess and evaluate his influence.
The Ivory Coast’s recent disappointment at the African Cup of Nations, a failure that may well seem inevitable in light of their decade of underachievement, has prompted observers to advocate a new generation of Elephants. To promote a selection of players who could go someway to overwrite the underwhelming exits and overwhelming grief that has accompanied the national side.
One day, Drogba will embark on a blissful retirement, marred, perhaps, by the one gaping hole in his trophy cabinet. Amidst the Top Scorer Awards, the Player of the Year Awards, the Premier League titles, and that glistening Champions League winner’s medal, there will be no Cup of Nations—no continental honour to celebrate the unified existence of one of Africa’s finest generations.
In my opinion, his international failures are what separates Drogba from the greatest African player of them all, Samuel Eto’o. Like Drogba, the former Barcelona man has the Champions League winner’s medal (two, in fact), and, like the Ivorian, he has won leagues and individual honours aplenty.
However, in amongst his four African Player of the Year awards, and the warm commendation of being the AFCON’s top scorer of all time, one could find two Cup of Nations winner’s medals, as well as an Olympic Gold—all three of which were earned with an Indomitable Lions side arguably not as overtly talented as the Ivorians that accompanied Drogba.
He may have stolen our hearts, and he may have stolen the show, but I believe that the Great Ivorian has fallen short of being the continent’s finest.