The Bittersweet Legacy of Didier Drogba

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The Bittersweet Legacy of Didier Drogba
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

I think Martin Tyler said it best when Didier Drogba converted the spot kick that won Chelsea the Champions League last May against Bayern Munich.

“Drogba may never play for Chelsea again,” the renowned broadcaster cried, “but he will never be forgotten! He’s immortal at this football club!”

And he was right.

But then, in the blink of an eye, Drogba was gone. He signed a lucrative deal with Shanghai Shenhua, and it was as if the whole thing had never happened (and for what Chelsea supporters have endured this season, it may actually feel like it didn’t). The move to China effectively ended a magnificent eight years in West London for the veteran striker, who took his leave having just completed a remarkable denouement in European football.

Or so we thought.

Flash forward nine months, an on-going contract dispute, and a convoluted transfer later, and Drogba now finds himself back on the continent that has made him so famous, only this time, with Turkish giants Galatasaray.

 

According to Google Maps, Turk Telekom Arena—Drogba’s new home—is 1,868 miles from Stamford Bridge; that’s almost a four-hour flight, a 30-hour drive, or nearly an entire continent, apart. But no matter the great distance, the Ivory Coast international’s presence—or rather, lack thereof—is still seriously being felt at Chelsea.

When Drogba first announced that he would be substituting Fulham Road for the Far East, Chelsea fans must have been saddened, but empathetic. The club had just won its first-ever European Cup to cap off one of the most miraculous Champions League runs in history due in large part to the exploits of its departing star, whose final touch of the ball in a Chelsea shirt won the club its most coveted prize. But Drogba was 34 years old, out of a contract and in search of a change of scenery—he got lots more money, too.

“Fair enough,” Chelsea fans said to themselves, still distracted and jubilant over the capturing of their elusive holy grail. “We’ll miss you, Didier, but we’ll probably be fine with Fernando Torres.”

Famous last words.

 

It is no secret—in fact, it is an immutable truth—that Chelsea have struggled mightily this season without Drogba up front. After dipping into Roman Abramovich’s endless coffers this summer and revamping their attack with exuberant youngsters like Oscar, Eden Hazard and Victor Moses, the Blues were expected to play like European victors once again, especially with Champions League winners such as Ramires, Juan Mata and Frank Lampard returning.

The creativity of the renovated midfield combined with the savvy knowhow of the veterans was supposed to dovetail beautifully with Chelsea’s new starting No. 9, Euro 2012’s Golden Boot winner, Fernando Torres.

But it isn’t going, hasn’t gone and most likely never will go according to plan.

Last year’s crucial goal against Barcelona notwithstanding, the Spaniard (formerly) known as El Nino has failed to leave much of any kind of mark at Chelsea during his 27-month career. Torres has scored just 14 league goals in his first three seasons with the club, compared to Drogba’s 42 from 2004-07, when he joined Chelsea from Marseille at the same age as his former teammate (26).

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Demba Ba has shone glimpses of greatness, but an injury and a lack of opportunity with Torres and his £50 million price tag still atop the pecking order has stunted his potential growth.

 

The precocious Romelu Lukaku is enjoying a tremendous year of first-team football, but unfortunately it is for another club in West Brom, where he will remain on loan until the end of the season; perhaps even longer than that.

Drogba can do little harm to Chelsea right now while plying his trade in Turkey, but his absence this season, which in hindsight was always going to be a rough one of transition, could perhaps best be described as conspicuously detrimental, as the club has yet to find a suitable replacement for him.

As a life-long Chelsea supporter, I was initially excited when I heard that Galatasaray had decided to sign Drogba during the January transfer window and pair him with Dutch maestro of the midfield Wesley Sneijder, giving the Turks a genuine chance in the final 16 of the Champions League.

However, when I learned of the length of Drogba’s contract (18 months), I couldn’t help but feel a vague pang of resentment toward the Ivorian, who still clearly has so much to offer (despite his noticeable late-game huffing and puffing during the second leg against Schalke over a fortnight ago).

Why hadn’t he simply re-signed for Chelsea on an 18-month deal?

Drogba couldn’t have possibly foreseen the power struggle that erupted at Shanghai Shenhua so soon after his arrival, which eventually led to his transfer to Galatasaray. Had he had that particular clairvoyance, he might have re-signed with Chelsea even on reduced terms following his famous Champions League final penalty kick.

The Blues reportedly offered Drogba another contract in January to rescue him away from the tumult in China but were promptly rejected because they couldn’t offer the striker what Galatasaray could: Champions League football.

 

Chelsea still find themselves playing in Europe at this particular juncture of the season (albeit in the Europa League). Though one wonders if Chelsea might still be playing in the more prestigious of the two annual continental tournaments had Drogba opted to stay at Stamford Bridge for another season.

Drogba wasn’t always Mr. Consistency for the Blues. In fact, he was a bit of a loose cannon at times. There was the notorious slapping of Nemanja Vidic and his subsequent sending off during extra time of the 2008 Champions League final against Manchester United, a dismissal that ensured that John Terry would suffer the most ignominious moment of his career (and that’s really saying something) when the defender slipped and missed the final penalty—that would have been Drogba’s—in the shootout.

Chelsea fans will remember Drogba’s post-match polemic launched at Tom Henning Ovrebo the following season when Chelsea crashed out of the semifinals of the same tournament to Barcelona after the infamous Norwegian referee denied Chelsea a handful of penalties.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

On the topic of consistency, the striker sustained his fair share of injuries during his career at Stamford Bridge as well.

Yes, Drogba might have been a loose cannon at times. But he was our loose cannon.

He scored 100 league goals in 226 appearances and 157 goals in all competitions. With nine of those goals coming in nine cup finals, including the game-tying header against Bayern and the game-winning penalty kick, his legacy as one of Chelsea’s greatest-ever players (or the club’s greatest-ever player according to a November 2012 poll of 20,000 fans conducted by Chelsea Magazine) is set in stone.

The fluorescent orange banner hanging in the corner of the West Stand and the Shed End of Stamford Bridge that reads: “DROGBA LEGEND” in big black letters with an accompanying image of the Ivorian striker—as well as the massive void that’s been missing at the spearhead of Chelsea’s formation in almost every match this season—serves as a constant reminder of just how unforgettable the two-time African Footballer of the Year really is to the West London faithful.

 

And while part of me would like to see Drogba on that big stage in consecutive seasons and watch as he shocks the world and leads Galatasaray to a stunning Porto-esque Champions League victory, another part of me would like to see his Turkish side vanquished swiftly by mentor Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid, and then to have Chelsea go on to celebrate a Europa League title, which would surely get Drogba’s attention.

Maybe then, as the Blues hoist the Europa League trophy, cavorting and spraying champagne on one another, will it finally dawn on Drogba that he should have stayed and that, had he done so, the Blues might have won the big one for a second straight year.

Either way, I think I speak for every Chelsea fan when I say to Didier: You are missed dearly and daily, and your shoes are nearly impossible to fill. Good luck, old friend.

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