The entire football world is excited over the futures of Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe. Chelsea are one of the interested parties as they continue their pursuit of a striker. That means mentioning one man: Didier Drogba.
It is impossible for strikers to be linked with Chelsea football club and not mention the name of Didier Drogba. The shadow of the Ivorian legend looms large over the pitch at Stamford Bridge and it does so for good reason. He was one of the most dominant players of his time and one of the most influential players in the history of Chelsea.
Having come to the Blues during a period of change in not only the club’s history and stature but also his own, there was a certain ethereal balance struck between the two. Chelsea was a club who had lived in the shadows of England’s giants at the time. The title was competed between Arsenal and Manchester United and then the rest of the table sought to establish themselves somewhere from there.
Those two clubs were full of famous footballers from famous academies of their own, La Masia or Clarefontaine in France. Chelsea though was different. When Roman Abramovich bought the club, he turned the Premier League on its head and changed the game for good. Chelsea went from being an afterthought to the newly rich and competitive side that people had written off. The Blues took that role on with verve and appreciated the opportunity to have something of a chip on their shoulder.
That is why Drogba fit the club so well. A player who didn’t get his role in academy football until his late teens and then who didn’t even break through at the top level until the age of 24 he had previously been written off by the establishment in much the same way that Chelsea was at the beginning of the Abramovich era. It was a fit that was made in heaven.
Though his career started off slowly in west London where he had to mature out of an early proclivity for diving and a few injury issues, Drogba eventually showed exactly the sort of player he was. He eventually earned a king-like reputation that endures to this day and that is due to more than his play on the field for Chelsea and the Ivory Coast it is also due to his activities off the field.
Yes, Drogba’s record in cup final’s is absurd. He played in 10 cup finals and scored in every single one of them. Everyone remembers the Champions League final where not only did he score the goal to take the game into extra time in the dying moments he also scored the winning penalty. What people forget though is how excellent his records were against the biggest sides of his day. Manchester United for instance. Drogba scored seven goals in 13 Premier League games against them. He also added four assists for good measure. His favorite side to play against however was the other giant of the time, Arsenal. Drogba scored 13 goals and added four assists against Arsenal in 15 matches against them.
His accomplishments for the Ivory Coast are almost more impressive even if it is painful to suggest. He is the nation’s top scorer and before he played for the team they hadn’t won the African Cup of Nations since 1992. With Drogba at the helm, they were runners up in 2006 and 2012 and won in 2015.
The most impressive fact may be this however: as of writing without Drogba in the team Ivory Coast have never qualified for a World Cup! With him they went to three consecutive tournaments in Germany, South Africa and Brazil.
Didier Drogba was more than just a footballer. He was a leader and a king among men. That is where his most impressive feat comes to the fore. Didier Drogba has long been adjudged to have personally had a role in ending the Ivorian Civil War. Which was a war between the Muslim north of the country and the Christian south of the country.
He did so when on October 8th, 2005 after scoring multiple goals and leading Ivory Coast to World Cup qualification and knelt before the crowd to symbolize his desire for their reconciliation between the two warring factions. If you’re thinking “oh that’s just a goal celebration though you’re making too much of this Barrett” then you’re wrong.
He then followed that up with a speech where he said:
"“Ivorians, we’ve proven today that the entire population of Ivory Coast can live together, play together with the same goal. Today, we’re begging you from our knees: a country with so much wealth cannot lose itself into the darkness in a war like this one. Please, put down your weapons. Hold elections, and everything will get better."
Following that day he was heralded as something of a political hero. Buses in Abidjan were plastered with phrases like “Didier the Great” and “Thank You Didier” and “Didier for President”.
When political leaders realized how influential he could be he was brought into the fold by the Prime Minister of the country at the time Charles Konan Banny brought Drogba in as a political advisor. He said in a speech on the national news station after one of these meetings that he worked with Banny because it would be a symbol to the people of the Ivory Coast of a “commitment to participation” because the “Ivorian people have suffered for too long” and that “we need reconciliation, we need forgiveness”.
Then on March 4th 2007 the Civil War was announced to have ended.
So yes it’s impossible to say it was all Drogba but it would also be impossible to say that his influence wasn’t felt in ending the crisis either.
That is why Drogba is more than a footballer and why his image reigns over the pitch at Stamford Bridge. Since Drogba’s signing only one striker could even be suggested to have been an out and out success and that was Diego Costa and yet even he had blemishes.
That is something that will need to be taken into account by both Chelsea and Erling Haaland’s personal representatives should a move materialize. Being a striker at Stamford Bridge is not for the faint of heart. It is not for those who are weak willed or easily pushed from their belief in not only themselves but the project. It is a legitimate challenge and for what it’s worth it should be.
Didier Drogba reigns supreme as one of the living legends of the modern game and replacing him has been too big a task for plenty of fine men. The question that anyone be it Haaland, Mbappe, Werner or even Tammy Abraham will have to ask is if they believe themselves to be up to the challenge. Do they want to simply play football or do they want to be more than that? Do they want the breath of their influence to end on the pitch or to be greater than that? Chelsea supported Drogba’s initiatives in Ivory Coast when they knew it was right. They helped build a hospital and football schools. Such support would be given to someone else if they had the same character and weight of influence not only in sporting terms but character and spirit. Does anybody in football today, in the next generation have that? Only they can know.
Whether rightly or wrongly those are the inevitable comparisons that will be made. Arguing about fairness is foolish when it is simply the truth that it will happen. It will take a player who is not only long on skill but character and intelligence too. It has proven to be too hard for plenty but greatness never came without great challenges.
Drogba knew that. Let us hope that his successor does too.