Who is Didier Drogba?

Drogba became one of the most famous footballers of his generation thanks to his time at Chelsea, but he never won a major tournament for his national team.

Didier Drogba, 2011 (Wiki Commons).

My candidate for the best thing ever posted on the internet – an object that may single-handedly justify the existence of social media – is this clip of Didier Drogba, along with his wife and two friends, watching the final of the 2015 African Cup of Nations. The game pitted the Ivory Coast against Ghana and, as is oddly traditional in the African Cup of Nations, it went not just to penalty kicks but to a surreal and extended shoot-out that culminated in the two goalies taking shots against each other. Boubacar Barry, the Ivory Coast goalie, became a legend that day by accomplishing a feat few goalkeepers ever have. He first blocked the penalty kick from the Ghana goalkeeper. Then Barry stepped up, sweating, and kicked the ball into the goal, winning his country the African Cup of Nations.

Drogba, however, was watching from far away. He’d retired from international football after the devastating 2013 defeat, also in penalty kicks, to Zambia in the final of the African Cup of Nations. But as compensation for not being able to watch him be part of that victory on the pitch, we got to watch him watching the shoot-out. What is delightful about this video is that we’ve all, at some point, been in the position that Drogba occupies in this video. Still, his intensity, and the way he celebrates when his country wins, is unbelievably funny and joyous to watch.

There is also a certain sadness, or longing, about the moment: he’s living vicariously what he probably deserved (as much as any athlete deserves anything) to have lived himself. The intensity of the video is partly the result of the fact that you know that, he knows he should be there. Or maybe it is that he is there on the pitch as well as his coach – or rather, in the end, on the floor, almost praying in front of the television.

Who is Didier Drogba? In his new autobiography Commitment he tells us some of the story. The genre of the athlete autobiography is dangerous territory. As you wade into one of these, there is always a good chance of being force-marched through insufferable clichés, tedious personal details, and overly massaged accounts of interactions with other athletes and managers. One enters with trepidation. But Commitment is actually quite an enjoyable read, rarely scintillating, but comfortingly steady and straightforward in recounting a life that has been full of intriguing twists and turns.

Drogba’s trajectory has, in a way, been an unusual one. He became one of the most famous footballers of his generation thanks to his time at Chelsea, but never won a major tournament for his national team. He was, however, able to use football – in a small way – to contribute to peace in his country, something probably more valuable than a trophy. So it was that, as he watched the Ivory Coast finally win the African Cup of Nations in 2015, from his home, he could celebrate as if he was there, as if he had won.

Drogba was born in 1978 Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, but at the age of five his parents sent him to live with his uncle, Michel Goba, in France. Goba was a professional football player. Looking back, Drogba describes this experience of being “uprooted” at a young age as a defining one, though he “never forgot those roots” in Ivory Coast and has “long felt a burning need to reclaim them.”

Following his uncle’s itinerant career, he grew up in different small towns in France, first in Brest, then Angoulême, then Troucoing on the outskirts of Lille. He stood out: some of his friends “would even rub my skin to see if I really was that color!” Neighbors would stare or look away.

In Dunkirk, Goba – by then Drogba’s legal guardian – got him on a youth football team. On Sundays, they went down the beach where his uncle showed the young boy “all sorts of tricks,” like “how to use my body against a defender, and how to time a jump effectively.

“When I saw him jumping up for a ball, I used to think that he stayed in the air forever, as if he was flying,” Drogba recalls (p. 9). Still, the pitch wasn’t an escape: as he played, he was “always hearing comments about the colour of my skin.” Lonely, he lived in his “own bubble.” This helped him develop a vital skill that has served him well: adapting “really fast to whatever situation I found myself in. New team, new country? No problem.”

Eventually Drogba’s mother and father migrated to France, and he was re-united with his family. As a teenager he lived in a one-room apartment in Levallois with five siblings, including a newborn brother. His father discouraged him from playing football and urged him to focus on his studies. But when his grades improved, he asked if he could return to the pitch, the only place he felt really happy.

“Deep inside, though, I knew I would be a footballer, irrespective of what my father said. There was no question in my mind.” When his father came to watch one of his games, he realized he was seeing a totally different person than the shy son he saw at home.

Drogba was part of a remarkable generation of footballers who grew up in France during these years. But unlike Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram, he never attended a football academy or training program. Instead, he made his way through the lower levels of French professional football. In fact he wondered, early on, if he would ever make it: in 1998, at the age of 20, he fractured his ankle and fibula, reduced to watching Henry, a new superstar, lift the World Cup trophy.

Throughout the book, he writes about coaches who took an interest in him and taught him who he was as a player. The coach at Le Mans, for instance, once told him: “You don’t need to play the full 90 minutes. For you, five, 10 minutes are enough . . . You can play ten minutes and make a difference.” Throughout his career, both in professional and international football, Drogba had that transformative presence on the pitch: he often came on as a sub and changed everything. He was able to move up from the lower division to a Ligue 1 club, at Guingamp, where he played alongside Florent Malouda and under coach Guy Lacombe, who Drogba remembers as “… a great tactician, and he taught me a lot about placement, movement, pace.” Later on, when he was at Chelsea, coach Guus Hiddink reminded him that he could “stop running around all over the place. You’re a striker, you don’t have to do that. Just stay up there and finish the actions.”

I tend to think of Didier Drogba as a particularly solid player. But Commitment offers up constant reminders of how brutal and bruising a professional athletic life can be. His early career included a string of injuries to his legs and feet, including broken leg and foot bones. Later, just before the 2010 World Cup, he broke his arm and even ended with a bout of malaria that slowed him down in the 2010-11 season.

Commitment offers some particularly charming accounts of what it is like to be on the pitch as a professional footballer. He writes about a game he played with Guingamp against Paris Saint-Germain. He was awed as he watched the Brazilian star Ronaldinho score a brilliant goal against his team that day: “I obviously couldn’t clap, but in all honestly, that’s what I felt like doing.” In the second half of the game, a teammate scored an unexpected goal and somersaulted in celebration. “His leap gave us all wings.” Soon Drogba scored. The small stadium was packed, as were the “blocks of flats and balconies” that overlook it in the town. When Drogba scored another goal, “total madness broke out around us.”

Through these performances, Drogba became recognized as a star striker, and at the age of 25 was recruited to play at Olympique de Marseille. This is a place famous for the intensity and devotion of its fans. Drogba describes going to the hill-top Basilica in the town, and offering his OM shirt in the hopes that this would “give us a bit of divine fortune.”

At first Drogba was terrified, feeling “different from his teammates.” But they carried him along: one day early on, when he was lagging on a team run, unaccustomed to the heat, a teammate said: “We’ll wait. We’ll just follow you. You lead, we’ll follow.”

“I was now dictating the pace,” Drogba remembers. “I was blown away by that attitude.” He was given a jersey with his favorite number – 11 – and fans greeted him warmly on his first game with a banner that said “Drogba, score for us.” Playing in front of the 60,000 fans in the Stade Vélodrome, he often felt “a sort of out-of-body sensation.”

Drogba became famous in part for the way he celebrated his goals for Marseille: “whenever I scored, I broke into a bit of coupé-décalé, a popular dance in Ivory Coast and in the Ivorian community in France, based on Ivorian pop music.” This became his “trademark,” and the “fans loved it.” They adopted it as their own, and after a key victory there were “lots of demonstrations of coupé-décalé by the locals!”

But he also continued to encounter racism from fans. After scoring against Real Madrid, he heard fans making the “unmistakable sound of monkey noises. It was a small minority but, all the same, it was very clear. I was shocked. And I will never forget thinking, even in my moment of glory, ‘Wow, a big team like Real Madrid. I can’t believe they’ve got fans like that!’”

At Marseille Drogba fully came into his own as a footballer. Freed from the “physical attrition” of the second division, he found himself in a place where “it’s technique that’s important, and timing, attacking at the right moment, having a good footballing brain, knowing when the other team is having a slight dip and grabbing the balance of power. It was all about reading the game and by then I’d started to understand these things, so it felt natural to me, and therefore easy.” He gained that particular kind of flattery that marks a good striker, hearing defenders “making some comments along the lines of the only way to stop me was to kick me. . . .”

Playing against Porto, he met José Mourinho in the tunnel after a game. He “jokingly asked me in French if I had any brothers or cousins who played football like I did.” ‘Actually, there are lots in Africa who are better,’ I joked back”.

“‘One day, when I can afford you, I will sign you,’ Mourinho promised.”

It was to be, and a few years later with Mourinho at Chelsea Drogba reached the peak of his career. For the many Mourinho-loathers out there, Commitment offers a striking counterpoint. Drogba lavishes praise on the manager. For one thing, he didn’t have his team do those silly 5 to 10 kilometer runs that were the norm in France.

“I had always hated those runs and often used to struggle with distance-running training.” His emphasis was on being “football fit” (p. 87). The two developed a relationship that remained strong throughout Drogba’s career. “Communication – that’s all I have ever asked of managers. It’s so incredibly simple, but it’s amazing how often it doesn’t happen.”

Drogba was raised Catholic, and attributes much of his success to his faith. He has “conversations” with God during games – “which might sound funny or strange to some people, but anyone who has seen me looking up to the heavens or crossing myself, that person will realize this is true.” Drogba’s recounting of a famous 2012 victory by Chelsea against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final highlights the role religion played for him on the pitch. With his team down 1-0 Drogba began “speaking to God . . . begging him, ‘If you really exist, show me, show me!” God responded, enabling him to score a header, timing his jump perfectly “just as my uncle had taught me all those years ago.” Of course, God, can be a bit fickle, and not long afterwards Drogba had a “moment of clumsiness” and earned Bayern a penalty kick. “Oh my God! What have you done! Why does this always happen to me, why?” But he had enough energy to hassle Arjen Robben, who took the penalty kick, which was saved by Petr Cech. The game went to a penalty kick shoot-out and Drogba scored the decisive penalty.In the locker room afterwards, Drogba draped himself in the Ivory Coast flag and delivered a long speech to the trophy.

It was, however, as a player on the Ivory Coast national team that Drogba made his most important speeches. Though a dual national, with both French and Ivory Coast passports, Drogba was never selected to play on any of the junior national teams in France. His uncle, however, had once played for Ivory Coast and, as he put it, “I really wanted to continue the family tradition and pull on the jersey for ‘The Elephants.’”

“Even was I was young, I used to get goosebumps whenever I heard our national anthem” (p. 227). He recalls his first match with the national team, an African Cup of Nations qualifier, in September 2002: “what is seared in my memory for ever is the excitement of walking out into the cauldron of heat that was our national stade, the Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny.”

Fans had packed the stadium since ten in the morning, with artists and musicians performing, and “everyone had been joining in.” And this, he learned, was “the norm for every game!” (p. 230) Only ten days later, a civil war broke out in Ivory Coast. Though a ceasefire was signed a few months later, there were regular bursts of fighting over the next years, and French and UN peace-keeping troops were deployed in the country. Drogba, who was the best-known star on the team thanks to his success at Chelsea, became captain of the team in 2005. That September, with the country again “on the brink of another full-blown civil war,” Ivory Coast team qualified for the 2006 World Cup.

As the team was celebrating their historic qualification, Drogba approached the cameraman filming the scene for Radio Télévision Ivoirienne, asked him for the microphone, and proceeded to make a speech:. “My fellow Ivorians, from the north and from the south, from the centre and from the west, we have proved to you today that the Ivory Coast can cohabit and can play together for the same objective: to qualify for the World Cup.” Then, asking his teammates to get down on their knees, he continued: “[W]e ask you now: the only country in Africa that has all these riches cannot sink into a war. Please, lay down your arms. Organize elections. And everything will turn out for the best!”

Drogba recalls that he had no idea if the speech would be heard or would have any impact, but when the team arrived in Abidjan, there were huge crowds waiting at the airport and “crazy” celebrations. His parents were waiting for him, and they were deeply proud – “not so much because of our qualification – that was almost secondary – but for the message I had sent out for peace.” His words had been played and replayed on television and aired on the radio for days. As the team made their way through the city to the president’s house, there were throngs of celebrants in the streets, on rooftops, “waving flags, blaring horns, cheering and crowing with joy.”

The team had a disappointing performance at the 2006 World Cup, but in 2007 Drogba was chosen as the African Player of the Year. In March of that year, a ceasefire was brokered between rebel forces in the north of Ivory Coast and the government. Drogba had an idea: what if he travelled to the rebel stronghold in the north, in Bouaké, to present his recently acquired trophy as African Player of the Year? And what if Ivory Coast played their next game – an African Cup of Nations qualifier to be held in June – not in Abidjan but in the north as well? He proposed the idea to the head of the Football Federation, who was encouraging, and then proposed the plan to the president of the Ivory Coast. The government agreed.

At the end of the month, Drogba travelled “into the rebel heartland of Bouaké” in an “open-topped car,” escorted by soldiers. He met with the leader of the rebel group Forces Nouvelles, Guillaume Soro, who was soon incorporated into the government as Prime Minister as a further step towards ending the conflict.

The African Cup of Nations qualifier, against Madagascar, was set for  June 3, 2007, in Bouaké. Though some teammates were worried about the journey, Drogba reassured them based on his trip to the area in March. The team blazed against Madagascar, winning 5-0, with Drogba scoring the final goal.

“The game itself became a symbol of an attempt to heal divisions. I saw soldiers from the army watching alongside soldiers from the rebel forces.” The footage of the game encouraged people who had fled their homes in the north to return. “People were heard to say, ‘If Drogba has been to Bouaké, it means it’s safe to return.’ It was amazing to realise how much impact was footballers could have.”

Drogba’s political role, he writes, made him a “national icon – something that I had absolutely not expected.” In 2007, after the brother of one of his best friends died of leukemia for lack of treatment in Ivory Coast, Drogba created a foundation to raise money for health and education in his country. He writes that he decided to “donate all my commercial earnings to the foundation” and has “continued to do so ever since. He wanted to avoid creating “a foundation that – and I’ve seen this a lot – is announced with big fanfare and one big fund-raising event, a dinner or something. They get a load of money in, and then silence. No one knows where the money has gone.”

Recently, however, Drogba has been accused of doing just that with his foundation, which is now under investigation. And, ironically, his teammate, John Terry, took cover in Drogba’s foundation, claiming that he couldn’t possibly be racist if he had donated money to charitable work in Africa.

If the future of the charitable Drogba seems a bit uncertain, the footballer Drogba is still journeying on the football pitch, having taken advantage of the retirement plan for great footballers offered by Major League Soccer. He made an interesting choice by joining the Montréal Impact, assuring him a place within a Francophone community and fan culture. From the start, he’s been welcomed by fans there, with cultural organizations including the Maison de l’Afrique in the city joining with the MLS to produce this poster celebrating his first game with the team. Some even managed to get a famous banner long deployed by Chelsea fans – that says “Drogba Legend” – over to Montréal. He scored a hat-trick in his first match and has been a steady force since then.

Looking ahead, he says he envisions returning to Chelsea in some capacity once he has stopped playing. “I think I have left my mark on football,” he notes – rightly. And he’s appreciated it: “I started with minus nothing, so everything I now have is a big plus.”

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.