If I die in the month of May
Let the wind take my body away
Springtime in Munich. All of Bavaria quivering in joyous anticipation of the coronation soon to come.
Written in the stars, it was. Mighty Bayern, appearing in its second UEFA Champions League final in three seasons, poised to right the wrong done two years prior at the Santiago Bernabéu by winning club football’s Holy Grail in its very own house.
All that stood in the way was Chelsea. Aging, in-decline Chelsea.
And Didier Drogba.
This pillar of talent, a true leader of men, ensured Chelsea of the rarest, and indeed finest, of footballing pleasures. Côte d'Ivoire’s favorite son first rescued the side from certain doom1 with a header so colossal it would have brought Jupiter himself to his knees. Then, in the cauldron of the Allianz Arena, with what must have felt like the weight of generations resting on his chiseled shoulders, Drogba, victory at his feet, tucked the coolest of penalties past the towering figure of Manuel Neuer.
It’s been reported that the mangled atrocity that is the Champions League trophy was already being adorned with red and white ribbons when Drogba struck.
Written off in Naples, under siege in Barcelona, finished in Munich – Chelsea, implausibly, had won the Champions League. None epitomized the resolve that defined this odds-defying iteration of the Blues more than Drogba, and with what was to be his final kick for the club, he authored the crowning chapter of his career and of Roman’s Chelsea fable.
It was the parting gift to end all parting gifts. Well, we thought it was.
The unbridled joy of the club’s greatest moment was still coursing through the fan base2 when Drogba announced he would be leaving Chelsea for pastures new.
To be fair, it still is.
Painful as the Ivorian’s departure was, to club, staff, players and supporters alike, it felt like his time in West London had reached a fitting conclusion, the type reserved only for those early-century heroes of stage and screen. After eight years, 341 appearances, 157 goals and 10 trophies, there was nothing more for Drogba to prove. His final contribution, so glorious, so timeless, it seemed would serve as the idyllic culmination of a historic career never to be forgotten along the Thames.
A month later Drogba was unveiled by Shanghai Shenhua. The latest member of China’s big-spending syndicate, bankrolled by eccentric business magnate Zhu Jun3, had money to burn, or so it seemed, and Drogba, keen to expand not only his personal brand but also that of Asian football, took a leap widely seen as, well, odd.
It felt like a fling. And, to the surprise of few, it was.
The Chinese-born Singaporean makes the likes of Thaksin Shinawatra and Vincent Tan look the very definition of fit and proper.
Drogba lasted only six months in Shanghai before negotiating an escape route to Turkey. Shenhua wasn’t best pleased, but had little leverage4. Drogba joined Galatasaray on an 18-month contract in January 2013; FIFA later provisionally cleared the move, and the 36-year-old spent the next year and a half casting a powerful shadow across Turkey for the country’s most successful club. He even found his way back to Stamford Bridge.
Drogba asked FIFA for special permission to leave Shenhua in November 2012; likely reasoning for the decision was unpaid wages and, you know, general unrest among the club’s carousel of executives. He signed with Galatasaray before an official ruling from FIFA had been passed down. Shenhua challenged the move days later, insisting Drogba was still under contract with the Chinese club. A month later FIFA provisionally approved the transfer, promptly putting an end to the madness.
Galatasaray met Chelsea in the first knockout round of the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League, eventually exiting the competition 3-1 on aggregate. Drogba, who missed a lovely chance in stoppage time of the second leg, staged at the Bridge, was raucously applauded off the pitch by the home support at the final whistle. It all felt like a proper goodbye, the farewell fans were never able to give the man before his sudden, yet predictable, departure. Instead, the impromptu reunion merely served as a sign of things to come.
Fast forward some four months and the unthinkable unfolded. Two years removed from his exit, from leaving behind an untouchable London legacy, Drogba returned to Chelsea on July 25. In this, the age of Twitter, the news wasn’t new. Not remotely. It was, however, even as his signing became a likely prospect in the days leading to the official announcement, met with a cascade of emotion. Equal parts awe, excitement and euphoria – Chelsea fans all over were buzzing.
Drogba was back home.
Jose Mourinho is what many call a suave sophisticate. He needn’t visit Blarney5, nor attend a crash course in casual, careless cool. Soppy nostalgia – that’s not his cup of tea. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Legend has it that those who kiss this stone embedded in the battlements of Blarney Castle (near Cork, Ireland) are endowed with the gift of gab.
Mourinho is ruthless. More aptly, he’s a guillotine-wielding, high-functioning sociopath with an eye for silverware and little else.
Disagree? Ask Iker Casillas.
So, to suggest Drogba rejoined Chelsea for little more than a sentimental send-off is misguided and, frankly, bollocks. Though the Ivorian has returned to Stamford Bridge a much different, less capable player, aged – and frayed – by two tumultuous years away from the comforts of home, his ability is unquestioned, as is his influence and importance. He may not be the leading man we remember, but he still has much to offer, both on and off the pitch.
Drogba in current, still sculpted form does not embody the great leap forward that so many of us sought in the summer. That role is, of course, reserved for Diego Costa. At 36 years old, Drogba’s physicality is not as frightening as it once was. Still, he is unlikely to ever deteriorate to the point where his skillset, so unique, is not beneficial to the club. His value as a target man, meanwhile, cannot be understated, particularly following a season in which Chelsea floundered against sides positioned to defend deep.
His lumbering performance against Schalke 04 to open Chelsea’s latest charge toward Champions League glory made for difficult watching and suggested the years may well have stripped Drogba of his most formidable qualities, namely strength and mobility. However, such an assumption seemed foolish at the time considering Drogba’s fitness and the stage of the season at which we found ourselves. Remember, the man is a self-proclaimed diesel – he needed warming up.
A Cummins or Power Stroke, not a M21. Obviously.
The warm-up continued on October 21 against NK Maribor. A groin injury to Loïc Rémy shifted plans for a brief cameo from Drogba; instead, the Ivorian logged 70 pain-free minutes as Chelsea swept aside the 12-time Slovenian PrvaLiga champions 6-0. Drogba’s performance, though cumbersome, included glimpses of improvement as well as his first goal since returning to the club. The tally, in a lovely slice of nostalgia, came from the penalty spot just seven minutes after relieving the injured Rémy.
Drogba called the goal symbolic. In reality, and more importantly, it was progress. Progress that continued five days later in the 1-1 draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford, and was furthered on Tuesday evening in an uncomfortable slog at New Meadow. He now has three goals in three games; the old man refuses to go gentle into that good night.
Though Costa is the dynamic spearhead for which supporters have been bawling, and the addition of Rémy is shrewd, Drogba represents the ideal foil for both. Who better for Costa and Rémy to learn from than one of Europe’s most feared figures? The aura of Drogba surely remains as well7, and no forward in the world – not one – is as clutch a performer. Another goal in another cup final for the club8 isn’t possible or probable but expected. This is Didier Drogba.
Paging Arsène Wenger.
Drogba has scored nine goals in nine cup final appearances for Chelsea. I know you know that, and you know that I know you know that. But don’t you love reading that sentence? Over and over.
Clearly Drogba is a player that Mourinho can, and will comfortably, rely upon. And yet, it is his influence that likely will have a greater, far-reaching, impact.
It’s good for the team because he’s a big player and a big personality. …
He stills gets respect from everybody in the dressing room: the older guys, the younger players, everybody.
– John Obi Mikel
A player of Drogba’s ilk doesn’t just command respect; his presence lifts entire clubs, even those of Chelsea’s stature and pedigree. The experience, the trophies, the résumé – it’s a stirring recipe that drives teammates, not just toward better individual performances but, more importantly, toward establishing the tireless work ethic required for the betterment of the collective.
He’s a champion. A mentor. A pillar on which to lean as well as build.
Sentiment exists, certainly, but Drogba brings with him so much more.
"The club are evolving. One day we’ll all be gone."
– John Terry
The summer of 2014 will not soon be forgotten in Chelsea annals. The club underwent what could be classified as the penultimate chapter of the great makeover™. Weaknesses and subsequent transfer targets were immediately identified; arrivals, meanwhile, were swift and significant. The shift that began more than two years prior finally felt near completion9.
Nearly all major areas of need were addressed, most notably at centre-forward, but questions remain regarding depth and the overall makeup of the side.
The departures, too, were major. Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard, like Drogba long-established backbones of Roman-era Chelsea, departed for Italy and America10, respectively. In Cole and Lampard, Mourinho lost a pair of irreplaceable on-field leaders and two of his most trusted, dependable allies. Players who, alongside John Terry, Petr Cech and Drogba, formed the spine of Chelsea for nearly a decade, in the process transforming a club on the cusp of financial meltdown into a global juggernaut.
By way of Manchester.
Add the potential departure of Cech to the mix11 and true Chelsea leaders, suddenly, appear a scarcity. Drogba’s return then is a valuable, even vital, coup for Mourinho. Drogba is an outspoken, galvanizing trailblazer. When he speaks – when he says he’s at Chelsea to "to show them the spirit" – you expect everyone, even Mourinho himself, to listen.
Evidence – and by evidence I mean Thibaut Nicolas Marc Courtois – suggests the hourglass is fast expiring on our helmeted hero’s time in West London. Recent comments from the Czech goalkeeper support this theory.
But perhaps most significantly, this is a man who understands what Chelsea Football Club is. What it’s about. What it represents. What it means to wear the shirt. Drogba isn’t just a player, he’s a Chelsea player12. You believe him when he speaks affectionately of the club. Chelsea and Drogba, as such, are intricately, affectionately, intertwined for all time.
In late July, Drogba spoke about his return to Chelsea. Among the choice cuts was this wonderful quote: "(Mourinho) said to me that a player like me, who has history with the club, should come back one day. He said I have to come back and I agree with him because, even if I left, I was still a Chelsea player because of the eight years I spent here. No offence to the teams I was with during those two years but that's just the way it is."
The bond between Drogba and Chelsea, then, is strong. Vibranium13 strong. So, too, his relationship with Mourinho. What better influence then for seasoned teammates, trophy-less new arrivals and Under-21s than this man, this Chelsea legend?
The primary material used to construct Captain America’s shield, vibranium is a meteoric ore of extraterrestrial origin. Whether it’s stronger than adamantium is up for debate, but not here. I repeat: not here.
You’d be hard-pressed to find one.
Drogba had made just one start this season before being unleashed at the Theatre of Dreams – his towering headed goal, leaving poor Rafael in a decimated heap, yet another heavenly flashback to Munich – and his extended cameo against Maribor was his first appearance since the club’s 2-1 victory against Bolton in the League Cup on September 29. Injuries, though mostly of the minor variety, dogged the early days of his return to Chelsea, and it was unclear whether he would even have the chance to contribute, particularly with Costa blazing a scoring trail of meteoric proportion.
Yet, even before his latest reawakening, Drogba remained as influential as ever.
Eden Hazard, on whose diminutive shoulders the club’s future currently rests, recently revealed his desire to emulate Drogba by navigating Chelsea to another Champions League crown. In September, Oscar, alongside Hazard expected to form a Blue-tinted axis designed to dominate the European football landscape for years to come, spoke of the pride he felt when wearing the No. 11 shirt in the two seasons following Drogba’s departure and how much he’s learned from the Ivorian in the months since he’s returned to the club. The Brazilian, in a gesture in line with Chelsea legends of the past, even went so far as to return the famed 1114 to Drogba for the season.
Inheriting another celebrated number in the process.
Club captain John Terry perhaps said it best, though. When asked about Drogba’s return, Terry simply said "Didier’s still the same."
Same. It’s funny – such a colorless, insipid word can certainly invoke excitement.
Sure, the same Didier Drogba we breathlessly witnessed terrorize Europe for nearly a decade is unlikely to reemerge. Truth be told, most do not expect him to. However, the same Didier Drogba whose passion, hunger and commitment drove this team, and this club, to levels never before seen very much still exists. It’s those qualities, cultivated under Mourinho and now passed on to future generations by the Ivorian himself, that will drive this current assemblage of stars to new heights.
Whether it is as a player, or inevitably as a coach15, Drogba’s influence – and legacy – will leave its mark on Stamford Bridge for years, nay decades, to come.
Though Chelsea deny Drogba’s current contract contains an option to join the coaching staff next summer, it’s largely expected that Drogba will become part of Mourinho’s staff after his one-year deal ends. Mourinho, for one, is certain of it: "Drogba will be a coach or assistant youth football team or the main ambassador of Chelsea or assistant director of sports. There will be a role for him what he wants."
Mr. Abramovich does not speak a lot. But as you can imagine,
he is very intelligent and he feels that people belong to the club.
We feel that Didier belongs to us.
– Jose Mourinho