Advent Day 11 – Didier Drogba, talisman of Chelsea and Côte d’Ivoire

Let us, for a second, pretend that it’s May 2012. Brexit isn’t a word yet, Donald Trump is an annoying TV star instead of an abhorrent world leader, London are getting ready to host the olympics and absolutely nail it. Our biggest worry is that an ancient Mayan calendar has foretold the apocalypse. It’s a better time.

Over in Munich, Didier Drogba is getting ready to take the last penalty of a very tense Champions League final, which will also be the last kick of his Chelsea career (it’s 2012, we don’t know that he’s coming back in two years). Bayern have laid siege against Chelsea all game, and it’s only thanks to astronomically good defensive performances from Čech and Cole, more than a few squandered chances from Bayern, a saved penalty and a disallowed goal that Chelsea are still in the game.

Mata’s penalty has been saved, and so has Olić’s. Čech has just tipped Bastian Schweinsteiger’s penalty on to the post, and the game is there to be won. The tension in the Allianz Arena is palpable. Drogba steps up, and positions himself an unusually short distance away from the ball. The whistle blows. Drogba takes a two step run up and buries the ball in the bottom left-hand corner, before wheeling away in ecstasy.

This was the culmination of a glittering career for Chelsea. He never quite reached the same heights second time round (although he was part of the 2014-15 Premier League winning team) but Chelsea fans will always remember him as one of their most prolific players.

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It’s often easy to forget that Didier Drogba has not spent a huge portion of his life in his native Côte d’Ivoire, having spent large stretches of time in France and England. It’s a forgivable mistake when you see his unfaltering loyalty to the country. It’s especially forgivable when you realise that, seemingly, the entire Ivorian population have forgotten as well. Didier Drogba is iconic in the Ivory Coast in a way that is better described as deific. He’s got a village, a beer and a dance named after him. He’s set up hospitals and schools across the country. He’s appeared on Channel 4 News and in the Time 100 because of his passion about his country.

In Africa, Drogba transcends simply being a footballer. In Côte d’Ivoire, he is a national icon and saviour. During a bloody civil war between Muslims and Christians that consumed the Ivory Coast for most of the 2000’s, Drogba engineered two events that are often seen to have ushered in a conclusion to the conflict. In 2006, after a win against Sudan that ensured an Ivorian debut in the World Cup, Drogba and his team used the publicity to send a message to the country’s politicians.

On The Graham Norton Show, he said that ‘the country was divided in two and there was a lot of tension in the country. We decided, the players decided, to send a message to the politicians. We went down on our knees, and asked them to put their guns down and organise some elections, and I think this message was one that was good, because after that we managed to organise some elections, and no war, and everyone was happy. Because in Africa football is a religion, so when I have a chance to be in my position and send some messages, I do it, and I’m lucky that people can listen to me.’ Following his speech, elections were held, and the civil war ended, albeit temporarily.

Then, in 2007, Drogba used his national influence to ensure that an AFCON qualifying match against Madagascar was played in Bouake, a former rebel stronghold. Unifying the opposing factions consolidated the peace process. War broke out again in 2011, to be ended again a few months later. But Drogba, and the rest of Les Elephants, proved that the Côte d’Ivoire had the capability to unite and bring about change.

Drogba is not just the image of the number 11, which he wore for Chelsea, Côte d’Ivoire, Galatasaray, Marseilles, Shanghai, Montreal and Phoenix Rising, for whom he was the world’s first player/owner until a few weeks ago, when he retired. He is also a figure who symbolises the capability that football, and footballers, have to make a difference.

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