Editor's note: One of soccer brightest lights, Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba was set to be a star to watch in the World Cup. But Friday he broke his arm while playing in a warm-up match between Ivory Coast and Japan. The injury almost certainly dashed Drogba's ability to play in the Cup, but he underwent emergency surgery that may yet salvage his World Cup hopes.
Here is Drogba's compelling story, a rise from poverty in Ivory Coast to the highest levels of international soccer.
BOSTON — It has been two decades since Cameroon stunned defending champion Argentina in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup, a prelude to a surprising run by the Indomitable Lions to the quarterfinals.
The soccer world awoke to the talent-rich African continent and lofty predictions were made for future success, even eventual championships.
But since then, only one World Cup team from Africa — Senegal in 2002 — has gone as far as Cameroon did. And while South Africa would seem to be the perfect stage for a leap to the next level, few experts expect to witness the next African breakthrough in 2010.
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Indeed, to the extent that Africa has already broken through, it has largely been on the individual level. Its best players now excel on elite Europe teams: Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o winning back-to-back European championship with first Barcelona and then Inter Milan; Ghana’s Samuel Essien emerging as a ferocious defender in the Chelsea midfield; and, towering above all, Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba, a prolific scorer with Chelsea.
While Drogba is now acknowledged as one of the most lethal strikers in the world, his was a relatively slow ascent to stardom. Unlike the explosive scorers with whom he is compared — England’s Wayne Rooney, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo — Drogba did not have the eyes of the soccer world on him as a youngster and wasn’t tapped for a top European team in his teens.
While Ronaldo is 25, Rooney 24 and Messi won’t turn 23 until the second week of the World Cup, Drogba is now 32. And even his powerful body — he’s 6’2” and a muscular 185 pounds — cannot mask the physical and emotional toll the long road to the top has taken.
With his parents struggling to earn a living, Drogba, at age five, was sent to live in France with his uncle. Though he played youth football, he wasn’t expecting a lustrous career and was studying in college to be an accountant. He didn’t even sign a pro contract until he was 21 and didn’t suit up in France’s Ligue 1 — and then only with a bottom-rung team, Guingamp — until he was 24.
At Guingamp, his scoring prowess caught the eye of Marseille, where he would score 32 goals — including 11 in 16 games in European competition. That performance, in turn, caught the eye of emerging Premier League mega-power Chelsea, which paid more than $35 million to suit him in blue.
Unfortunately, blue proved to be his mood as well, frustrated that his accomplishments didn’t seem to warrant much respect.
“When I got to England, people said, ‘Who is this guy?’” Drogba told London’s The Observer. “You’ve played in a UEFA Cup final, been Player of the Year and you say, ‘Didier Drogba’ and they say, ‘Didier Who?' You have to make it all over again. It’s not easy.”
Drogba’s seeming arrogance, his penchant for diving to feign fouls, his more than occasional whining and petulance both on and off the field — all made him an inviting target for opposing fans. Though his scoring talent quickly eradicated his concerns about anonymity in England, even the Chelsea faithful had their doubts about his temperament and whether he was a good fit with the London team.
Last year, after a bitter last-second loss to Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League semi-final, Drogba had a threatening confrontation with the referee and could be heard screaming on live TV, “It’s a fucking disgrace.”
Far more disgraceful was that the Norwegian referee had to be smuggled out of England to safeguard him from angry fans. Drogba wound up with a six-game ban (eventually reduced to four) from European competition.
The moody, combative Drogba stands in striking contrast with the man who back in his West African homeland is regarded not only as a sports hero, but as a statesman too.
His greatest heroics on the field came during qualifying for the 2006 World Cup when Drogba scored nine goals in 10 games to lead Ivory Coast to its first-ever Cup berth. Afterwards, he used his lofty stature to plead with combatants in the Ivory Coast's five-year civil war to honor the accomplishment by putting down their arms. They did and the ceasefire held, bolstered by Drogba’s effort to stage an African Cup of Nations qualifier in rebel territory.
This season Drogba shook off last’s tumultuous end and shut up his critics with 29 goals in 34 Premiership games, as Chelsea won both the league crown — its first since 2006 — and the coveted FA Cup. It may require an even more extraordinary effort to propel Ivory Coast to new heights in the World Cup.
With Drogba’s rare combination of power and finesse up front, many experts regarded Ivory Coast as the most dangerous African side in the 2010 World Cup.
But that was also the case four years ago — before Ivory Coast was drawn into the tournament’s toughest group. Though the team’s performance was impressive, it lost two one-goal games and failed to reach the second round.
The South African World Cup draw is only slightly more friendly, with two teams in its group, Brazil and Portugal, ranked among the top three in the world.
Whether or not he can compete, South Africa 2010 will undoubtedly be Drogba’s last World Cup in his prime. The news of his broken arm is devastating, but there are still hopes that doctors can patch him up for the tournament.
Drogba has now made an indelible mark on the game everywhere except on this biggest stage. His ambitions, his struggles mirror Africa’s. Any triumphs for Drogba and Ivory Coast will be Africa’s too.