By Kingsley Kobo in Abidjan
Back home in Cote D’Ivoire, many fans saw it coming. They knew that Didier Drogba was relishing his last moments with the Elephants during the 2014 World Cup.
The Chelsea great had always issued ambiguous statements about his future with the Ivorian national team. After getting knocked out by Nigeria at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Drogba said he would likely step down in order to create space for younger players and that Brazil 2014 could be his last tournament for his country. He then reviewed his stance by saying that he could play one or two more editions of the Africa Cup of Nations.
However, he knew he needed to prove his future worth with a convincing performance at this summer's World Cup, but after so much expectancy, Cote d'Ivoire once again disappointed, failing to get through a relatively easy group.
The Elephants were already preparing for life after Drogba. Former coach Sabri Lamouchi dared to open his World Cup campaign without the team’s all-time top scorer in the starting 11 – a move that local fans, officials and politicians would never have condoned in the not-so-distant past.
Lamouchi said his star man no longer possessed the fire he was known for and should thus start from the bench. The experiment failed. Although the Elephants opened with a 2-1 win over Japan - crucially, turning the game around after Drogba's introduction - they were beaten by Colombia and then eliminated by the concession of a last-gasp winner to Greece.
Time to say goodbye | Drogba has quit Cote d'Ivoire after earning 104 caps for his country
Relegating Drogba to the role of impact substitute was symbolic of Lamouchi's attempt to rebuild an underachieving outfit, made up of many ageing and uninspired players.
As Ivorian football federation president Augustin Sidy Diallo admitted, new boss Herve Renard has now been hired to completely overhaul the squad.
According to Goal's sources at the football association, Drogba was at the top of the list of senior players prompted to move on, to make way for the next generation. He no longer enjoyed unanimous support from officials to continue with the team.
“Everybody wants something new - fresh air, new challenges, new adventure – and not the same faces and legs that keep disappointing millions of fans for a decade now,” said the source, who refused to be named because the FA is yet to officially react to Drogba’s announcement.
Renard’s reform will likely see more retirements in all departments.
“We want to build a team and put an end to the 'stars syndrome'. We want the team to play cohesive and result-oriented football, no matter the players delivering it,” Renard said at a press conference in Abidjan.
Pre-empting the inevitable was a wise and respectable move from Drogba, whose legacy could have been diminished by outstaying his welcome.
After 12 years and more than 100 caps with the national team, the talismanic forward bids farewell to a golden generation of footballers, the best to have ever been produced by the country.
He captained the squad to many top competitions, including the 2006 and 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, where they narrowly missed out on gold in both finals.
He hugely contributed to Cote D’Ivoire’s historic qualification to the 2006 World Cup in Germany and inspired many young talents, as well as the building of football training centres across the country.
However, Cote D’Ivoire did not win a title under Drogba and Co. All of his career accolades so far have been individual, prompting many locals to tag him as the most unlucky player in the history of Ivorian football to date.
Yet, he affected many lives in the country positively and remains a national symbol, for locals, neutrals and fans abroad.
Drogba’s silhouette can be easily recognised by the young and old in even the smallest village of Cote D’Ivoire. He’s been the most popular figure in the west African country, cutting across religious and political barriers from north to south. Hence, he was able to play the role of peace-maker during the decade-long armed conflict in the country.
No time could have been perhaps better than quitting the team than now, when he is still held in high esteem by many Ivorians who see no replacement in sight for the national icon.
Drogba’s fame will linger on in Cote D’Ivoire for years to come. He may not have won an international title but he had long since won the hearts of his compatriots. This was the right time to say goodbye.