Didier Drogba: Farewell to Chelsea's legendary late bloomer

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At 20 years old, the striker had still not made his professional debut, yet he was rewarded for his persistence and became a great of the game

If Didier Drogba had not succeeded in professional football, he would likely have gone onto become an accountant. 

What a loss it would have been for the game, but it was a very real prospect as he was studying the subject as a 20-year-old while a reserve for Le Mans, yet to make his professional debut. Injuries had threatened to derail his career before it had started, and he would be 21 before he had even made his first professional appearance.

Two decades on, and with those accountancy skills no doubt long forgotten, he has completed an unlikely growth into perhaps the most iconic African footballer ever. Drogba previously announced he would be retiring, but has now hinted he could carry on playing after current side Phoenix Rising FC's season ended Thursday.

Sure, George Weah might remain the only player from the continent to have won the Ballon d’Or, but Drogba’s knack of producing the goods on the biggest stage, his appetite for the game and his longevity mean that he deserves to be considered along with the very best.

Over the course of his career, he has enjoyed dizzying highs, notably as Chelsea’s hero in the 2012 Champions League. Two minutes from time – six after Thomas Muller’s header seemed to have won the trophy for Bayern Munich on their home turf – he converted Juan Mata’s corner to push final to extra-time and ultimately penalties. Of course, he struck the decisive blow in the shootout.

The manner in which he attacked Mata’s corner was emblematic of his power, his sliding celebration, pumping his arms to his side iconic, and the sense of timing perfect. It was a moment to encapsulate a career.

“As far as I was concerned, he won the Champions League for Chelsea,” said erstwhile Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, admitting his relief when the news broke three days after the Munich final that the Ivory Coast international was calling time on his Premier League career to join Shanghai Shenhau.

Didier Drogba Chelsea 2011-12

Drogba had come a long way from the scrawny youth who had a nomadic existence as a youngster, often following journeyman professional Michel Goba, his uncle, around the country until finally settling with his parents again in Paris aged 15.

Remarkable as it may seem after he forged a career bullying defenders with his incredible strength, it was a lack of physicality that most threatened to derail his career in his younger days. 

“He wasn’t built, he was flabby. He was lucky to be at Le Mans – another club might have been less patient with him,” coach Marc Westerloppe told Onze .

It was the birth of his first son Isaac, when he was 21, that, in Drogba’s words “straightened him out” and acted as “a turning point in his life”.

Two relatively modest yet promising seasons in Le Mans were followed by an explosion with Guingamp, who bought him for a mere €100,000. It was here that, during a spell out injured, he was forced to build up his physique, having been sent to the tiny island of Brehat in the English Channel to train.

He returned a revelation, nearly leading the club to the Champions League before logically completing a move to one of France’s great clubs in the form of Marseille, where he once more flourished. 

It was during the run to the UEFA Cup final in 2004 that Drogba really caught the interest of the wider world, with his display in a 2-0 semi-final win over Newcastle confirmation that he had built up the strength and power that would become a trademark during his time in England.

And so in the summer of 2004, he would make his fateful move to Chelsea, where his legend was finally forged, culminating in that spectacular Champions League winner. 

Those eight years at Stamford Bridge saw him claim three Premier League titles (plus another when he returned for a brief cameo in 2014-15), four FA Cups and three League Cups. He set numerous club scoring records, including the most by a non-Englishman (164), the most in the Champions League (36) and the most in cup finals (nine), won the Premier League Golden Boot twice and showed his all-round game by leading the league in assists during the 2005-06 season.

Didier Drogba Chelsea 2011-12

Throughout the latter years of his career, spent at Galatasaray and Montreal Impact, he reprised his best on occasion, notably scoring a brilliant backheel against Real Madrid in the Champions League while in Turkey.

His career seemingly finished, however, with Phoenix Rising, fittingly in a cup final. For once, though, Drogba, part owner of the team he was playing for, was unable to inspire his side to success. 

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Now a new chapter of his footballing life will be written, one in which he hopes to act as an inspiration for youngsters to follow his path, one hard fought for but worth the effort.

“I’m the proof that hard work beats talent. You have talent? Great, keep it. Keep your talent. I don’t care. Because I’m going to work until I surpass you. I’m never going to give up,” he said, explaining his success in a previous statement announcing his retirement.

Accountancy’s loss has definitely been football’s gain – and it seems it is going to keep profiting from Drogba’s industry long into the future.

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