FOX Soccer Exclusive
Heroic Drogba finds peace at last
It was almost 2315 local time on Saturday night when Didier Drogba began the long walk from the centre-circle to the penalty area.
What thoughts went through his mind then? Did he think of John Terry taking the same walk in the final against Manchester United in Moscow four years earlier, having a penalty to win the Champions League but slipping and hitting the post?
Did he think of his own part in that game, sent off for slapping Nemanja Vidic and so missing the shoot-out? Did he think of his missed penalty for Ivory Coast in the shoot-out against Egypt in the 2006 African Cup of Nations final, or even the sitter he had missed 10 minutes from time in that game in Cairo?
Did he even think of Libreville this year and the penalty he missed with 20 minutes of the Cup of Nations final against Zambia remaining?
Drogba has had a hugely successful career. With Chelsea he has won three league titles, four FA Cups and two League Cups but there has been a sense in the last couple of years that his career had become about two quests: winning the Champions League with his club and leading this supremely gifted generation of Ivorian players to success in the Cup of Nations. In both, Drogba has suffered setback after setback.
In the Champions League, as well as the shoot-out defeat in Moscow, there was the 'ghost goal' semi-final defeat to Liverpool in 2005 and the semi-final defeat to Barcelona in 2009 when Chelsea were undone by awful luck and worse refereeing.
Cup of Nations success has been expected for this Ivorian side since it first emerged in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. That year it – and Drogba in particular – was highly impressive at the Cup of Nations, undone only by a ferocious home crowd and a penalty shoot-out in the final.
Two years later Egypt again eliminated Ivory Coast, this time in the semi-final, Amr Zaki producing the performance of a lifetime in Egypt’s 4-1 win. In 2010 Ivory Coast went 2-1 up with seconds of its quarter-final against Algeria remaining but conceded a soft header to Madjid Bougherra in injury-time and another set-play goal to Hameur Bouazza in extra-time to go out.
So anxious was Ivory Coast in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon this year that it played frill-free safety-first football from the off. It kept things tight and waited for set-plays and opposition mistakes.
It wasn’t particularly thrilling to watch, but in the first five matches it yielded nine goals for and none against. It also brought a great chance in the final as Isaac Chansa barged over Gervinho to give Ivory Coast a 70th–minute penalty. Drogba blazed it high over the bar. He did at least score his kick in the shoot-out, but Kolo Toure and Gervinho both missed and a fourth tournament slid by without success.
It’s nonsense to suggest one missed penalty alone cost a side a game, but it seemed deeply cruel on Drogba that twice he should have been the man to make the mistake. He is a couple of years older than the bulk of the side and clearly took his leadership role seriously.
At Chelsea he could seem petulant, but with Ivory Coast he was genuinely inspirational. Particularly in Egypt in 2006, he was quick to any potential flashpoint, not to fan the flames as he might have at Chelsea, but to calm the situation and lead his young charges away.
There were few moans at team-mates and even this year he somehow managed to keep his patience with Gervinho, whose wastefulness in possession would try a saint.
But that really was only the tip of his work for his country which has suffered sporadic outbreaks of civil war for the past decade. The conflict began in September 2002 when soldiers, many of them from the north of the country, mutinied against the president Laurent Gbagbo.
In a fairly brazen attempt to cling to power, he had rushed through changes in the constitution so that anybody standing for election to the presidency had to have two Ivorian parents, effectively preventing the northern candidate, Alassane Ouattara, from standing.
The war dragged on for two years and the situation remained tense well into 2006. After every qualifying game for that year’s World Cup, Drogba made a point of leading the team in prayers for peace and reconciliation. They sided with neither north nor south and as such became a rare phenomenon, an entity supported both by the government-controlled south and the rebel-held north.
Drogba and other senior players contacted senior politicians to call for peace. It would be stretching the point to say the team brought the conflict to an end, but there can be little doubt that, by offering an image of unity, they helped.
A peace treaty was signed in March 2007 that, by naming the rebel leader Guillaume Soro as prime minister, was effectively a power-sharing agreement. Relations between north and south remained frosty but, at Drogba’s suggestion, Ivory Coast played its Cup of Nations qualifier against Madagascar in June 2007 not in the usual venue of Abidjan, in the south, but in Bouake in the north.
Rebel troops provided security, while government troops sat in the stand to provide support. It was the perfect image of solidarity and cooperation. The war flared up again in 2011 but soon came to an end.
At international level, Drogba probably has one more chance to end his quest – in South Africa next January. At club level, though, Saturday was it. The final kick of his final game at Chelsea; he had already done as much as anybody to drag Chelsea through the semi-final and headed in the equaliser in the final.
But after eight years it came down to one kick: glory or ignominy in a situation in which he had failed in finals twice before.
This Chelsea team, though, had preternatural mental strength. This was its last chance – even if Drogba says he’d have stayed another year had Chelsea lost - and it reacted not with nerves but with an implacable determination. Drogba almost casually knocked the penalty past Manuel Neuer.
For the Chelsea that Jose Mourinho built, that has endured through six further managers, that was job done. Drogba’s personal quest, though, has one more stage to run; he will hope for a similar conclusion to his work for the national side in Johannesburg next year.