Didier Drogba has thought about the possibility. It would be odd if he had
not. You do not sustain yourself as great goalscorer over a decade and a
half in the game’s top echelons without visualising the next impeccable
finish, picturing all its details.
But were Drogba to register a goal against the club who have had most impact
on his life, he feels unsure how he would react immediately afterwards. To
party or to act pious?
There would be loyalties to honour, two large fan bases to respect. But he
would not be the Didier Drogba, king of Atlantic-coast Africa, former
monarch of west London, without his sense of theatre, not just scorer of
great goals, but patentor of memorable celebrations.
So, if Drogba scores for Galatasaray on Wednesday night, or in two weeks’ time
in the second leg of a resonant Champions
League tie, how will he follow up? “No celebration,” is his initial
response, but straight away he smiles knowingly.
“Well, OK, maybe my signature one.” At which point he gestures lightly with
his shoulders, evoking that special jive, forearms pushed outwards, palms
turned the floor, the ecstatic routine he has used countless times.
Drogba turns 36 next month, and finds himself again the spearhead of an
ambitious team preparing for the knockout phase of club football’s most
illustrious competition. Eight years running he confronted this stage of the
Champions League with Chelsea;
this is the second season in succession he has done so with Galatasaray.
In May 2012, his adventure in Blue finished, with almost perfect theatre,
converting the penalty that won Chelsea their only European Cup, in Munich.
Then he embarked on the sequel. His return to the Champions League – after a
brief, unsatisfactory stint in China – ended in the quarter-finals, Drogba’s
Galatasaray narrowly defeated by Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. The night that
tie concluded, the two men shared a moment of fond reminiscence, in the
Drogba had an inkling that, although Mourinho felt positive his Madrid might
be bound for European glory – they were not – the manager’s return to
Chelsea might be imminent.
“He was having a difficult moment in Madrid and Chelsea weren’t going to keep
Rafa Benítez,” Drogba remembers. “There was a big chance for him to come
back. And that’s what happened. I wasn’t surprised. I’m really happy for him
and the club.”
Eleven months later, they meet again, more poignantly. Drogba is very happy
with his start at Galatasaray but would part of him like to be lining up
for, not against, Mourinho’s Chelsea on Wednesday?
“I can’t forget what I’ve done there and all the memories of the club. Chelsea
will always have a special place in my heart. And in my life.”
As will Mourinho. Barely had Istanbul been designated as the venue for
Chelsea’s last-16 first leg than Drogba’s mobile buzzed: A text message from
Mourinho. “He said, ‘Enjoy. It’s your moment, so enjoy it’.”
Drogba relates all this from a corner of a sunny Galatasaray training campus,
sipping Turkish tea, relaxed, confident of his status at his new club, and
candid about the heart-tugs provoked by these 180 minutes – perhaps more, if
it runs close – against his old club, versus his favourite manager.
“It’s nice to play against your old team, but when you are emotional, like me,
it’s going to be difficult. I have to be professional and respect the shirt
I am wearing.”
His mind scrolls back for a precedent: he thinks of a 2010 meeting between his
then Chelsea and his former club Marseille. “I hope it will be better than
that.” Little was at stake in that group phase tie, but an excess of
nostalgia visibly hampered Drogba at the Stade Vélodrome.
He loved Marseille. Mourinho’s gift, fully 10 years ago, was to persuade him
to transfer his affections to London, to make a late developer feel worthy
of a big career step-up.
As Drogba puts it: “I took a risk to go and play for Jose when I left
Marseille. Three years before that I was in the second division. This guy
comes and says: ‘You have to come with me. You are a good player, but if you
want to be the best like Thierry Henry then you have to come and play for
The upstart salesman, smiles Drogba, had been pitching the line for a while:
“I first saw Jose at a Porto-Marseille game six or seven months before that.
In the tunnel, he slapped me on the back and said: ‘Do you have some
brothers who play like you?’ I said: ‘There’s a lot in Africa who are better
A bond was formed. Mourinho-Drogba, a strong marriage of striving wannabes,
would have its testy moments.
The time, for instance, when Mourinho demanded Chelsea’s most potent, Premier
League-winning striker come clean about his intentions regarding joining AC
Milan; the morning Mourinho cleared out his office at Chelsea in 2007,
sacked after two Premier League titles in three years.
“We didn’t see it coming,” Drogba recalls. “That’s why it was a bit of a
shock. Sometimes some players are feeling so good with a manager, with one
person, with a relationship, that when that sort of thing happens, you are
disappointed. I’m an emotional guy and I was quite disappointed.”
Other Chelsea managers came and went – and Drogba had good relationships with
them all, although he singles out Guus Hiddink as a particularly positive,
Through it all Drogba and Mourinho stayed in touch, the guru supportive in
crises, the protégé appreciative. When Drogba was banned by Uefa for his
angry remonstrations towards referee Tom Henning Ovrebo after a contentious
Chelsea-Barcelona semi-final in 2009, Mourinho texted from Italy,
humorously: “If you go to jail, I’ll send oranges.”
As Drogba talks, he makes Mourinho sound quite the father figure. “People
didn’t see Chelsea as a family,” says Drogba, “where the players are close
together. But we had something special.
“You cannot achieve what we did without being together. In that team, we had a
group of 24, sometimes 26 players, and 20 of them could have been captain of
their national team. We had a lot of games, international games behind us,
so we worked with Jose to be independent, to be able to read the game, to
change a game or a situation on our own on the pitch.
“We could sit down together and say: ‘Come on, guys. We are responsible. We
have to make sure we change this, we have to fight’. We had a lot of clever
players. They could understand quickly, take in instructions fast. Within
one meeting, or watching one video for 10 minutes, we knew what we had to do
because we had managers who gave us a certain education or knowledge.”
The students enrolled in Mourinho’s second Chelsea reign should cherish that
sort of learning, advises Drogba. “Jose is good at developing people. With a
player like Eden Hazard, if he listens to Jose, if he eats, and learns what
Jose teaches him, he can be really, really good.”
Others are doing that, he reckons. “Look at César Azpilicueta, I knew him from
Marseille, as a good player, but now he is a Chelsea regular, improving. Or
Gary Cahill: Now you can’t think about the Chelsea starting XI without him.
There’s Oscar, Hazard, Nando Torres, Samuel Eto’o, Ramires. They have a
Might Chelsea line up even stronger were their totemic, apparently evergreen,
epoch-making striker still there? “The ones who are there are doing well. If
Jose was saying, ‘Didier, I want you to come back’ I would think about it.
But it’s not happening now so there’s no need to speak about it.”
Come the end of his Galatasaray deal in June, there will be invitations to
speak with a number of suitors. Drogba is this year’s Champions League Peter
Pan, 35 years young, his goals and assists directly responsible for
thrusting Galatasaray this far. It does not feel like a swansong.
“I’m here and playing,” he says about his endurance. “My contract ends this
summer. Then I will decide what’s best. It’s impossible to stop time but
it’s possible with your intelligence on the pitch and with your experience
to play at a high level even for two or three more years.”
High enough for a return to English football, not as a coach, as suggested at
the weekend, but as a player? “Put me in the Premier League and give me a
few months,” he smiles. “I feel young. I still feel like a kid running after
Put him in the Champions League, and he is the principal threat to Chelsea, if
he sets the emotions aside.