In sports, we all love bad boys, don’t we? There is a certain charm, aura, and unpredictability about them, which makes us forget or condone whatever wrong that they do and embrace them. However, when the idiosyncrasies cross the threshold and start playing with a team’s fortunes, there comes a time when one has to pause for a moment and reflect on the gravity of certain misdeeds – the moment of truth arrives.
Didier Drogba, the temperamental King of Africa, is arguably the greatest striker ever to play for Chelsea Football Club. He is loved by a considerable section of the fan-base, and hated by the rivals in equal measure; perhaps, feared would be more appropriate here. Nonetheless, his relationship with the club he plays for and its fans has not always been perfect. The relationship is more like a real-world marriage, which has its ups and downs, than like an idyllic romance.
The first cracks appeared on the surface after the departure of Jose Mourinho from the club. Drogba, who was close to the Portuguese manager, was disillusioned and thoughts of following his mentor crossed his mind. However, soon everything was forgotten and normal business resumed. Chelsea, under Avram Grant, fought with Manchester United in the league till the very last day of the season and reached the Champions League Final, where they were to play the same opponents in Moscow. After a Cristiano Ronaldo header and Lampard goal had cancelled each other, the game went into extra-time. It was then that Drogba committed his second mistake. Unable to restrain his emotions, he slapped Vidic, and was rightly sent off. This meant that Chelsea were deprived of one of their sure-shot penalty takers.
In the summer of 2008, Luis Felipe Scolari replaced the caretaker Israeli manager. He came with a big reputation and an even bigger job at hand – to improve on the achievements of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. The club began well, but soon lost its way. Players were under-performing and reports of unrest in the dressing room started surfacing, and Drogba was at the forefront of everything. There was an apparent fall-out between the two men, and Scolari benched him. The centre-forward had lost his touch and with it, his hunger to perform. With the Champions League spot in jeopardy, the manager was soon fired in trademark fashion, and Guus Hiddink, the then Russia coach, was persuaded by Roman Abramovich to take his club to safer shores. He did just that, as Chelsea won the FA Cup but were disgracefully dumped out of the Champions League in the semi-finals. During Hiddink’s rein at Stamford Bridge, Didier Drogba was his most potent weapon. Fired by ambition to out-perform Nicolas Anelka, who had been preferred over him by the previous manager, and to regain his crown of being the top-dog at Chelsea, he regained his lost desire almost instantly.
It’s unfair to criticise the player for the entire Scolari episode. The manager had wanted Robinho at Stamford Bridge, and once City high-jacked that deal, the failure to sign his player became a perfect alibi for Scolari for everything bad which happened to Chelsea on the pitch. The manager didn’t have any alternative game-plan, and once his primary strategy, which he had perfected on the Brazilian and Portuguese teams, failed, he was clueless. Then his training methods were a far cry from the strict, rigorous and planned routines from the Mourinho days. As a result, the overall fitness of the team drastically dropped. However, Didier must be criticised for not placing the club over every other thing, as this is what a true follower really wants to see in his player – come what may, the player should continue to play for the shirt, if for nothing else. Drogba didn’t do that. The fact that the change in management brought about a drastic change in his attitude and performance had cleared all doubts – it was all about what had happened between the coach and the forward, and not about any injury or loss of form. Chelsea FC was the only party that lost in the battle, and dropped crucial points in the league.
Hiddink kept his word and despite the appeal of players and fans, left the Bridge and returned to Russia. Then next manager was someone who had been courted by Roman for over an year. It is said that Carlo Ancelotti was the owner’s first choice once Jose’s time was up. However, the Italian wasn’t available then. He was available now, and was handed over the reins of Chelsea FC. A man who was known for his tactical nous and was branded as a Champions League specialist went on to win the domestic double in his first season in England. Ancelotti’s Chelsea was a joy to watch as they played an attractive brand of football, and tumbled records by the day. The West London club scored 103 goals in the league, which was the highest in the Premiership era. The offensive renaissance was led by none other than Drogba himself, as he went on to score 29 goals and thereby win the prestigious Golden Boot. Everybody hailed King Carlo and Kind Didier, and the latter was even crowned the Chelsea Player of the Year.
Chelsea began the on-going season in flamboyant fashion, scoring 12 goals in the opening two games. But, soon injuries started taking a toll on their fortunes. The absence of key players through injury, including Didier Drogba, who had contracted Malaria, led to the worst spell for Chelsea in over a decade. Drogba continued to play, but was far from his usual self, which was understandable.
Gradually he recuperated from Malaria, and the other stars also returned to the starting eleven, but the team’s performance did not improve. The fans were patient with the Ivorian as they knew that once the effect of the illness subsides, one would see the Drogba of old. However, this did not happen. Chelsea continued to drop points and put in gutless performances, home and away. The centre-forward, who was a powerhouse performer last season, was reduced to being an epitome of frustration.
The fear of missing out on Europe next season awakened a sleeping giant. Roman Abramovich rose again and quashed all rumours of his lack of interest in Chelsea by spending £70m to sign Fernando Torres and David Luiz. The clear lack of goals upfront, and the apparent pressure from the top, forced Carlo to throw Fernando into the mix straight-away. Had the other strikers on Chelsea’s roaster been even in slightest of forms, the Spaniard would have been eased into his new surroundings. But, such was the case that he was expected to deliver immediately. At first, Carlo tried to forge a working partnership between Drogba and Torres by first playing a 4-3-1-2 diamond and then a 4-4-2, however, the strikers were just not able to play together.
Carlo did something which Scolari had done two years back – he benched Drogba. Torres, with the weight of world on his shoulders, could do nothing as the pressure on him continued to grow with every passing minute. He looked a shadow of his former imperious self and his new team-mates preferred to take wild shots from improbable angles rather than passing it to him. Ergo, Drogba returned. The more discerning of Chelsea fans knew what was coming – he looked sharper, more determined, the lost touch was back, and he was again looking the best striker on planet Earth. This in-turn piled up more pressure on both Torres and Carlo; on the latter because he had dared to bench an in-form Didier Drogba and play his misfiring Spaniard instead. What people conveniently overlooked was the reason behind the signing of Torres. He was expected to be a long-term replacement of the woe-fully out of sorts Ivorian. Also, had Didier been even slightly in-form, he would have retained his place in the team – something which would have suited Torres as well.
Didier Drogba is a special player – there’s no doubt about that. He has given some very beautiful memories to Chelsea fans, but in the list comprising of the most-loved figures of Stamford Bridge, he will always be beneath the likes of Osgood, Zola, Lampard, Terry and many more.
To put it harshly – it is because he plays for himself, and not for the shirt. Only when his personal position is threatened, he rises to perform at his true potential. Fans love and revere someone who, from the moment he steps onto the pitch, always plays for the badge on the front of the shirt; someone who always acts in the best interest of the club and is not driven solely by personal ambition, ego, duels, and clashes. On at least two occasions, one has seen Drogba argue with team-mates such as Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard over who would take the impending free-kick or penalty. It’s not wrong to aspire for the Golden Boot, but to do so by arguing with Lampard in front of the camera and with the entire world watching is definitely not what one would want to see from a player one supports.
For a player who is still loved by a considerable section of the fan-base, it’s time for some retrospection. The fans have condoned everything thus far, and have passionately stood behind their player by passionately defending him for all his mistakes. Is it not a time for him to repay their worship with a memorable end to his Chelsea career by playing just for the team, and not for anything else? If he still can’t realign his priorities in the best interest of the club, one would have to wish, although poignantly, that he leaves in the summer. It’s time for emergence of The Collective, and put the days of The Individual behind. It’s time for the club to move forward as a collective unit, in which all components work together, driven by the ambition of the club and not their own.
Writer’s notes: This article is written only in the interest of Chelsea Football Club. Mistakes such as going down at the slightest of touches, and indulging in theatrics on the pitch have not been mentioned as such things have not affected the club’s fortunes. Even his outburst against Tom Henning Ovrebo has been ignored, as it’s easy for a Blue to imagine doing the same thing after the wrong that was committed.