The sight of Didier Drogba, face torn, rolling around on the grass is a familiar one for viewers of the Premier League, and football the world over. However, in Sion, Switzerland on Friday lunchtime, the dreams of the world’s best and most recognised African footballer lay in pieces on the turf beside him, as Drogba fell victim to a wild, arm-breaking challenge from Japanese defender Marcus Tanaka which will cause him to miss the crowning moment of his career; the first World Cup to take place on the African continent.
Didier Drogba has always been a divisive figure. Despised by many an opposition fan, his failings are brazen and there for all to see. Dismissed from two of Chelsea’s recent exits from the Champions League for off-the-ball violence; dragged kicking and screaming from another against Barcelona (not before an infamous, audible and foul-mouthed outburst to the viewing public around the world), the 32 year-old does little to help his reputation on the biggest stage of all. Many believe he is the kind of character to bring shame upon the modern game, and one not to be trumpeted as a messiah of African football.
However, the importance of Drogba gracing the World Cup in South Africa should not be underestimated. Drogba is revered amongst the entire African continent, twice winning the African Footballer of the Year (finished 2nd on two occasions) and storming to the accolade of being Ivory Coast’s top goalscorer of all time, currently residing at an astonishing 44 goals in 68 games. Drogba famously appeared in Time Magazine’s ’100 Most Important People In The World’ earlier this year, promoting his fame on a trans-Atlantic plane, and becoming the figurehead for the first African World Cup in the process. His talents on the pitch have promoted Drogba to a deity-like status to young African children, dreaming of one day emulating their hero on the world’s biggest stage.
Drogba’s personal contributions back to his homeland and his people are also outstanding, in a country where life expectancy and adult literacy lies in a perilous state. In late 2009, the Ivorian donated the entirety of his £3 million fee from a sponsorship deal with Pepsi to build a hospital in his hometown of Abidjan. His employers at Chelsea are entitled to a cut of all sponsorship deals, but in a display of generosity aided by their affection for Drogba, owner Roman Abramovich not only waved his cut, but matched Drogba’s contribution pound for pound. The first step of The Didier Drogba Foundation, the hospital’s creation will aid a country where infant mortality stands at 12% and there are only 12 medical professionals per 100,000 people. Drogba’s contribution, in his own words: “gave people basic health-care and a chance just to stay alive”. This, coupled with his post as a UN Goodwill Ambassador and promoter of the (red) campaign to eliminate AIDs in Africa, shows a further humanitarian side to Drogba away from the pitch, one rarely seen by the aggressive personality on it.
The absence of Africa’s greatest footballer of its current age from its first major tournament will cast a cloud over the coming weeks in sunny Johannesburg. In a competitive group containing Brazil and Portugal, the ability of the Ivory Coast to stay afloat on its home continent will, without a doubt, be stretched by his absence. But the greater shame of Drogba’s injury is the absence of a player who represents the complete package of African football: at times theatrical, hot-headed, but often brilliant, with a heart close to his homeland, and actions to back up his words. The World Cup will miss the real Didier Drogba.