There are some matches that end up seeming primarily the vehicle for one person to somehow attain mythical status. The Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern was written, it seems now, purely to allow Didier Drogba a form of poetic catharsis worthy of fiction or film. The fact that Chelsea won was itself a kind of oddity, for throughout the game it seemed the most unlikely of outcomes. But as he had against Barcelona, Drogba became the master of the unruly and the absurd: none of what the other team did, not of the great passing and possession and continual shots on goal, mattered in the end. Just Drogba did, his head and then his foot.
I’m not a Chelsea fan, and watched the game with a fervent Chelsea-hater (learning that there is a tight kinship, down to color-coordination, between that and our local North Carolina tradition of deep, bilious Duke-hating). But I’ve got a soft spot for Drogba — his goals, and his goal celebrations, and the moments like this one where he performed a few steps from the “Drogbacité” dance on this video (posted and commented on by Sean Jacobs and Elliot Ross here). (For the full musical experience of Drogbacite, watch the video of the song by Shazaku Yakuza.)
But I am a fan of spontaneous, charismatic, oration — or at least of the idea of it. So it was that reading about Drogba’s post-victory performance suddenly redeemed the whole thing for me. After all, if a money-soaked, increasingly corrupt, time-devouring, and often seriously disappointing football culture should do anything, it should produce moments like this one:
Drogba, draped in an Ivory Coast flag, danced around the trophy on the pitch. But it was in the locker-room afterwards, we learned from The Sun, that he celebrated by transforming the trophy into an interlocutor, and his teammates into rapt (or so I imagine; though maybe they were chattering through the whole thing while itching themselves) spectators. It was a fifteen minute speech, during which Drogba excoriated the trophy for having eluded him for so long. He went through the details of the story: losses at Moscow and Barcelona, and all the matches of this campaign that had led to this moment. At one point he transformed the trophy into a sought-after lover who had spurned him for too long: “With the entire squad looking on, Drogba demanded to know why the trophy had been flirting with him for so long yet had always avoided him.” But in the end, he turned the trophy into a religious object, ending “his amazing 15-minute performance by bowing down to the cup and offering a prayer of thanks.”
We need, clearly, to call an emergency symposium of specialists in public oration — gathering Classicists who can speak to us about ancient Greeks and war with Ethnomusicologists who have studied West African griots — to write a proper analysis of this performance. For now, let’s just content ourselves with wishing that we had been there to see that brief sanctification.
This journey began in Abidjan, but much of it took place somewhere else — in, or on the edges of, French society. Drogba was sent by his family to life with his uncle, professional footballer Michel Goba, when he was five years old. His family eventually migrated to France in the midst of the austerity and political turmoil of the 1990s. As Adekeye Adebajo has written in a review of books on Drogba, his time in France was one of isolation. In speaking about his adolescence, Drogba referred to the Guinean novelist Camara Laye’s story of the painful exile of a student in France in the 1950s.His father, who had managed a bank back home, took menial jobs and the family lived in a cramped banlieue apartment in an area with many other African immigrants. “Didier’s teenage years in France were cold, lonely, and largely friendless,” writes Adebajo, defined by a sense of “sociocultural dislocation” for which football provided “some solace.”
Football became Drogba’s profession, though he played in the 2nd division for several years before battling his way to Olympique de Marseille, and from there to Chelsea. He had — and still has — many ardent fans in France’s banlieue neighborhoods, where people remember his story. In a horrifying 2008 video shot in the banlieue of Montfermeuil, the journalist collective Rue 89 documented a police beating of Abdoulaye Fofana. It took place during a France-Tunisia football match, which was being played not far away in the Stade de France. Fofana was watching the game when the police burst into his apartment, claiming he had thrown a fire-cracker at a passing patrol. They dragged him down the stairs, beating him all the way. As the video ends with an interview of his shocked family, you can see that his living room was covered with posters of soccer stars, including Zidane and, prominent, Drogba.
Drogba shares an experience on the edges of French society with players like Zidane, Makelele, and Thuram. But among his generation of players who came up through the French system, Drogba was one of the few of his calibre to opt not to play for France. Though his did play on a national French youth squad at one point, he ultimately opted for Ivory Coast as his national team. We can briefly imagine what might have been had he chosen to play for France instead — what might have happened in the 2006 World Cup, for instance? “Ils auraient pu jouer en équipe de France”(“They could have played in the French national team”), laments one website sporting a photograph of Drogba. But Drogba has expressed pride in his choice: This past February, when his team lost to Zambia in the African Cup of Nations Final — in part because of a missed penalty by Drogba — he commented that when the team returned to the Ivory Coast they were hailed and celebrated despite their loss.
We weren’t really expecting that. This country is different — they always come to see us even when they lose. I had the luck to play for the French team when I was young. But I don’t think that if I played at the senior level I would have ever gotten this kind of reception.
He might have been thinking of what happened to his former Chelsea teammate Nicholas Anelka during the 2010 World Cup, when he was kicked off the team and excoriated in the press for a locker-room outburst against Raymond Domenech. Drogba spoke up for Anelka then, and soon after the Champions League final news broke that the next step in his journey will be to join his friend at Shanghai Shenhua in China. If that ends up happening, it will be a fascinating twist in a story that has stretched from Abidjan to Dunkirk to Marseille to London and now Shanghai.
Will Drogba ever give another speech quite as good as the one he gave in Bayern the other night? Only if the occasion arises. As one reader pointed out in response to an earlier version of this post, that occasion might be just one year away: if Ivory Coast manages to clinch the African Cup of Nations, as they weren’t able to this year. What a speech Drogba might then give to that long and painfully sought after trophy? A long and winding tale, with a long evocation of the beautiful and moving game they lost against Zambia. And what if — we can dream! — they were to go on, full of confidence, and win the World Cup in Brazil in 2014? If either of those victories happen, let’s hope someone will be prepared with a video camera in the locker-room this time — to capture Drogba hassling and adoring another trophy. It would be worth seeing the Ivory Coast win just to see that, no?
* This is a slightly edited version of a post first published on Laurent Dubois’s blog Soccer Politics earlier today. We repost it here with kind permission.