Saturday, October 13, 2007

The man I wanted to hate

I didn't want to like Didier Drogba. In fact I wanted to hate him.

As so many of my conflicts do, it started with his hair. Long, straight and slick, his pimp-style mane never moves while he plays. And yet, it moved me to dislike him. Then there's the name. Didier Drogba. Part Bond villain, part high-end fashion designer. There's the voice, that Afro-French-accented bass, so lowdown and mumbled that it usually took me a couple seconds to realize he was speaking my language.

Hair, name, voice, I didn't like any of it. I can’t explain, nor do I stand behind those opinions.

But I wasn't alone in hating how Drogba played. More than once I've seen him drop to the ground rolling and cringing so convincingly that you'd expect him to pull a knife out of his thigh, only for a replay to confirm that he'd gone untouched. Before the edict went out for referee’s to crack down on this nonsense, he was among the game's worst offenders, blatant enough to once say, "Sometimes I dive, sometimes I stand." He had no qualms about using his hands to move the ball or opposing players to where he needed them. This was amoral soccer. Win at all costs.

None of Drogba's offenses reached the height of a single moment I saw on a highlight reel from his time in France. After one of his goals Didier whipped off his shirt and ran to the corner, where he celebrated by pretending to hold a machine gun and firing it into the crowd.

From another player, this gesture would be immature. Stupid, even. From Drogba, a native of the Ivory Coast, it was unforgivable.

. . .

When Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea, he threw out the antiquated notions of developing chemistry and cultivating young talent. Instead he handed blank checks to coach Jose Mourinho, who went about stocking Chelsea with the best players at every position on the field. And Drogba, who came to Chelsea in 2004 from Olympique Marseille, seemed to me the ultimate football mercenary: fast, fearless and without conscience. I thought if the paychecks came he would score goals in the Arctic, accumulate yellow cards at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

The paychecks came in London, and so did the goals. In Drogba's three years Chelsea has won six trophies, including back-to-back Premiership league titles. Last year he scored 33 goals in total: some great, some greatly important and some both. He scored the game winner against Manchester United in the FA Cup final, and both goals against Arsenal in the Carling Cup final. If you're keeping track, that's one man, three goals, two trophies.

If John Terry is the fire behind Chelsea's eyes and Michael Essien is its relentless heart, then Drogba is its fist. A sharply-knuckled thing dangling at the end of a long arm, when you blink too long it touches your chin and turns out the lights.

Didier can beat you with his right foot, his left foot, his forehead or his frontal lobe. He is dangerous with his back turned and facing goal. He is dangerous as a target of free kicks, or as a free kick taker. Long range or point blank. With the ball, without the ball. Don’t blink.

. . .

They burned their guns. They burned their guns and the war was over. That's what they said. The President and the Prime Minister stood next to a flaming pile of a few dozen guns and congratulated themselves on finding peace.

In 1995, 35 years after Cote d'Ivoire declared itself free from France's rule, its then-president Henri Konan Bedie took a bit of that freedom back. He placed restrictions on who could run against him in the upcoming election. The opposition boycotted, and Bedie got 96 per cent of the vote in something that I suppose looked like an election. Before the next one came around, General Robert Guei led a successful coup d'etat. With no shots fired, the coup put Bedie on a plane to France and put Guei in the big office with the view.

It's unclear what Guei's problem with Bedie was, because he proceeded to do the same thing, putting restrictions on who could run against him in the next election. It still didn't work: Guei lost to Laurent Gbagbo. When Guei didn't honor the results, Gbagbo's supporters turned violent, and this time it was Guei who had to leave the palace in a hurry.

Gbagbo was only in office a couple years before another coup attempt. The rebels accused the president of discriminating against the country’s Muslims. (I guess you just can't get away with discrimination in an immigrant-rich country that speaks more than 60 languages.)

This time around there were shots fired, and by the end of the night General Guei was dead in the street, among others. Thanks to French troops, this one was only an attempted coup. But the rebels had seized the northern side of the country, and Gbagbo lashed out against the threat to his power and life by directing his troops to attack shantytown residents and burn their houses. The loose command led government forces to random killings, and the random killings filled the occasional mass grave.

Since late 2002, the few attempts at drawing up peace agreements have been far outnumbered by violent flare-ups. The Ivory Coast was a country divided.

In March of this year, Guillaume Soro, who had previously led the rebels, signed a ceasefire agreement and was named Gbagbo's prime minister. Then in late July, Soro and Gbagbo watched a dumpster full of flaming guns. The war was over. Except. . .

Except the gun-burning came only weeks after Soro's plane landed in Bouake, the rebel capital in the North, and was greeted with rockets. The Prime Minister survived, though four other passengers did not.

Except. . .the rebels weren't there burning any guns. They were up north, probably holding them. And the government didn't burn any significant number of guns. This was only a few. It still has the rest of its weaponry. You know, just in case.

Except this is West Africa, where anyone with cash, a landing strip, and Viktor Bout's pager number can be armed to the tonsils by tomorrow morning.

Enter Didier Drogba, the man I wanted to hate.

In the Ivory Coast the average citizen can measure his political power in close friends and ammunition. But no one, not even a sitting president--not even a standing president--is as powerful or popular as a goalmaker. Drogba, whom I'd thought to be a footballing mercenary, could in his regular life be some wonderful oxymoron: a soldier of peace.

In June, an Ivory Coast match against Madagascar was scheduled to be played in Drogba's hometown, the government-controlled city of Abidjan. On Drogba's audacious suggestion, it was moved north, to the rebel stronghold Bouake. All parties agreed. After all, this was the goalmaker. Aside from Ivory Coast's five goals--the fifth from Drogba--it was without incident. Rebel forces and supporters coexisted with government officials in one stadium, cheering for the same 11 people. Deflecting credit, Drogba said "it's the best thing that's ever happened to me."

The long term impact of nights like this--or the one in October of 2005, when the team qualified for the World Cup and people in Abidjan called bars to order beer for those in the rebel North--remains to be seen. As we Americans foolishly say, "It's only a game."

But I know that the more time you spend arguing over whether to play Emmanuel Eboue at right back or right mid, the less time you spend counting ammunition and looking at maps. I know that the same money that buys Drogba a house in London builds a hospital back home. I know that long after his knees give out, Drogba's mouth and his brain and his heart will still work.

Drogba has spent enough time in London to know that he could lose himself in the paved roads and high speed internet and DVDs and fine dining, and he could buy expensive speakers and try to drown out the gunfire back home. He spent enough time in France as a kid that he could probably have applied for French citizenship, and he could have suited up alongside Zidane and Henry in last year's World Cup Final. And yet he keeps turning back to his homeland and saying and doing things that most Ivorians cannot.

Though I'd like to ask him about it someday, I still don't forgive Drogba's "machine gun" move. But I think I can finally begin to get over the hair.

At the beginning of that highlight video where I saw Drogba's wrongheaded celebration, there is no sound. I saw Didier run a midfield give-and-go with a teammate, leaving him a single defender and the goalkeeper. Drogba beat the defender on pure speed and with a single deft touch swerved left, away from the keeper, and scored easily. At the moment he made the decisive move, there was a sudden pulse of string instruments that blared out of my headphones and scared the hell out of me. It introduced a powerful piece of orchestral music that played for the rest of the video.

If there is any player in football whose soundtrack would be opera, it is this man. In any one 90 minute match he can be bully, victim, artist, fiend, villain and hero. In a virtuoso performance, he played the full spectrum last week when Chelsea visited Valencia for a Champions League match.

In the first half he set up Chelsea's first goal with a through pass to Flourent Malouda, who squared the ball across goal for Joe Cole to poke in.

Midway through the first half Drogba collided with a Valencia player at midfield and went down clutching his head. The impact was sufficiently jarring that moments later I saw the Chelsea trainer holding smelling salts in front of Drogba's face. He sniffed and threw his head back. (His hair did not move.)

Just before the half ended Drogba flailed his left foot at a waist-high cross, but he couldn't make contact. Immediately he came up limping. He'd pulled his hamstring, and he started walking toward the sideline. Though he stayed on the field the last few minutes, he was a hobbled man, and I assumed he would be substituted at the half.

The second half came and there he was. I'm not sure what combination of wrapping and painkilling went on, but Didier Drogba, who had just legitimately pulled his hamstring, was as good as I've ever seen him. He won every header that came his way, and any ball rolled in his direction belonged to him, and more importantly, to Chelsea.

At one point, after battling for a ball in the corner, one Valencia fan said something ugly enough to make Drogba whip his head around and glare under narrowed eyebrows. Given Spain's pathetic recent history of spectator racism, we can only imagine.

Then with the score tied 1-1 in the 71st minute, Cole gained possession in midfield and without hesitation struck a pass with the outside of his right foot. The ball carved out a left-to-right path over 150 feet of grass, right to Drogba. Didier was one-on-one with a single defender.

He controlled the ball with his right foot, held off his defender, and beat the onrushing goalkeeper with his left. Lights out.

He ran to the same corner that he'd shot the look toward earlier, then shook his head and made a gesture as if to say, "Forget it, this isn't about you." He turned back to his teammates, and the smile that he showed Cole does not come from a mercenary.

In the 85th minute, Salomon Kalou came on as a substitute for Malouda. Kalou, 22, was born in Oume, Cote d'Ivoire, and if he weren't so damn fast he'd probably be going into his ninth year on a cocoa plantation. Instead, Kalou was becoming a multi-millionaire and a national hero. (He scored the Ivory Coast's first goal against Madagascar that night in Bouake.)

I like to imagine that Drogba has taken his young countryman in as a little brother. I'm pretty sure that, like most young Ivorians, Kalou fiercely admires Drogba. I'm pretty sure I do, too.

(Note: This column benefitted greatly from a Vanity Fair piece by Austin Merril, which you can find here. And for the same story with a different protaganist and location, try S.L. Price's A Good Man in Africa, about the Liberian George Weah.)