Didier Drogba: 'Having a stadium named after me is historic'
The Chelsea striker enjoys an emotional reunion with his first club – and Arsenal may rue what might have been
Didier Drogba can sometimes offer the impression that he is keen to remind Arsène Wenger what he missed. When the hulking Chelsea striker was a red raw hopeful at Le Mans, Wenger, whose knowledge of talent in the French leagues is encyclopedic, scrutinised his progress. Drogba could have been had for £100,000 yet Wenger and his Arsenal scouting staff "felt that he might not be completely ready".
Drogba's performances against Arsenal in the six years since his £24m move from Marseille to Chelsea have progressively twisted the knife. In 12 meetings in all competitions, he has enjoyed nine victories and three draws. Moreover, he has scored 12 goals, his favourite being the second of his double in the 2-1 Carling Cup final win of 2007. Wenger must now brace himself once again for the wrecking ball that is the Ivorian at Stamford Bridge tomorrow. Drogba is on a run of nine goals in six matches against Arsenal, each of which has ended in Chelsea triumph.
"I don't think that Wenger missed something with me, because he had Thierry Henry," Drogba said, seeking to cool the pre-match temperature, rather than fire it. "I just think that if I didn't sign for Arsenal, I don't think it was my destiny. I believe a lot in destiny and I think that if something didn't happen, it was for a reason."
It is Wednesday afternoon and Drogba is in the tough suburb to the north-west of Paris that he once called home. He has returned to Levallois Sporting Club, the semi-professional team he joined at the age of 15 to take the first small steps towards stardom. The club have decided to name their stadium after him, to mark not only his status as their most inspirational son but also as their modern benefactor.
When Drogba joined Chelsea, Levallois received a percentage of the fee, which equated to about €700,000 (about £469,000 in 2004). It allowed them to upgrade the facility to its present gleaming levels. Together with the football pitch, where the first team train, there is an athletics track, six tennis courts and two squash courts.
Drogba's presence has unleashed pandemonium. The balconies of the tenement block that towers over the pitch have filled up while down below, when the 32-year-old emerges in a yellow Levallois shirt, the security help struggles to keep the crowds back. Streetwise kids in cool trainers and headphones jostle with the scores of photographers for an up-close sighting. As Drogba moves about the place, like some sort of Pied Piper, a scrum of hundreds shuffles along with him, mobile phones held high to capture the memory. The younger children chant Drogba's name in high-pitched voices.
Homecomings are invariably a time for reflection and Drogba considers his four years at Levallois to have been the making of him. He moved to Le Mans at 19 and did not sign his first professional contract with them until two years after that, making him something of a late bloomer. But few people at Levallois doubted that he would one day make the grade. To them, his destiny was to bully the best defenders in Europe.
"Didier always had fighting spirit," says Srebrenko Repcic, the former Red Star Belgrade and Yugoslavia player, who was the Levallois coach when Drogba won his first-team debut at 17. "Physically, he was very strong but technically, something was missing. He had to train very hard but he did, because he was always very determined. With time and work, he turned himself into one of the best.
"In his first season [in the first team], Didier was only paid if we won. The bonus was around €200, which was a lot of money for him, but if we lost he got nothing. He always hated losing and used to cry with rage. He cried after every match we lost. I also remember when we were in the car on the way to training, and a truck lost control and crashed into us. I turned to him and said: 'You only get one chance in life, make sure you make the most of it.'"
Drogba is no stranger to provoking frenzies. Anyone who has accompanied him to the Ivory Coast, where he is feted as a deity, will attest to that. But here in Paris, he looks overwhelmed at all the attention and his words are laced with emotion.
"This is a great moment in my life," he says. "From now on, the children from this district are going to say: 'I'm going to play at the Stade Didier Drogba,' and that's enormous. It's more than flattering, it's historic. Having a stadium in France named after a footballer from the Ivory Coast, even if I'm proud of my France-Ivory Coast background, is a great proof of integration.
"The four years I spent at Levallois were my most important ones because this was and still is an amateur club and this is where you learn all your values, like sharing and solidarity. They are sometimes lost in pro football, where people are more selfish. Also, when I heard that Levallois had a percentage of my transfer money, which helped the club to survive, I was really happy. It's amazing to see what they've built so that kids can come here and practise instead of being on the street and doing bad things."
The highlight of the afternoon is when Drogba takes his place in a small-sided game with some pretty small team-mates. He thrills the crowd with a burst of skill and a pass for one boy to score, before making his day by hoisting him aloft for an embrace. The rest of the team join in the celebration, before most of the crowd spill on to the pitch to do likewise.
The occasion is exuberantly chaotic. The former Marseille chairman, Pape Diouf, is there, in great dark glasses, causing a stir, while the mayor of Levallois, Patrick Balkany, pulls on a cigarette and swells with pride. "I don't remember Didier as a 15-year-old player, unfortunately," Balkany says, "but I do remember when I received a big cheque from Mr Abramovich at Chelsea. Because we were Didier's first club, in France we say le club formateur, we get a percentage of future transfers. So yes, we get more if Didier is transferred again. I tell him: 'We're waiting for you to move!'
"Didier is a very nice guy, always reserved and humble. He doesn't come here acting the big shot. He was quite surprised to see all the people, a little afraid, even."
Drogba's humility extended to Arsenal. Given the batterings that he has subjected them to, he might have been forgiven for aiming a couple of psychological blows in their direction. A gentle reminder of his scoring record, perhaps, or Chelsea's collective capacity to overpower them? Not a bit of it. "I will try my best to keep my record as high as possible but it won't be easy as every game is different," Drogba says. "Everybody respects Arsenal for what they are doing because to be at that level with this team of new players or young players is not easy.
"I remember some games against Arsenal when I struggled and I couldn't score. I just hope that Sunday won't be one of these and that we can win. We have to win because we are at home and it's important we do so after last Saturday's defeat at Manchester City.
"People think we can bully them physically, but I don't know. We still have the strength to fight against Arsenal but football is not only about a physical battle. It's about playing. If the game has to go physical, we are ready to do it but we want to play and give people a good game."
Drogba has to admit, though, that a game against Arsenal did hold special motivation for French players or those who, like him, have come from the leagues in France. Wenger's team have come to be known as the "21st in Ligue 1". "It's true that it's nice for us as ex-French players, and by that I mean players from the French league, to play against Arsenal because they are the team with all the ex-French players," Drogba says. "They all go there … Wiltord, Pires, Henry, Vieira. That's why when a French player is playing against Arsenal, he is always trying to perform."
Drogba's destiny has driven him to London's blue corner and, following his late entry into the professional game, he feels that he has some years left at the very top. "I really don't feel 32," he said. "I'm enjoying my football at the moment, even if physically I can still improve. I want to take it year by year but, today, I don't see any limit to me playing at a high level until I am 35. I want to play for as long as possible."
Wenger's decision on the young Drogba may be set to retain its haunting quality.
He is such a ledge. :)))))) I genuinely believe that when he's on form, he's the best forward in the world
Anyway, now that that bit's over, your predictions for the game tomorrow?