by on May 29, 2019
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IN the spring of 2016, as Eric Bailly mulled over whether to leave Villarreal for Manchester United, he knew just who to call. The feisty defender placed a call to his fellow Ivorien, Chelsea legend Didier Drogba, who advised him to make the move to the Old Trafford giants. By then, Didier Drogba, already in the twilight of his own glittering career, was used to being regarded as a statesman by his professional peers, who sought his much-valued advice, not just on football, but on life in general. Didier Yves Drogba Tebily, who officially retired from football last week after an illustrious career spanning two decades, was a force on the pitch and a model outside it.

Drogba's football career is a testimony to the role of the combination of luck and personal tenacity in shaping human destiny. Drogba was lucky that, at the tender age of six, at the insistence of his dad and much to the agony of his mother, he was taken from Cote d'Ivoire to Paris, France, because his dad wanted him to "have a better chance to study, a better chance than he had." Drogba would not actually start playing team football until the age of 11, and not as a striker but as a right-back. The move to striker only took place at the insistence of the same dad, who observed that the young Didier actually netted more goals from his marauding runs down the right flank than bona fide strikers did.

 

But the conversion to striker was just the beginning. Although Drogba regularly scored an average of 40 goals per season for whatever team he played for, breaking football's equivalent of the glass ceiling remained a bridge too far until 1998 when French Ligue 1 side, Le Mans, decided to take a punt on him. The move to Le Mans was a reward for Drogba's unyielding determination. As he told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), "Before joining Le Mans in 1998, I was writing letters to first division teams for a trial and I would never get a positive answer but I never gave up. When I had the chance to go to Le Mans, I jumped on it (sic). Moving to Marseille [French club Olympique de Marseille] was part of my dream-I used to say to my friends when I was at Le Mans 'you will see one day I will play with this team'. In 2003 I moved to Marseille, so my dream became a reality. It was the best dream I ever had in my life."

In the event, Drogba would only spend one season at Marseille, during which he scored 29 goals in total:18 in the league, five in the UEFA Champions League and six in the UEFA Cup. The following year, 2004, he sealed a �24 million transfer to Chelsea FC of England where, following a rocky start (16 goals in 40 games during the first season), he would eventually establish a reputation as one of the most fearsome strikers in the game. At Chelsea, where he had two spells and enjoyed the most fruitful part of his career under the guidance of Jose Mourinho, Drogba netted 164 times in 381 games, winning four Premier League trophies and the 2012 Champions League. For some reason, he was singularly prolific when playing against Chelsea's London rivals, Arsenal FC, against whom he scored 16 times in 17 matches across six different competitions.

All in all, over two decades of professional football, Didier Drogba made 794 appearances, scoring 367 goals in the process, an average of a goal every two games. He also won 15 major trophies and was named African Footballer of the Year twice, in 2006 and 2009. In a game played by the young and loved everywhere by both the young and the young at heart, Drogba was a force of nature (ask Jamie Carragher) who carried himself with the wisdom of a sage. Each time he played, even when he was on the losing side, like on that occasion in 2009 when he allowed his emotion to spill over after Spanish giants Barcelona controversially knocked out his beloved Chelsea from the Champions League, he never failed to remind us why we love football, and why, for aficionados, the game is much more serious than life and death.

As he hangs up his boots, we join millions of football followers across the world in saluting Didier Drogba and wishing him the best in his next career move.

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