Drogba’s strange loves and laments

Image of Simon Kuper

Didier Drogba, Chelsea’s best player, never wanted to play for the club. He writes in his new autobiography*, published in French this week, that when Chelsea bought him for £24m in 2004, “it just wasn’t the team I wanted to join”.

But Marseilles wanted to sell him, and his agent said he would be stupid to turn down the salary. Then Drogba hoped he would fail his medical examination at Chelsea. “I was disgusted to sign for Chelsea,” he admits.

This makes bizarre reading before Drogba’s likely farewell match for the club, Wednesday’s Champions League final against Manchester United in Moscow. The Ivorian centre-forward has won two English league titles with Chelsea, yet the autobiography describes a man who’s never been ecstatic to be there. No wonder C’était pas gagné will only appear in English in August, when Drogba may well have safely emigrated. But the book’s strangest passages concern his extraordinary adoration of Chelsea’s previous manager, José Mourinho.

The central event of Drogba’s life is his exile from Ivory Coast aged five. In the book is a photograph of a child standing between a baggage trolley and two worried parents at Abidjan airport. He was moving to France to live with an uncle, a professional footballer. The six-hour flight, alone with his favourite toy, passed in a blur of tears and tissues.

He was right to be scared. His uncle constantly changed clubs, and each year Drogba found himself in a new school, usually the only black boy in class. Later he, his parents and five siblings lived in a room about 10 metres square in a Parisian suburb.

At 23 he was still “almost a substitute of a substitute” with Le Mans in France’s second division. Three years later he’d got to Chelsea, but the move echoed his childhood exile. In London the sun set before 4pm, and at Chelsea he felt like the new boy. “I had the impression, at first, of not being accepted by the English [players],” he recalls. In the changing-room, the Englishmen John Terry and Frank Lampard sit together, and the Africans have their corner. Gradually Drogba concludes that this is natural: “A black goes to a black, a Portuguese to a Portuguese, an Englishman to an Englishman.”

Then he starts playing brilliantly. He becomes famous, especially in Ivory Coast, where some babies are christened “Didier-Drogba”. In his country’s civil war, he says he becomes “an icon of reconciliation”.

Yet he is constantly thinking of leaving Chelsea. He stays because of Mourinho. When Drogba writes about him, the book’s tone shifts from merely overwrought to cheap romantic novel. The two first meet when Drogba’s Marseilles play Mourinho’s Porto in 2003. At half-time Mourinho asks him: “Do you have a brother or cousin in Ivory Coast, because I don’t have the money to bring you to Porto.” Mourinho’s “charming smile” and “mastery of French” seduce Drogba. It is love at first sight.

At Chelsea, they are finally together. Mourinho assembles his players and tells them, “You have never won anything, I have just won the Champions League with Porto.” The handsome Portuguese is a great professional, who gives his players pages of notes on every opposing team, even tiny Scunthorpe. Moreover, he is psychic. “On the bench I’ve heard him describe what would happen in an almost surgical way,” writes Drogba. “Sometimes this was almost disquieting. As if he could see the future.”

Late in last year’s FA Cup final, an exhausted Drogba hears Mourinho calling to him from the bench: “Continue. You’ll score. Stay concentrated.” Banal as this sounds, Drogba is inspired. He scores. Like a horse whisperer with horses, Mourinho knows how to talk to footballers. Afterwards Drogba hunts him down in the stadium’s catacombs, and they cry in each other’s arms.

When Mourinho is sacked, the two are tragically parted. But Drogba is “intimately convinced” they will meet again. He adds: “With his gift of divination, he must know the date precisely.” However, Mourinho, in his pretentious preface to the book, merely guesses at it: “When we’re old, Drogba retired from football and me rolling around in a wheelchair? Whatever, Didier will always be in my heart.” Cue sunset over fields of swaying corn.

Mourinho’s successor Avram Grant is treated rather differently. In fact, he isn’t treated at all. Whereas Drogba analyses all his other coaches, he doesn’t even mention Grant.

This summer Drogba will leave Chelsea, either to follow the man of his dreams, or to join his beloved AC Milan. The Sun newspaper has serialised Drogba’s account of a visit to Milan, where he miraculously “happens to run into Adriano Galliani, Milan’s vice-president”. Drogba tells Galliani he’ll join Milan “whenever you want”. Mourinho hears of the rendezvous and is furious. He and Drogba don’t speak for two weeks. Then they suddenly joke about it, look into each other’s eyes, and laugh. “Our only moment of misunderstanding is erased,” writes Drogba.

 *Didier Drogba, C’était pas gagné, Editions Prolongations, €19.90 (£15.82)

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