Didier Drogba: 'Journalists made me say I dive'

In March 2007 FourFourTwo had a sit-down with Chelsea's Didier Drogba, then-contender for Player of the Year and star striker under Jose Mourinho. He explained how he made it to the top, how he reacted to accusations of diving, and why he owes a great debt to Hernan Crespo and Andriy Shevchenko.

Jose Mourinho likes his players to keep their feet on the ground; to not forget where they came from. Just because you earn 
a fortune doesn’t mean you should no longer stand in queues or pay your restaurant bills like everyone else, the Portuguese tells them. Chelsea players should, in other words, try to behave like ordinary folk. Didier Drogba, a dedicated follower of Jose, has clearly heeded the message.

Running a little late for our meeting, the Ivory Coast striker calls to apologise: he’s having trouble finding the address where we are to rendezvous. He is, in fact, lost somewhere along the Fulham Road. The man from his boot sponsors, Nike, springs into action. Giving directions over his mobile phone as he moves, he bounds out onto the busy thoroughfare, waving his arms wildly at every four-wheel drive vehicle that speeds past in the hope that it is Drogba’s; this being the Chelsea-Fulham border, that’s almost every other car. A couple of minutes and a few brushes with death later, there’s still no sign of him. The phone rings. “What make of car are you driving?” Mr Nike asks the 6ft 2in, 13-and-a-half stone striker. 
“A Mini,” Drogba replies.

His choice of car may not be quite what Mourinho expected, but Drogba’s affection for his manager has never been in doubt. Chelsea’s first trophy under their new boss was the 2005 Carling Cup. In the final, Drogba helped the Blues come from behind to beat Liverpool 3-2, but Mourinho missed the denouement, having been sent off 
for winding up the Liverpool fans with 
a finger-on-lips shushing gesture. When the manager failed to reappear after the final whistle, Drogba was the one who went 
hurtling down the tunnel to fetch the Special One and make sure he joined the on-field celebrations.

Mourinho was the man who convinced Roman Abramovich to pay Marseille 
£24m for Drogba when the Russian 
preferred Ronaldo. And it was Mourinho who convinced Drogba to stay at Chelsea last summer when he was unsure of his place at the club and had serious offers on the table from some of Europe’s top clubs.

So given that the newspapers are full 
of speculation over Mourinho’s future the day we meet, it’s only natural that we start with Portugal’s most famous face. “Chelsea without Jose Mourinho?!” Drogba almost shouts our question back at us. “I don’t even want to think about it. Jose Mourinho is the man who has brought us our current success. Chelsea have won two consecutive Premier League titles after going 50 years without being champions. Some people seem to forget that.

“Winning a major title each season is all you can ask of a coach. Sure, there were some top players at the club in recent times, like Gianfranco Zola, Tore Andre Flo, Gustavo Poyet and many others who all helped the club to grow, to mature. But for all the success they had with Chelsea, there was still no Premier League title. Not until Jose Mourinho.”

Drogba can sum up his relationship with the manager in one word: trust. “The 
biggest thing he brought me was his faith in me. When he took over at Chelsea he was given the choice of some of the biggest names in football. But he said ‘No, I don’t want them, I want Drogba’. When you know somebody has done that for you, you know just how much faith, how much trust, they have in you. And that gives you great confidence in yourself.”

If confidence is a fundamental part of 
a successful athlete’s make-up, then Drogba must have it in spades this season. After two years of playing mainly back-to-goal as 
a kind of one-man battering ram, fighting to provide knock-downs and scraps for Frank Lampard and various wingers to feed on, he has at last been given the chance to show what he can do when he has another forward alongside him.

Much has been written about the 
perceived drawbacks of Mourinho’s new 
4-4-2 formation, but Drogba has been 
a man transformed, banging in goals with a hitherto unseen consistency and showing just why the Chelsea manager insisted on bringing him over from France. Perhaps surprisingly, Drogba puts his appreciation on record for a former rival who never seemed to settle in London.

“I owe Hernan Crespo big time,” he begins. “For most of last season either he played or I did, but we finished the season often playing together and I think our 
partnership helped show the manager  that I was better with another striker 
alongside me. I’m playing in a different 
context this season – I have more freedom to roam and that suits my game.”

Unlike many, he’s also quick to acclaim Chelsea’s £30m summer signing. “Part of my success stems from the fact that Andriy Shevchenko is there now, making space for me, taking defenders away. The goals have been going in for me and I’m sure they’ll go in for him soon. He’ll turn it round.”

Given that many presumed Shevchenko would be a direct replacement for Drogba, it seems fair to say that this season has gone better than expected. Drogba smiles. “Some people seem surprised to see me scoring so many goals this season,” he says, “and I’ve been praised for a couple of nice ones against Liverpool and Barcelona. But I have to say that makes me laugh. I scored 
much better goals when I was playing 
for Guingamp.”

Guingamp was Drogba’s first top-flight club. With a population of 8,000, it is the smallest town ever to have a team in French football’s top division, and it’s where Drogba finally made his breakthrough; where, 
at the age of 24, he found himself 
playing at the highest level after years of unfulfilled potential kicking around in the lower leagues.

His was a very different footballing 
education to contemporaries like Thierry Henry, who came up through the ranks of youth academies. But then his was a very different childhood.

Born March 11, 1978 in Abidjan, the 
Ivory Coast capital, Drogba is the eldest of seven children – he has four brothers and two sisters. His father was a banker, his mother a typist, and when young Didier was just five years old they made a decision that would shape the rest of his life. Being ambitious for their first-born, and wanting him to get a better education than on offer at home, Drogba’s parents sent him to France to live with an uncle and aunt in Angouleme. Little Didier cried for almost the entire plane journey.

He spent three years in France – where his uncle, Michel Goba, an Ivory Coast international, had played for Dunkirk and Brest – before having to return home because of permit problems. At the age of 11, though, Drogba was back with Michel, the man he calls his second father, in 
the country that would later reveal his 
formidable football talent.

“It’s true that I haven’t spent all that many years in the Ivory Coast, but bizarrely I have more memories of Abidjan than Angouleme or Brest, where I spent more time, ” Drogba now recounts. “Even though I went to France young, I don’t feel like I left my African roots behind. They are anchored deep inside me and it all comes out as soon as I’m back in the country.

“If I spend too long away I get nostalgic,” he continues. “I feel like they were the best years of my life – I had a sense of freedom, the like of which only Africa gives you. 
I am the kind of guy who has a problem accepting constraints and rules and I felt in my element over there.”

In his in-between years, waiting to return to France, Drogba recalls playing three-a-side street games, mini-tournaments with a punctured ball. The kids even had 
a trophy to compete for – a plastic bottle containing sweets and the odd coin donated by neighbours. Young Didier played with an Argentina shirt on his back, brought back from a game in which his uncle represented Ivory Coast against the South Americans.

Drogba says his African roots explain much of the way he is today – including his late development as a footballer. “I often used to hear the word nonchalance from my coaches in the early days,” he admits. “Some Europeans take our apparent 
calmness as something provocative, but it’s not that at all. An African guy will simply feel strong and untouchable; it’s something you have in your genes, nothing to do with being pretentious. It’s just a character trait you are born with.

“Mentally speaking, an African is solid: he knows how to be jovial even when things are going badly. It’s a way to show you’re relaxed and can deal with the situation. Right now, for example, there are problems in my homeland, but in the streets you will come across people having fun, partying. It’s just their way to forget and to make do, to deal with things. In the African culture we are taught not to complain and to be happy with what we’ve got. The African will often have the approach that things will be better tomorrow and therefore time is on our side.

“The danger is that having great faith in yourself can sometimes lead you to be blinded by that confidence,” he continues. “Having a great force of character can 
sometimes turn against you if it ends up masking the reality. That’s what happened to me at the start of my career. Way too often, I would do things I shouldn’t, 
diet-wise and fitness-wise, thinking that 
I wasn’t risking anything. Thankfully, 
with age I became more mature. I learned I would be better off thinking short-term sometimes. I like to think I’m still quite spontaneous but at the same time I have 
a better grip on reality.”

In football terms, it all began for Drogba at the age of 15 with Levallois-Perret, 
a club from the Parisian suburbs whose first team was playing in the equivalent of the Conference. Yet despite team-mates describing him as the best player at the club, four years later he had failed to make much of an impact. There was a genuine risk that he would never make it as a pro. Fortunately, Second Division Le Mans had seen 
something in the 19-year-old and lured him away from the capital.

His early months at Le Mans were blighted by a spate of injuries which left him in despair. “Didier complained about often being injured,” says Alain Pascalou, then the assistant coach. “So I said to him: ‘Either bring charges against your parents because you’re a weakling, or set about changing something in your life.’”

Cutting out the Big Macs and the late nights, Drogba finally earned his first 
professional contract at the age of 21, going on to score seven goals in 30 games in his first full season of second division football. But the following three-and-a-half years were marked by inconsistency, by ups and downs. Then, in January 2002, he moved to Guingamp. It was the turning point he had been waiting for.

In his first full top-flight season, playing alongside current France international Florent Malouda, Drogba rattled in 17 league goals. Alain Perrin signed him 
for Marseille, and Drogba rocketed to stardom. In France’s most football-mad city (somewhere between Liverpool and Naples), Drogba unleashed the passion on the Velodrome’s 60,000 regulars with 
a series of breathtaking displays. In his 
solitary season in the south of France, he hit 19 league goals and another 11 in European competition. In the UEFA Cup quarter-finals, he scored home and away 
as Marseille saw off Liverpool and then 
walloped another two, including one 
fantastic solo effort, against Newcastle in the semis to fire his side into the final.

Suddenly, the whole of Europe 
was watching. Mourinho, who had already spotted Drogba in his Guingamp days, came across him in a Champions League group game with FC Porto and began his charm offensive with flattering comments and clever asides. A few months later, the two were reunited in London.

A hero in Africa and an icon in his own country, today Drogba is one of the most recognisable players anywhere in the world. At home, barmen have named a beer after him and fans crowd round TVs to watch him dance whenever he scores a goal for the Ivory Coast. There’s a communion in these celebrations that is reflected in the national team. You only have to see 
the squad together for a little while to understand that these moments are as vital to them as oxygen. They share a closeness inconceivable in the England set-up.

It’s a cultural thing, according to Drogba. “Our get-togethers are great times,” he enthuses. “There are no barriers, there’s no holding back, not like in club situations where there are many different cultures and nationalities. It’s a chance for us to live in our African way. When we have a meal together, for example, you’d think it was 
a wedding banquet or something. We’re all laughing our heads off from start to finish. Every meal is a celebration. The national team is a real family. We have so 
many things in common, and childhood memories which are so similar. It’s only 
natural that it brings you closer.

“In Europe, you tend to have everyone in his own world – guys with phones stuck to their ear, everyone doing their own thing. With the national team, it’s like we’re 
a bunch of kids – everyone is singing, even those who will be on the bench. Maybe it’s to reassure ourselves or lift the pressure. When Sylvain Wiltord heard us before our friendly against France, he came up to me and said: ‘Hey, it’s really cool with you guys. You haven’t got a spare place going in the team for me, have you?’”

Drogba’s huge fan club back home has had plenty to cheer about this season, but 12 months ago, things weren’t so rosy. Drogba wasn’t scoring as many goals as 
he would have liked, and not getting the appreciation he felt he deserved. Then came the infamous post-match television 
interview with the BBC in which he said: “Sometimes I dive.”

Suddenly, Drogba was English football’s public enemy number one, slammed in the tabloids and broadsheets alike. Even parts of the Chelsea support fell in line with the anti-Drogba sentiment and took to jeering him. “There were times when it was very tough,” he admits. “Sometimes after a game you could feel a bit down. But let me tell you something: mentally I’m a very tough guy. I’ve learned to cope with anything, and I can use criticism, hostility, as a booster instead of allowing it to bring me down.

“Some players would have gone under. When you’re criticised by your own fans... well, not everyone would have been able to handle that. But I can sincerely tell you that it didn’t touch me. I didn’t allow it to. 
It annoyed me, yes, because taking stick from your own fans is something I found ridiculous. But I rode it out.”

He’s more inclined to blame the media than the fans. “The accusations of diving really stemmed from journalists taking advantage of my less-than-perfect grasp of the English language. I think they knew what they were trying to get me to say. And from my point of view it’s more shame on them, not on me.”

The irony is that some of those same journalists will soon be voting for Drogba as this season’s Player of the Year. Right now, the race would appear to be between him and Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo; it’s a turnaround that makes the Ivorian chuckle. “It just goes to show how quickly things can change in football, doesn’t it? This time last year I was being criticised all the time, and taking stick from some of our own fans. Ronaldo came away from the World Cup branded a villain and with the papers asking if he would ever play for United again. Now people are talking about us as potential players of the year!

“Obviously it would be a great honour and quite something to win such an award. Beating Cristiano Ronaldo would in itself be something. He’s a great player – I really like watching him play. He brings this... 
creativity to the game. He can really go 
a long way because he’s still very young and he seems to have good people around him. He seems to have his head on his shoulders. He is scoring more goals this season as well, which makes him a real force.”

Not unlike a certain Chelsea striker... “We’re completely different players so you can’t really compare us but I like his ability to eliminate opponents. It’s funny to look at our respective paths. When I was 21, I’d just signed my first pro contract with Le Mans in the French second division. I’ve had an offbeat path. I didn’t go to any academy, I didn’t come up through a big club, like Ronaldo or Thierry Henry.

“Back then I couldn’t have imagined being where I am today. But I had 
a dream. Like all young footballers, 
I dreamed of making it to the top and I think having a dream is so important. You have to have something to hope for in life and maybe having that dream helped me get to the top.”

Whether you love him or loathe him, there’s no denying Didier Drogba is pretty close to the summit right now.

Interview: Darren Tulett. Portrait: Leon Csernohlavek. From the March 2007 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!