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Africa's star suffers heartbreaking injury

Didier Drogba was a star to watch in the World Cup. Until fate intervened.

Didier Drogba injured
Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba lies injured during their international friendly soccer game against Japan in Sion June 4, 2010. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Editor's note: One of soccer brightest lights, Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba was set to be a star to watch in the World Cup. But Friday he broke his arm while playing in a warm-up match between Ivory Coast and Japan. The injury almost certainly dashed Drogba's ability to play in the Cup, but he underwent emergency surgery that may yet salvage his World Cup hopes.

Here is Drogba's compelling story, a rise from poverty in Ivory Coast to the highest levels of international soccer.

BOSTON — It has been two decades since Cameroon stunned defending champion Argentina in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup, a prelude to a surprising run by the Indomitable Lions to the quarterfinals.

The soccer world awoke to the talent-rich African continent and lofty predictions were made for future success, even eventual championships.

Read all of GlobalPost's World Cup 2010 coverage

But since then, only one World Cup team from Africa — Senegal in 2002 — has gone as far as Cameroon did. And while South Africa would seem to be the perfect stage for a leap to the next level, few experts expect to witness the next African breakthrough in 2010.

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Indeed, to the extent that Africa has already broken through, it has largely been on the individual level. Its best players now excel on elite Europe teams: Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o winning back-to-back European championship with first Barcelona and then Inter Milan; Ghana’s Samuel Essien emerging as a ferocious defender in the Chelsea midfield; and, towering above all, Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba, a prolific scorer with Chelsea.

While Drogba is now acknowledged as one of the most lethal strikers in the world, his was a relatively slow ascent to stardom. Unlike the explosive scorers with whom he is compared — England’s Wayne Rooney, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo — Drogba did not have the eyes of the soccer world on him as a youngster and wasn’t tapped for a top European team in his teens.

While Ronaldo is 25, Rooney 24 and Messi won’t turn 23 until the second week of the World Cup, Drogba is now 32. And even his powerful body — he’s 6’2” and a muscular 185 pounds — cannot mask the physical and emotional toll the long road to the top has taken.

With his parents struggling to earn a living, Drogba, at age five, was sent to live in France with his uncle. Though he played youth football, he wasn’t expecting a lustrous career and was studying in college to be an accountant. He didn’t even sign a pro contract until he was 21 and didn’t suit up in France’s Ligue 1 — and then only with a bottom-rung team, Guingamp — until he was 24.

At Guingamp, his scoring prowess caught the eye of Marseille, where he would score 32 goals — including 11 in 16 games in European competition. That performance, in turn, caught the eye of emerging Premier League mega-power Chelsea, which paid more than $35 million to suit him in blue.

Unfortunately, blue proved to be his mood as well, frustrated that his accomplishments didn’t seem to warrant much respect.

“When I got to England, people said, ‘Who is this guy?’” Drogba told London’s The Observer. “You’ve played in a UEFA Cup final, been Player of the Year and you say, ‘Didier Drogba’ and they say, ‘Didier Who?' You have to make it all over again. It’s not easy.”

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