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Didier Drogba was a star to watch in the World Cup. Until fate intervened.
Drogba’s seeming arrogance, his penchant for diving to feign fouls, his more than occasional whining and petulance both on and off the field — all made him an inviting target for opposing fans. Though his scoring talent quickly eradicated his concerns about anonymity in England, even the Chelsea faithful had their doubts about his temperament and whether he was a good fit with the London team.
Last year, after a bitter last-second loss to Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League semi-final, Drogba had a threatening confrontation with the referee and could be heard screaming on live TV, “It’s a fucking disgrace.”
Far more disgraceful was that the Norwegian referee had to be smuggled out of England to safeguard him from angry fans. Drogba wound up with a six-game ban (eventually reduced to four) from European competition.
The moody, combative Drogba stands in striking contrast with the man who back in his West African homeland is regarded not only as a sports hero, but as a statesman too.
His greatest heroics on the field came during qualifying for the 2006 World Cup when Drogba scored nine goals in 10 games to lead Ivory Coast to its first-ever Cup berth. Afterwards, he used his lofty stature to plead with combatants in the Ivory Coast's five-year civil war to honor the accomplishment by putting down their arms. They did and the ceasefire held, bolstered by Drogba’s effort to stage an African Cup of Nations qualifier in rebel territory.
This season Drogba shook off last’s tumultuous end and shut up his critics with 29 goals in 34 Premiership games, as Chelsea won both the league crown — its first since 2006 — and the coveted FA Cup. It may require an even more extraordinary effort to propel Ivory Coast to new heights in the World Cup.
With Drogba’s rare combination of power and finesse up front, many experts regarded Ivory Coast as the most dangerous African side in the 2010 World Cup.
But that was also the case four years ago — before Ivory Coast was drawn into the tournament’s toughest group. Though the team’s performance was impressive, it lost two one-goal games and failed to reach the second round.
The South African World Cup draw is only slightly more friendly, with two teams in its group, Brazil and Portugal, ranked among the top three in the world.
Whether or not he can compete, South Africa 2010 will undoubtedly be Drogba’s last World Cup in his prime. The news of his broken arm is devastating, but there are still hopes that doctors can patch him up for the tournament.
Drogba has now made an indelible mark on the game everywhere except on this biggest stage. His ambitions, his struggles mirror Africa’s. Any triumphs for Drogba and Ivory Coast will be Africa’s too.