32 players to watch, May 2010

Player To Watch #8: Didier Drogba

Number 8: Didier Drogba

Position: Forward

Country: Ivory Coast

Club Team: Chelsea FC, English Premier League

American-Based Professional Athlete “Soulmate”: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings

Beyond the questions about South Africa’s post-Apartheid future, beyond the security concerns (now alleviated) about the possible visit of President Barack Obama, beyond the concerns about tourists being victims of crime, beyond the very fundamental concern two weeks out as to whether South Africa is ready to host—there are some magnificent stories ready to unfold this June. Regardless of the answers to the above questions, after all, Africa is still hosting the world for the first time. You don’t need me to tell you how advantageous playing the Cup on home soil is—you just need a memory or a Wikipedia link. Even an above-average at best South Korean team managed the semis co-hosting with Japan (a lesser side that like the Yanks in 94, overachieved and made it past the group stages). As such, with Africa hosting its first World Cup, the sexy thing to do has been to pick an African side that is a legitimate contender to not simply capture the hearts of fans during the tournament, but quite possibly lift the trophy. Three of the African sides provide plenty to speculate about—Ghana has a midfield that stacks up with the world’s best; Nigeria has long been the most successful international side from Africa and if they can defend, they will cause trouble with their speed, athleticism, and ability to score at any time. Picking either of those two sides as your water cooler sleeper is perfectly justified. The sexiest pick, however, is the team from the Ivory Coast (Cote D’Ivore), whose qualifying campaign was nearly flawless and whose Captain has vowed he’s playing not just for his country, but for his continent. That player is Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, and in addition to being one of the best forwards in the world today, if not the best, he’s our number eight player to watch.

Drogba, who scored the qualifying clinching goal for the Elephants last fall, is the heart and soul of a side with a sound midfield, featuring dominant holding midfielder Yaya Toure of (not for long) Barcelona and the steady Abdelkader Keita of Galatasaray , an experienced backline featuring Man City’s Kolo Toure and Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboue, and of course, forwards Aruna Dindane (Racing Lens), Solomon Kalou (Chelsea) and the incomparable captain. A team with a veteran corps suits the new gaffer, Sven Goran-Eriksson, who thrives in situations where there isn’t constant tabloid pressure, and while expectations are high in the homeland, playing on friendly soil should help. Certainly Drogba has his sights set high, and perhaps best of all; he knows the stakes are high playing at home. Read the rest of the interview here, but this quote was telling:

We believe this is an opportunity for Africans to show what they can do to the rest of the world. This is a period whereby we all have to be proud of being Africans. We know that this World Cup will change a lot of stereotypes about Africa; it will educate people more about this beautiful continent.

A lot will be expected from you and the team at South Africa 2010.

People expect a lot from us now. We have been winning games, we are playing good football. From a personal point of view, I just want to do well and help the team achieve its goal. We don’t play for individual glory, but for that of the team. At the World Cup, we won’t only be representing people of Côte d’Ivoire, but also millions of African people. We are not there to add the numbers, we are coming to the World Cup to compete.

When the guy who convinced his country to stop a brutal civil war before the 2006 World Cup says it’s a huge tournament for not just a country, but a continent, you can confidently predict he’ll show up. Drogba, who often overpowers defenders with brute strength, is lethal in the air and savvy with the ball at his feet. As the video below shows, he can capably finish with both feet, and what he lacks in pace he compensates for in his ability to see plays and runs developing faster than most defenders and defensive midfielders do, much the way a great running back sees a hole developing before it truly opens. He scored 29 goals in the EPL this year for champions Chelsea, adding three Champions League goals and three FA Cup goals as well, leading the Blues to the Double and a second straight FA Cup with his brilliant free kick to defeat Portsmouth—so it is safe to say he enters the Cup in the best form he’s been in since winning African Footballer of the year in 2006. He thinks he can win the Golden Boot too, meaning he’s not short on confidence and has more than a patriotic belief that his team will succeed. His confidence is often mistaken for arrogance, he is injury-prone and his temperament is always risky and edgy (even resulting in the shameful red card after slapping Nemanja Vidic in the 2008 Champions League Final), his propensity to dive beckons the Italian in his soul all too often and drives opposing fans crazy, but you have to admit—with Chelsea teammate Michael Essien now out of the World Cup for Ghana—there’s no one player more capable of leading an African side to glory than the cocky Ivorian.

Perhaps the most telling thing about Drogba is his propensity to score big goals, even when every team knows he’s the guy who’s getting the ball in the big moment. Forget the power and force, the vision and the darting runs. Everyone in the stadium knows Chelsea wants to feed the big man the ball, and often in the largest moments, it doesn’t matter. That should remind most Americans of Drogba’s American soulmate, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

The Vikings tailback is powerful and has remarkable vision. He can run over you or run past you. He’s a capable pass catcher and a fine blocker. But most of all, he’s the Vikings meal ticket when they are in the red zone or the game is on the line. And everyone watching knows it. And most the time, it simply doesn’t matter. Averaging five yards a pop in the NFL through four years is one thing, scoring 40 touchdowns when for your first three seasons you were the offense is quite another. Peterson has handled it and embraces his role as leader, as Drogba does with Ivory Coast. Like Drogba, Peterson is injury prone, but he always seems to make it on the field and play his best in big moments (see his buck twenty on 25 carries and three touchdowns in last year’s NFC Championship Game thriller). About the only difference between Drogba and All Day is that All Day isn’t a whiner or a diver, as Drogba is labeled, but some of that might be due to the collarbone AP broke the last time he swan dived into an end zone in celebration at Oklahoma. Ok—that’s a stretch—but the parallels are telling. Both players are considered among the best in the world at what they do, and both are critical to title aspirations in the year to come. So pay attention this summer NFL fans—you won’t want to miss “All Day”, the on-the-pitch version.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at neil@yanksarecoming.com or @nwb_USMNT.

Neil W. Blackmon

  • Jon

    Didier “The Big Unit” Drogba, and I’m not talking about Randy Johnson. FSC’s slow-mo replay of his celebration after scoring in the second league fixture against Arsenal two seasons ago still haunts me.

    On a slightly less pornographic/horrifying note, I’m not a Drogba fan but I couldn’t help but like the guy when he and Malouda busted out the corner flag-guitar and air-drums celebration this year!

  • Jenn Haas

    i once got a valentine’s day card with Drogba on the front, it was from Tron Levy

  • Pingback: Global Game: As Career’s Enter Stoppage Time, One Last Shot For Ivory Coast’s Golden Generation | The Yanks Are Coming()