As Didier Drogba hangs up his boots after two decades of professional football many back in his homeland Ivory Coast consider him as the greatest footballer the West African country has produced so far even though he did not win any title with the Elephants.
Some local pundits argue that the high esteem Drogba enjoys in his country is clearly exaggerated, considering his contribution to the national team, while others believe the Chelsea legend deserves the cult-hero regard from Ivorians.
The now 40-year-old earned his first international call up in 2002 while playing for Guingamp in France but it was after his move to Chelsea in 2004 that he became a household name in Ivory Coast, inspiring many local musicians to include his name in their compositions. A local beer was named after him.
As he progressed in the Premier League his popularity soared in Abidjan and beyond. Ivorian soccer fans gradually shifted attention from the French league to the EPL mainly due to Drogba, but also to see other compatriots like Didier Zokora, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboué and Salomon Kalou who were plying their trade in the same league.
Drogba’s first major national achievement came in 2006 when he led the Elephants to clinch their first ever qualification to the FIFA World Cup.
Nobody was expecting Ivory Coast to win the World Cup and so the team’s eventual debacle at the finals in Germany meant little to many back home.
“If you ask any Ivorian what Drogba’s greatest achievement for country is, they would tell you he qualified the national team to their first FIFA World Cup in 2006. It sounds funny to me. Qualification to a tournament is not a title. It’s like attending a launch without eating or drinking what was on offer,” Lida Luc, a radio pundit at Abidjan-based Zenith FM, told ACLsports.
“He was a great footballer. He had a wonderful career in Europe and beyond but won nothing, simply nothing for Ivory Coast. All his titles were individual and not related to the national team,” he said.
Many in the country seem to share that view however, Drogba’s lack of success with the Elephants has been dwarfed by his wide popularity that sprung not only from his action on the field at club levels but his likeable personality, charity work and role model.
In 2012, the former Marseille ace came close to redeeming his national image for good, with a major silverware that would have silenced critics but once more, like in 2006 in Egypt, Ivory Coast lost the Africa Cup of Nations final to Zambia in Gabon, on a night many Ivorians cursed the forward for bungling a spot kick during game.
“In fact that was the worst image of Drogba with the national team. He had the opportunity to prove doubters wrong. He had the opportunity to crown the struggle of the golden generation with success, but it didn’t work out,” Geoffrey Tapé, an editor with state-owned Ivorian newspaper Frat Mat told ACLsports.
“We all felt sorry him. Some people cried. However, not winning any title for Ivory Coast does not take the shine out of his bright career. He remains a legend both at home and abroad.”
Immediately after Gabon 2012’s misadventure, Drogba led the team to South Africa 2013 but were knocked out in the quarterfinals by eventual winners Nigeria. That marked the end of his international career but he remains the team’s all-time top scorer with 65 goals in 104 appearances.
Ivory Coast clinched the following edition of the Africa Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea in 2015, painfully without Drogba, who had long craved for the coveted trophy.
“To many in Abidjan, it was like the trophy was waiting for Drogba to leave the team before it would come. We were happy that we won at last after three close attempts but Drogba also deserved his share but such is life,” said Ouattara Leonard, a football coach in Bouaké, Ivory Coast’s second largest city.
However, Drogba remains one of the few personalities in the country who could pull many locals from their dining tables to catch a glimpse of him passing by.
The high esteem Ivorians hold for him may not fade anytime soon even when he has no national medal to show off.