Drogba remains a force of nature
BRASILIA, Brazil -- Didier Drogba will not allow the autumn of his career to dull his desires. It would go against his nature. He may not now be the wrecking ball that destroyed European defences for a decade, but he will not be letting his last World Cup finals pass him by. He is not in Brazil to be tourist, ambassador or to make up the numbers in the Ivory Coast's squad.
After all Drogba has done for his country, both in footballing and charitable terms, his being no longer at their epicentre seemed unimaginable, yet coach Sabri Lamouchi chose not to field the national hero from the start against Japan. With Wilfried Bony ending the Premier League campaign in such rich form with Swansea City, the decision made perfect footballing sense.
However, Drogba being Drogba, the Ivorians' fortunes changed on his arrival in the second half. Japan were leading an opponent playing well below their capabilities. The elemental force of Drogba served to inspire. Bony got on the scoresheet but may now lose his place to a 36-year-old who will not be letting life begin without him just yet.
"I was disappointed not to start," Drogba said in a post-match interview at the Arena Pernambuco. "But I have to show my respect to those that started." He has often acted as benevolent patron for his national team, and he did not allow the mask of professionalism to drop, though the public wish is that he should start against Colombia in Brasilia on Thursday.
"I am in charge of a group, not one player," Lamouchi said during Wednesday's pregame news conference. Drogba was the main subject of questioning in Brasilia, and the Frenchman could not hide his irritation about being repeatedly asked about the same thing. "If you are talking to me about an idol like Didier, he knows how important he is to the team.
"We are in complete agreement -- obviously he might be disappointed not to start, but his investment in the group shows he is very dedicated."
On Saturday, Drogba repeated what he has successfully attempted so often through his career -- trying to change his coach's mind through sheer force of will. Victory over Japan took Drogba and his country towards the brink of a new frontier; they did not qualify for the round of 16 in either of their two previous appearances at the finals.
Memories were cast back to his final Chelsea season, when Andre Villas-Boas tried to ease him out, only to have to turn to him in a crucial final match of the Champions League group stage. Drogba simply blew Valencia away in minutes, setting the Blues on the road to an eventual victory in the Munich final and outlasting Villas-Boas in the process.
A return to Stamford Bridge in the Champions League this season with Galatasaray suggested that Drogba's powers were diminishing. He presented little threat to old ally John Terry on a night that turned into something of a testimonial. Drogba ended the night blowing kisses to the fans who love him the most, but the night was tinged with a sense that the great warrior had lost his potency. The Turkish league's lack of true competition has not dulled only Drogba; Wesley Sneijder has looked a shadow of his former self, while coach Roberto Mancini could hardly hide his disinterest. Last week's news that Mancini has left Istanbul came as little surprise.
Sneijder looks re-energised by the World Cup, and especially in Netherlands' destruction of the Spanish. Drogba looked his old self, too, once introduced against Japan. He and his teammates sense a golden chance. At last, they have not been drawn in a "group of death." In 2006, they could not surpass Argentina or Netherlands, while in 2010 they suffered the same early exit when drawn alongside Brazil and Portugal.
“After all Drogba has done for his country, in football and charitable terms, his no longer being at their epicentre seems unimaginable.”
Colombia, impressive in beating Greece, present the greatest barrier to the Ivorians' goal. Ahead of Los Cafeteros' win on Saturday, there was the sight of Radamel Falcao offering moral support for his teammates, injury having denied him the chance to play. Drogba, despite his reduced role, can at least console himself with not suffering such a fate.
Victory at the Mane Garrincha would almost certainly be his country's finest footballing hour since they won the African Nations Cup in 1992; Drogba's generation have repeatedly flopped at their continental competition. Lamouchi, however, is attempting to play down expectations.
"This is not the end of the world if we don't win," the coach said on Wednesday. "We will have a third match to play."
Whether Lamouchi likes it or not, Thursday can be a game of huge historic importance for the Ivory Coast. Whether playing from the start or from the bench, Drogba will undoubtedly have his say.