Didier Drogba: Ivory Coast's Cornerstone Becomes a Catalyst
Two minutes after Didier Drogba entered the game Saturday night, the Elephants, as Ivory Coast's team is known, scored the equalizer. Two minutes after that, they took the lead. They went on to beat Japan, 2-1.
Perhaps it was the moment when Didier Drogba rose from the bench to warm up, making almost everyone at Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, take notice. Or maybe it was when he stood poised to enter the game, inspiring his teammates with just his nearing presence.
Or maybe it was when he stepped onto the field and made his first run, causing concerned Japanese defenders to react, and maybe overreact.
Whatever the exact moment, Drogba transformed the game, which Ivory Coast was losing at the time. He also might have changed the fortunes of his team, which now has a good chance of getting out of the group stage of a World Cup for the first time in three attempts.
Two minutes after Drogba entered the game Saturday night, the Elephants, as Ivory Coast's team is known, scored the equalizer. Two minutes after that, they took the lead. They went on to beat Japan, 2-1.
"It's true that after he came on they had more confidence," said Eiji Kawashima, Japan's goalkeeper. "It changed the match."
Drogba did not score either of his team's goals, but his presence emboldened his teammates and unsettled his opponents.
Japan was suddenly on the lookout for one of the most recognizable soccer stars in the world, with his long hair and offensive flair. That allowed Drogba's compatriots Wilfried Bony and Gervinho space to score the goals, both off pinpoint crosses from Serge Aurier, the team's young right back.
For Drogba, 36, this is almost certainly the last chance to make it past the first round of the Cup. For once, Ivory Coast is in a favorable group, with Japan, Greece and Colombia, the Ivorians' opponent here Thursday.
"We are a young and small country in the football world," Drogba said. "In 2006, it was only our first participation for a World Cup. So for us to go through the group stages would be a big achievement."
In his two previous World Cups, one of which Drogba played just 11 days after fracturing his elbow, he was the point man up front for the Elephants, expected to furiously and relentlessly pursue goals for 90 minutes.
But he is older now and no longer the force he was when he scored 100 goals in eight seasons for Chelsea in the English Premier League, including the dramatic header that tied the Champions League final against Bayern Munich with just minutes to go in regulation time.
Chelsea then prevailed in the penalty shootout in what turned out to be Drogba's last game with the team Since then, he has played in China and for Galatasaray team in Turkey, and he has remained an impact player, as his seven goals in Ivory Coast's last nine games demonstrate.
Ivory Coast Coach Sabri Lamouchi, however, seems to feel that Drogba's impact is best used in a substitute role - as against Japan, and maybe also against Greece and Colombia. It would be nothing new for Lamouchi, who sometimes had Drogba on the bench during the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
Drogba, of course, would prefer a starting role. In remarks to the media Wednesday, the self-assured Lamouchi, who was born in France of Tunisian descent, did not reveal exactly what his plans for Drogba were for Thursday. But the Ivorians have great attacking talent with Yaya Toure, Manchester City's goal-scoring midfielder; Bony; Gervinho; and Salomon Kalou.
So for Drogba, who has been part of various disappointments for the Ivorians, advancing out of Group C has to be put ahead of playing 90 minutes.
"I was disappointed," Drogba said, "but I have to show my respect to the starters."
Lamouchi made clear that Drogba's fitness was a concern and a key reason he was being used as a second-half catalyst.
"People love Didier Drogba," he said, "and I know there are many lovers of Drogba's style. But you have to understand the last time he played 90 minutes was a few months ago in Turkey. He's just recovered from injury. He made a lot of sacrifices to be here at the World Cup for his country."
It is not the first time he has done so. In the run-up to the 2006 World Cup, amid a civil war in his country, Drogba made public appeals for peace and was credited for helping to bring an end to hostilities.
When Ivory Coast made its World Cup debut that year, the Elephants were drawn in a group with Argentina and the Netherlands. Not surprisingly, they failed to advance.
In 2010, days before Ivory Coast's opening match, Drogba broke his right arm in a tuneup with Japan in South Africa.
Many assumed his World Cup was over. But he had surgery immediately and played in all three group games, coming on as a substitute in the first game, a draw with Portugal. Drogba started the next game, against Brazil, but the Elephants lost and were again eliminated in the group stage.
This time around, a victory over Colombia would ensure that the Ivorians advanced to the Round of 16. It is what Drogba has sought all these years.
"We deserve to be here," he said. "We are not lucky. We are playing hard and working hard. I think this is where we belong."
© 2014 New York Times News Service