Drogba ready for emotional return to the club where he's worshipped like a god

He was only at Marseilles for one season but was adored and cried when he left. Andy Brassell talks to those involved in a unique affair

The Basilique du Sacré-Coeur is the key to the city of Marseilles. From in front of the hill-top neo-Roman/Byzantine church, the view down to the city and the coastline gives a clear sense of its geography, along with the history and identity of the old port city.

To the right, as you walk into the church, hangs the military tunic of General de Goislard de Monsabert, who led the 1944 liberation of the city from German occupation. Next to it is a framed Marseilles shirt, with "Drogba 11" on the back. It's an indication of how loved a player who spent just one season – the 2003-04 campaign – at the Stade Vélodrome still is in the city.

"It's amazing," says his friend and former Marseilles team-mate Habib Beye, ahead of Drogba's first return as a player with Chelsea in tonight's Champions League tie. "He was only there for a season, but the fans loved him, and still do, and he loves them."

In his year in Provence, Drogba became a hero, hitting 32 goals as Marseilles reached the Uefa Cup final, where they lost to Valencia. Drogba was so popular at Marseilles that the mood in tonight's Vélodrome, always an atmospheric venue on European nights, will be highly emotional. "He will find it difficult," Beye says, "playing there but not in a Marseilles shirt, playing against them."

It was not a dream start for Drogba at Marseilles, though, as it is a difficult club to adapt to. Not least the stadium, which can be intimidating. "It's like a volcano," Beye, now at Aston Villa, says. "It's the best in Europe. The noise is unbelievable." Fabio Celestini, the Swiss international who was Marseilles captain in 2003-04, concurs. "You have to play there once to get what it's about. I was speaking to [Switzerland team-mate] Stéphane Henchoz about it, when we played Liverpool. He was blown away by it. It's difficult to find another ground like that anywhere else in Europe."

Celestini was Drogba's room-mate while they were at the club and saw first-hand how it took the striker time to settle in. "You have to understand that Marseilles has a certain something," he adds. "It's not just a normal club. Like most players, [Didier] found it tough at the start. But little by little, he managed to let his hair down and in the end... it was crazy."

Having arrived fresh from his first full season as a top-flight player at modest Guingamp, Drogba found the fervour of the south coast a particular culture shock. "When I broke through at Guingamp, I could never have imagined a club like Marseilles would come in and try to sign me," he said yesterday. "The first club who expressed an interest were Lyons. But then when Marseilles had been in contact, I couldn't turn them down. I remember the first call I took from manager Alain Perrin asking me to join Marseilles. He wanted to play me up front with Djibril Cissé, who Marseilles were trying to sign from Liverpool at the time. Wow. That would have been an amazing partnership.

"However, Pape [Diouf], who had been my agent, was actually a bit worried about me coming here [Diouf was Marseilles' sporting director at the time] because he knew how hard it was to make an impact at Marseilles. I had to convince him that I should join."

What cowed so many before Drogba inspired him to greater heights as the season went on. After scoring in the Champions League opener against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, his home debut in the competition set him on his way. "After the hat-trick against Partizan Belgrade, he was flying," Beye says. "He was unbelievable. Everything he hit was going in." The relationship between crowd and player was an inexorably burgeoning one. He understood Marseilles in a way that few others did.

Drogba's feats in the Uefa Cup, following their Champions League exit, sealed the bond between player and supporters. "Didier played some immense matches in the Uefa Cup run," Celestini says. "We beat some big teams – Internazionale, Liverpool, Newcastle... the Vélodrome started to believe. And he did too." By the time Drogba single-handedly swept aside Sir Bobby Robson's Newcastle in the semi-final second leg in France, he was the conductor leading a Vélodrome in full flow. Drogba and Beye were out at dinner one night in July 2004 when the former got the call to say Chelsea had had a £24m offer for him accepted. "We spent a lot of time together – me, Didier and [former Fulham striker] Steve Marlet – because our wives were good friends," Beye recounts. "I remember when he got the phone call. He didn't want to go. We told him it was an opportunity he had to take."

Drogba picks up the story. "When I left for my holidays at the end of that season, for me it was clear: Marseilles were going to be huge the next year. I wanted to win the French title with the club and beat Jean-Pierre Papin's club record by scoring 30 goals in a season with them. And then Pape came to see me while I was in Cameroon that summer, where I was playing a qualifier for the World Cup. He told me that Marseilles wanted to sell me because Chelsea had made a massive offer. It was painful. I was shocked. I don't remember what Pape said after that, my mind was all over the place."

Beye believes Drogba's age was the deciding factor in the end. "You have to remember, he wasn't a 21-year-old; he was 26 already. It was something he couldn't refuse." It was something the club couldn't refuse either, having paid just £3.3m to Guingamp a year before. "They made a £20m or £21m profit on him, so they couldn't say no."

But it wasn't an easy decision for the player. "I was really down," Drogba adds. "I went to the dressing room on my own for the last time. And I broke down then. I cried and cried. I went out on the pitch for the last time and, again, I broke down in tears. All my emotion flowed out of me."

Drogba also sought the last-minute counsel of Celestini before finally leaving for London, but even the famously passionate fans understood. Their hero had done them a good turn, securing the club's medium-term financial future after years of uncertainty following the Bernard Tapie scandal.

"It's going to be a fantastic moment," Drogba says about tonight. "It's funny because I only played one year in Marseilles but the feeling between the fans, the city, and me is unbelievable. I gave everything and they gave it back to me as well. They still love me and it's nice when I go there."

Beye thinks this might not be the last time Drogba returns to the Vélodrome. "I hope he can go back there at the end of his career," he says, "if not as a player then to help the club in some other way. One thing I know is that if he scores [tonight], he won't celebrate."

The Marseilles coach, Didier Deschamps, is also expecting a special reunion. "It will be very moving. Didier [is] very attached to Marseilles. I think he will come back here before the end of his career, he really wants that. The crowd love him for what he has done because even if Didier has been at Chelsea for six years now, he was always honest and always said Marseilles was his club at heart."

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Popes current and former won't be watching the football together
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
News
business
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
Sport
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
News
people
Caption competition
Caption competition

Bleacher Report

Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial