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."Reuse content