Didier Drogba's story is the template for the African footballer fairy tale: the kid who left the Ivory Coast to live with an uncle in France; who later slept on a rug with five other siblings and his parents in a one-room apartment in the Paris suburbs. He should represent just about everything that makes football great, its rewards for talent and its rigorous meritocracy.
So why is it that when the chips are down and the pressure is on, Drogba reacts with such appalling misjudgement?
The striker disgraced himself in the aftermath of the draw with Barcelona on Wednesday night. Those at Chelsea who would seek to move the club away from the old accusations that they bully and intimidate when they do not get their way will have winced at Drogba's pursuit of Tom Henning Ovrebo, however poor the referee's performance. It was an embarrassment and for all the rage that Drogba sought to portray there was something weirdly staged about his behaviour.
Earlier, before he was substituted, Drogba had pulled up limping in front of the home bench, giving up on a chase for the ball and prompting Guus Hiddink to tell his assistants to prepare a substitution. By the time that Juliano Belletti was ready to come on, Drogba appeared to be surreptitiously trying to tell his manager that really he was OK to carry on but Hiddink was convinced and in the 72nd minute, Chelsea's leading striker was off the field.
Drogba is understood to be unhappy with his substitution. There is some irony in the possibility that his notorious willingness to go down hurt in dubious circumstances could have eventually led to him fooling his own manager into substituting him in one of the biggest games in his career. His finger-jabbing exercise with Ovrebo at the end of the game was unpleasant and unnecessary but what happened once the referee had gone down the tunnel was just plain odd.
So desperate was he to make his point, Drogba sought out the Sky Sports camera. For a man who could have had his pick of any of the scores of press or television crews who waited in vain for him after the match, this was an unusually pro-active media strategy from the famously publicity-shy player. It looked like a man a little too eager to show how much he cared, with Drogba perhaps mindful of the reaction to his red card in the final in Moscow last year.
It appeared this time that Drogba was desperate to show Chelsea fans he felt their pain, although losing the plot was a novel way to show it. His flick at Manchester United's Carlos Tevez in the Luzhniki stadium last year demonstrated carelessness on a night when keeping his cool was everything. To say he overcompensated by trying to show how unhappy he was this time is something of an understatement.
Reconciling these aspects of Drogba's personality has always been problematic; like trying to equate the man who goes down in agony from the most innocuous challenge with the forward who bulldozes through when he has the slightest sniff of goal. Drogba is, by all accounts, a decent bloke although he bears the bruises of a player who was only lauded relatively late in his career and seems never to have shaken off the injustice of having to wait so long.
He points out in his autobiography that while Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet were making the grade in top-flight French football, he was still kicking his heels at non-league Levallois. He was relatively old, 21, when he got his first pro contract; 24 when he first played in Ligue 1. On Wednesday night Drogba had to endure his contemporary, Henry, reaching another European Cup final while he, at 31, faces up to the prospect that he might never get there again.
When, in the summer, Drogba was again minded to get out of Chelsea, and the club were prepared to let him go, there were no suitable takers for the striker whose contract expires next summer. He is not among the biggest earners such as John Terry and Frank Lampard. There have always been underlying tensions in his relationship with Chelsea, even when Jose Mourinho was manager.
The question of where Drogba's career goes from here is a tricky issue. In the past he has idealised Italy, Milan in particular, but there is no way that a 31-year-old striker will be paid Chelsea wages of around £90,000-a-week in Serie A; he would struggle to get them anywhere else in the Premier League. It is a dangerous dead end for a player of Drogba's undoubted ability and brittle temperament to find himself him.
There were times on Wednesday when Drogba was at his unplayable best, manoeuvring his fellow Ivorian Yaya Touré – no weakling himself – off the ball with devastating speed and strength. He got himself in a row with one of Josep Guardiola's underlings on the bench, but when the teams went in for half-time it was Drogba who offered the hand of friendship.
The problem with Drogba is that even now, 10 years on from that first major breakthrough with Guingamp in France, he still does not know how to behave appropriately when the game deals him a duff hand. He is a fabulous footballer, but unlike Henry, he is in danger of English football remembering him for the occasions when he lost control rather than the moments when he won FA Cup finals or league titles. The sad thing is, he just does not seem to recognise that.
I've had a Drogba moment too
We've all done it. Well, not all of us, but more than would admit to it. And, it has to be said, none of us can have done it while millions of viewers around the globe were watching. But as Frank Lampard defended Didier Drogba yesterday saying, as Hiddink did the night before, that emotions easily spill over, some of us may find ourselves asking: haven't I blown my top too?
Chances are, the object of the tirade was a man in a uniform. I remember going Tonto at a traffic warden, and he wasn't the guy who had given me a ticket. It was one of his mates. There's something about authority figures that brings out the worst in us. They make us feel small and powerless.
Whatever the case about the claims for penalties and the performance of referee Tom Henning Ovrebo, and while acknowledging that swearing into a TV camera and having to be muscled off a pitch is hardly honourary, Drogba's reaction was a human one. He didn't hit Ovrebo; he lost his rag, went over the top. Elton John does it all the time. At least it shows Drogba cares.
Man in black: Referee and the backlash
Tom Henning Ovrebo
Born: 26 June 1966, Oslo
Hobbies: Motorcycling, boating
Married, three children
First match: Ham-Kam Fotball v Sogndal IL, September 1992
Appointed Fifa referee: 1994
Norwegian Referee of the Year: 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006
Officiated in 23 European Cup games (78 yellows, six red)
Refereed two group games at Euro 2008. His performance in Romania v Italy was criticised after he disallowed a Luca Toni header and awarded Romania a dubious penalty.
Even Spanish media branded Ovrebo's performance a disaster:
Rafa Guerrero (former linesman, now media pundit) "[He] gave one of the worst refereeing displays I have seen in the Champions League. Uefa should never have given him such an important match. He looked physically unprepared – perhaps this game will spell his premature retirement. Only showing Michael Ballack a yellow for over-the-top protests was the sign of a guilty conscience."
Esten Saether (Norwegian daily Dagbladet) "[He] is exactly the type of ref this sport wants... [his] complete calm in the middle proved he is a top international football referee."
Peter Schmeichel (Former Manchester Utd/Denmark keeper) "[I] couldn't understand how such a weak referee gets to ref such an important game."
"Anyone who has been a Chelsea fan for more than five minutes was waiting for the equaliser. We didn't take chances and it ultimately cost us."
Greenlight - oleole.com
"The winner out of all this is football, now we get to see two fluent attacking sides in the final."
Toon Rocker - BBC 606
"Been watching Chelsea since 1976 and not entirely comfortable with what I witnessed at the final whistle."
ZolaGola - BBC 606
"I'm tired of Drogba's antics. Last year [in the final] were bad enough. If he's going to throw that fit he needs to score." Nathan – oleole.com
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