£24m for one good season in France

Didier Drogba took time to find his feet and woo the supporters
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The Independent Football

Didier Drogba learned that he might be about to become a big-money player from a group of urchins in the streets of Abidjan, who had probably never seen €30 between them, never mind €35m.

Didier Drogba learned that he might be about to become a big-money player from a group of urchins in the streets of Abidjan, who had probably never seen €30 between them, never mind €35m.

Football gossip moves so rapidly these days that the street kids in the Ivory Coast knew that Chelsea were about to make a move for the strong, intelligent, Olympique Marseille striker before he did.

"Thirty million euro? Are you sure you're worth that much?" they asked, as they flocked around the man who yesterday became the most expensive ever transfer out of French football.

It is typical of Drogba, an uncompromising combatant on the pitch, a calm, modest, humorous man off it, that he tells the story himself.

Drogba, 26, is still coming to terms with the idea of himself as a star. He is a late developer, someone who was playing, intermittently, in the French second division, as a defensive midfielder, until three years ago.

Even when he arrived at Marseille at the beginning of last season, transferred from the Breton club Guingamp for €6m, the passionate, truculent, influential OM supporters were hardly ecstatic. They regarded him as, at best, a second-string striker; at worst, another of the southern club's many woeful acquisitions of recent years.

"As soon as we saw him play, we knew that we were wrong," said "Monsieur Christian", the president of the most powerful of the club's many official groups, or tribes, of supporters, Les Dodgers.

"He is a player of great power, but also an intelligent player, a technical player, very dangerous with his head and - something that the fans insist on in Marseille - a player of great heart, a player who respects, and loves, the club jersey."

The OM fans would be devastated, therefore, to lose the player who scored 32 goals in 48 league and European appearances last season and was elected France's footballer of the year? "That depends," said the Dodgers president, who likes to be known publicly as Monsieur Christian. "Under €30m, there would be a revolt by the fans. Over €30m, we will say 'yes, it's a good piece of business'. The club needs the money. It might never get an opportunity like that again ... but, still, we would be heart-broken to see him go."

Which would explain why Marseille were claiming yesterday that they were going to receive €35m of Roman Abramovic's money - or about £24m - although Chelsea insist the actual fee is less than that.

Drogba was born in the Ivory Coast but moved to France with his parents at the age of five. He was brought up in the Parisian suburbs as the oldest of seven brothers and sisters but was not - unlike his near-contemporaries from the Paris banlieue such as Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka - spotted young and channelled into the formidable French youth development system. He never attended a professional club's youth academy, or centre de formation. He was never taken, as Henry and Anelka and many others were, to the national football training centre at Clairefontaine. He played for junior teams, rising by the age of 19 to the level of Levallois, in the western Paris suburbs, playing in the CFA, the amateur fourth division of the French system.

It was his uncle, Michele Goba, who had been a solid professional in the lower French leagues, who urged his nephew to take his football more seriously. The two men pestered almost every professional club in France before he was finally given a chance by the second division side Le Mans in 1998 (when Henry and Anelka were already in the France team).

Drogba played only seven games in his first season and hardly set the grass alight in his four years in Le Mans, scoring 12 goals, mostly from midfield. Transferred to Guingamp, one of the cinderella clubs of the first division, in January 2002, he was injured in his first season and exploded - with 17 goals in 34 matches - in his second.

Remy Lacassin, a sports writer with the Marseille newspaper La Provence, said: "It is difficult to say why Drogba emerged so late. Looking at him now, he seems to have everything. He has a powerful shot, which is rarely off-target. He is excellent in the air. He can run from deep and is difficult to dispossess. He takes penalties and free-kicks. And he is a winner. He has a great will to succeed."

Towards the end of last season, Drogba became frustrated with his lack of support and service in an OM team which was mediocre in the league (but reached the final of the Uefa Cup, thanks to six Drogba goals). A couple of big Italian clubs made tentative moves in May but Drogba let it be known, even before he left Guingamp, that his ultimate ambition was to play in the Premiership.

"Ideally, England attracts me," he told the sports newspaper L'Equipe in 2002. "When you watch matches in the Premiership, you sense an incredible fervour. The game moves very quickly. Goalscorers are cherished. It's really a football country."

Now he has a chance to experience it for himself.