For a man who can leap so high - as Newcastle United will reluctantly testify following his spring-heeled header against them for Marseille in last season's Uefa Cup semi-final - Didier Drogba is reassuringly grounded. Like almost all of football's late developers, he tasted real life long before moving into the frequently unreal, cosseted world of professional sport and becoming last week the most expensive acquisition, at £24m, of Chelsea's unparalleled spending spree.
And what a down-to-earth life it was, begun as the oldest of seven children in the Ivory Coast. He reluctantly left his immediate family behind to move to France at the age of just five with an uncle. The experience was character-forming if nothing else, and must have contributed to the big man's determination to persist with the career he set his heart on despite unpromising beginnings.
"It was difficult, but I was with my uncle, who was a professional footballer, and I was in France first to study," he recalled after a draining first session with his new club in the West Coast heat last Thurs- day. "It gave me the chance of an education and helped me develop as a person."
English was a favourite subject, which means that he will find it easier than some of Jose Mourinho's cosmo-politan squad to accede to the manager's demands that English becomes the sole language of the dressing room.
Developing as a footballer proved more difficult. Unusually for one of his height and strength, the amiable Drogba was initially a right-back, and even after utilising those natural assets to better effect in attack, he struggled to convince potential employers of his worth.
He was 20 before being given a chance at Le Mans in the French second division, scoring only a dozen goals in four seasons before Guin-gamp in Brittany paid £100,000 for him midway through the 2001-02 season. It was in the following year that he suddenly blossomed, scoring a goal every two games to earn a £4m move to Olympique Marseille, though he seems uncertain himself how the transformation came about.
Another 12 months, however, with 32 goals in 48 games, taking OM past Liver-pool and Newcastle to the Uefa Cup final and becoming France's footballer of the year, and OM were able were able to transform their finances by turning a profit of £20m on him.
"A very clever player and a match-winner," said Sir Bobby Robson after his two goals in the second leg of the semi-final. Typically, Robson's former interpreter and right- hand man Mourinho, who had come up against Drogba twice with Porto in the Champions' League, is confident of making him an even more accomplished performer: "I like him because he is different. He will become a great player, I can do that for him."
The price and that promise might yet be a burden on Drogba's broad shoulders. He does not envisage being weighed down: "First and foremost, football is about pleasure," he said. "It's a game and I can get pleasure from it. But I'm very pleased the club and the manager put so much effort into getting hold of me to play for Chelsea, and I just hope now I can prove my worth.
"It's a big team, and what decided it for me was that the coach wanted me a lot. I was surprised at the amount of [transfer] money but I'm not involved in that side of things. I don't wake up every morning thinking how much I cost and feeling pressure."
The Uefa Cup games against English opposition and regular chats with his Ivorian compatriot Kolo Touré of Arsenal have given him a taste of what he will be up against this season. "Kolo said English football was very attractive and interesting. He also told me it was physical but it's up to me to adapt.
"When I was in France I kept up with the Premier League and English football, and I know it's not easy to score against the English-style defence, but I'm sure with the quality of my colleagues I can score goals.
"My life has been transformed in a very short space of time, but that's why I'm in the job, to savour moments like the last year. I'm looking forward to learning a lot from Jose Mourinho and achieving great things with my team-mates."
The first task will be to win a place in competition with Eidur Gudjohnsen, Adrian Mutu, who started well but faded badly last season, and the other new striker, the prolific Mateja Kezman from PSV Eindhoven. Mourinho has followed the Iberian tradition of having two players for every position and letting them fight it out, while at the same time insisting that they are all equally important. It is a difficult trick to pull off.
"They have to understand nobody wins with 11 players, only with squads," the manager said before yesterday's game here against Celtic. "They all love football and want to play all the time. What I will say to them is, 'My decision depends on you'.
"I like every player the same way, but they must understand only 11 can play. In the beginning of the season when we just play one match per week the situation will be more difficult. Later we can rotate a few and everyone will be happy."
The competition for places and the need to impress a new boss have already given an edge to training, further sharpened last week when Drogba, Tiago Mendes and the Euro 2004 competitors joined in for the first time. It was very clear during those sessions who is on charge. Mourinho, 41, dapper but already going a football manager's shade of grey, is so insistently at the centre of things with his clipboard and stopwatch that he risks having his expensive acquisitions tripping over him. "Aaah!" he exclaims at a rare mistake. "Use the man at the back! Make the pitch big! Don't move too early!"
At 26, Didier Drogba has hardly done that. The hard part is about to begin, but he believes the years of struggle have helped him to be ready.Reuse content