In the wealthy world of Premier League football, treatment rooms are used to performing minor miracles. But this week the medical staff at Chelsea faced a problem that took them beyond the familiar turf of broken metatarsals and torn hamstrings: the club's star striker, Didier Drogba, was diagnosed with malaria. Even more remarkably, he is expected to be fit in time to play in tonight's derby match against Fulham at Stamford Bridge.
But for Drogba, malaria is not something that will be quickly forgotten. For the man who is among the most divisive and controversial characters in the game – as renowned for his outbursts and alleged diving as he is adored for his astonishing goals – he has spent years, not to mention millions of pounds, fighting disease and poverty in Africa.
Building is about to start on a £3m hospital in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast city where the striker was born. It will be funded by the footballer's own donations and fundraising. Malaria is a disease familiar to patients and doctors in Ivory Coast, where it kills more children than any other disease; of the 128,000 children aged under five who die each year, 63,000 of them are caused by malaria. In Africa as a whole it is estimated that two children die from malaria every minute.
The hospital project has emerged from the Didier Drogba Foundation that the Chelsea player set up in 2007. He is acutely aware of the deprivation suffered by many African children and the host of health problems arising from poverty. The foundation's stated aim is to alleviate these difficulties by giving people "basic healthcare and education", the idea supposedly conceived after Drogba and other players witnessed 22 people die as a wall collapsed at a stadium during a World Cup qualifying match in Abidjan last year.
Most of the money Drogba, 32, has earned from sponsorship deals with Pepsi, Nike and Orange France is said to have been earmarked for the project, and he has organised a fund-raising ball to be held on 4 December at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. A similar event last year raised £500,000.
As for the striker's own illness, the details are less clear. Unlike Cheryl Cole, the singer who recently suffered an acute bout of malaria, Drogba appears to have had more muted symptoms. In Africa, where exposure to malaria is frequent in childhood, a certain level of immunity is built up. Drogba left Africa for France when he was five.
Where he contracted the disease is also unknown. Over the past eight months, he has competed in the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola and the World Cup in South Africa, as well as international matches in Ivory Coast.
He was initially believed to be suffering from a virus, but blood tests taken after Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, allowed him a holiday to recuperate revealed it was the tropical disease. A club spokesman confirmed Drogba has been put on a course of medication and is expected to recover, astonishingly, in time for tonight's derby.
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