An amazing man, on and off the pitch

Professional soccer is one of my favorite sports to watch and it’s hard to find better soccer than the English Premiere Leauge (come on, La Liga, you only have two real teams. And Serie A has as much credibility these days as professional wrestling.)

I’m a Chelsea fan. For those of you who don’t know, Chelsea is a team in London. Apparently, being a Chelsea fan is like being an Philadelphia Eagles fan—it’s not something you’d wish on someone you care about. While in England, I saw someone wear a t-shirt that said, “A.B.C. Anyone But Chelsea.” That just about sums up most people’s attitude toward the team.

The reason I root for Chelsea is because the first (and only) English soccer game I went to was a Chelsea home game and, like a baby who bonds with the breast it’s first fed from, I was immediately hooked.

But one of the biggest reasons I love Chelsea is Didier Drogba.

On the pitch, fans both loved and hated him. He was an amazing forward, scored spectacular goals, and was usually the man to bury it in the back of the net for the big games. But he was also highly emotional, prone to flopping (for you non-soccer fans, that’s going down with a fake injury) and inconsistent with his focus. But when he was on, he was on. When Drogba was healthy and disciplined, there was no striker like him.

A spectacular player. But that’s not what impresses me the most about Didier Drogba.

Droba is from the Ivory Coast in Africa. It’s a country that had been ravaged by 27 years of civil war that only ended in 2002. That was when Drogba joined the national team. Though the war was over, there was much unrest, corruption, and fighting. The country was a powder keg waiting for someone to light a match. But one of the things that kept that country together was the national team and it’s leader, Diger Drogba.

After winning a 2005 game in which the Ivory Coast qualified for the World Cup for the first time in history, Drogba grabbed a camera-man during the on-field celebrations and spoke to his beloved country:

“Ivorians, men and women, from the north and the south, from the east and the west, you’ve seen this. We’ve proved to you that the people of the Ivory Coast can live together side by side, play together toward the same goal… We promised you this celebration would bring the people together. Now we’re asking you to make this a reality. Please, let’s all kneel.” The entire team knelt as he continued, “The only country in Africa with such wealth cannot sink into war like this! Please, put down your weapons, organize the elections and things will get better.” (Quote taken from this article.)

He has used his popularity to bring peace to his country. He has used the wealth he gained from soccer to build orphanages and hospitals for children. When asked about his life after soccer, he said, “I want to help with a lot of things: my charity, the hospital. I hope to keep learning. For me it’s important to open my mind. I love to meet people and listen to their stories, their experiences.” The journalist interviewing him commented, “In 15 years as a journalist I have never had an interview with an athlete that felt more like a two-way conversation.” (This is the whole article.)

Two weeks ago Chelsea won the title, “Champions of Europe.” It was to be Drogba’s final game in a Chelsea jersey, and fittingly enough his last touch of the ball was to drive the ball into the back of the net for the game winner. At 34, his talents are starting to wain. He’s off to China where’s he’s getting big money (much of which will be spent in the Ivory Coast) and will dominate the field, just as he did in the Premier League. Will he still flop? Will he still let his emotions get the best of him? Will he still be unfocused? Sure he will. But in the grander scheme of things, in a world where professional athletes are treated like gods and many of them fall into immorality and materialism, Drogba’s legacy will not be as much about the goals he scored but the lives he saved.

My good friend, Gene Monterastelli (who really taught me to love the game) summed it up best:

“He can lack focus. He can flop and moan. He can do amazing things with a silly little ball. And somehow lets opportunity slip by him on the pitch. None of that will ever matter. If we could all be so bold as to take advantage of the opportunities and platforms we are given in the name of love and peace.”