One subject that continues to crop up between football supporters everywhere is who stands out as the finest African player of all time. George Weah and Roger Milla clearly deserve consideration, as do the likes of Abedi Pele and Larbi Bebarek, but in a few years' time the figure of Didier Drogba could well be towering above all others. Since exploding onto the scene fairly late in his career, the Côte d'Ivoire international has continued to hit new heights, leaving an ever stronger imprint on the African game.
It was at Marseille that he first forged a serious reputation and though he only stayed for one season, he will always have a place in the hearts of the Stade Velodrome faithful. His exceptional 2003/04 campaign left many lasting memories and attracted interest from Europe's most illustrious teams, with Chelsea ultimately proving his next port of call. Once installed in west London, Drogba quickly began setting records and stockpiling winners' medals: two English Premier League titles, league top scorer in 2006/07, Chelsea's all-time leading scorer in Europe and African Footballer of the Year in 2006. The 31-year-old was also captain of the first Ivorian side to compete at a FIFA World Cup™ finals and, as if that was not enough, he also registered their first goal in the competition.
More than just a great player, the Elephants striker is also a very worthy human being, for whom the fight against discrimination and the struggle for national reconciliation in his homeland are every bit as important as the goals he scores. This Saturday, within the broader framework of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, he made his way to Johannesburg as ambassador for the Youth African Soccer Cup, a tournament devised to open young minds in South African townships to the battle against xenophobia (click the link in the column on the right to find out more).
It was there, surrounded by children in his native Africa, that the celebrated marksman chatted exclusively with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: You are here as an ambassador for the Youth African Soccer Cup, an initiative launched to tackle xenophobia. What does this event mean to you and what has your experience as an ambassador been like?
Didier Drogba: What these children are doing is extraordinary - studying and representing another country. Aside from the football, it's through knowing about others and studying that they'll succeed in changing attitudes. I would obviously have liked to have played and spent more time with them, but there was a huge amount of people and we had a schedule to respect.
What advice did you give the children upon meeting them in this special context?
I'm very proud of them and I want to encourage them to continue down this path. It's important they continue to learn and that they get their friends to do the same. These children need to become the motor in the struggle against discrimination. Instead of seeing people continue to fall victim to xenophobia, we need to turn things on their head and attack the phenomenon head-on. The best way to carry out that fight is by making sure these children receive an education. With more knowledge, they'll understand things like respect, friendship and community more easily.
You seem to be in your element here, among people who are warm, smiling and enthusiastic despite their problems and the sometimes difficult conditions they live in.
Those are just simple things that I'm used to. We're in a world where the stakes and demands are high at every level, and sometimes we get caught up in all that despite ourselves. That's why an event like this which involves children helps us get back to what's important, back to our values and back to simple things.
Your stay in South Africa coincided with the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. What did you make of the tournament?
I followed the competition with interest and I found the level of play to be very good. I really enjoyed what the United States achieved: they were a team no one was expecting much from but they created an upset and found themselves in the final after beating the best team in Europe. Hats off to them!
What did you make of the welcome and atmosphere South Africa provided over the course of the tournament?
The organisation is superb. And in the stadiums, even if it's a bit chilly, you very quickly forget the winter coolness. The atmosphere is magnificent, people sing together and they're happy and welcoming. It's been a very good rehearsal for the 2010 World Cup.
Indeed, you must be hoping to return here next year. Côte d'Ivoire have started well in Group E of the African qualifiers with three wins from three games, but can things still go wrong?
We're on the right track, but everything can change very quickly and there's nothing stopping us from ending up with a completely different set of results in the second half of the campaign. However, we now have enough experience to manage this situation and get the one or two victories which would open the doors to the 2010 World Cup for us.
In Côte d'Ivoire's first FIFA World Cup finals in 2006, you were eliminated at the group stage after being drawn in a tough section with Argentina, the Netherlands, and Serbia and Montenegro. What has changed in the last three years and are you better equipped to reach the knockout phase?
Even though the draw was harsh, we still managed to take something positive out of it all. Firstly, we saw we were able to score against the big teams [Côte d'Ivoire lost 2-1 to both Argentina and the Netherlands] and secondly we picked up Ivorian football's very first World Cup win [3-2 against Serbia and Montenegro]. I hope that victory will lead to others because we'll be coming back here with lots more experience and a past in the competition. It'll be easier since we'll be less naïve and feel less like spectators. We spent a lot of time watching our opponents and that maybe cost us a place in the Round of 16.
As the successor to Henri Michel, Gerard Gili and Uli Stielike, what has Vahid Halilhodzic done for the team? His approach seemed incompatible at first and yet he now looks to have been the ideal appointment.
He's been able to adapt to the demands of African football, and Ivorian football in particular. He's moderated his approach and, above all, he's come across a group of players who are ready to listen and want to progress and succeed. Those two things together have produced the good results we're getting at the moment. My ambition is for myself and my colleagues to leave our mark on the history of Ivorian football. We've already played in a World Cup and that's a good thing. Since Germany, we've realised our weaknesses, but also what our strengths are. Now we want to appear in a second consecutive edition and, above all, do better than in 2006.
What does it mean to you and to the continent in general that the FIFA World Cup will be held in Africa for the first time?
It's a chance for the African continent to show another side of itself to the one people usually see, by which I mean war or poverty. It's a chance to prove that we're capable of bringing joy and happiness to the whole world. And, above all, that we're capable of organising an event as important as the World Cup, because the goal is that there'll be others to follow it.
Should you qualify, it could be your last FIFA World Cup as you will be 32 next summer. On the other hand, age seems to have no impact on your performances. You still look to be as clinical and motivated as ever.
Aside from the pleasure of representing my country, the one thing that carries me forward is the joy of playing. I wasn't lucky enough to start out at the highest level early on. Unlike most players, I didn't follow the classic route of going to an academy and I reached the top level late, at around 25 or 26. The only thing you tell yourself in that situation is that you're lucky to have made it at all and that you need to make the most of each match and every second spent on the pitch.