When Didier Drogba awoke five years ago to this day, he knew he’d already done enough to go down as one of the best players in African football history. The powerful striker had, in just one season at Marseille, established himself as one of the greatest performers in the club’s illustrious history; inspired Chelsea to the Premier League title in each of his two full campaigns at Stamford Bridge; and propelled Côte d'Ivoire to a runners-up finish at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 2006 and to a place at that year’s FIFA World Cup™ for the first time in the country’s history.
Had Drogba, who was ten days shy of his 28th birthday, never kicked another ball, he was certain to enter the pantheon of African legends alongside the likes of Roger Milla, Abedi Pele and George Weah. Yet while those former Cameroon, Ghana and Liberia stand-outs had been crowned the African Footballer of the Year on multiple occasions, Drogba had yet to win it once.
The Ivorian’s undoing was that he unfortunately shared his prolific pomp with another of the continent’s all-time greats. Samuel Eto’o, indeed, had seized the African Footballer of the Year award in 2003, ’04 and ’05, with Drogba finishing runner-up in the latter two years – by a mere 108 points to 106 most recently.
The Drogba-Eto’o rivalry continued in 2006, with the pair squaring off for both club and country. After a 1-1 draw in their Cup of Nations quarter-final, they successfully converted their respective side’s opening penalty in the deciding shoot-out. However, with the score at 11-11, they were forced to step up to the spot once again. The Cameroon No9 blazed his attempt over the crossbar, while the Côte d'Ivoire No11 made no mistake to send his country through to the semis.
Eto’o exacted revenge in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, though, finding the target as Barcelona edged Chelsea 3-2 on aggregate. A few months later, N’kon’s most famous son went on to score in a 2-1 defeat of Arsenal in the final of that competition and also helped Barça become Spanish champions, while the Abidjan native played a fundamental function in Chelsea’s retention of their Premier League trophy and scored for fun during the first half of the 2006/07 season.
The masses who descended upon Accra for the African Footballer of the Year award on 1 March 2007 knew another two-horse battle ensued between Eto’o and Drogba. The former was hoping to win an unprecedented fourth successive crown, while the latter was vying to become the first Ivorian to get his hands of the prestigious prize.
It proved a night for change. After Drogba had walked up on to the stage to join Eto’o in being inducted into Africa’s ‘Team of 2006’, he swapped his smart yet conventional suit for resplendent robes, a multicoloured headscarf and a stately walking stick decorated by a carved elephant – a symbol of his nationality. And then he heard the words he had been yearning to hear for years. There was finally a new king in Africa.