The Elephants’ all-time leading scorer was not being facetious when he entitled his autobiography C’était pas gagné (It wasn’t easy). When the emblematic Côte d'Ivoire captain ended the 2001/02 season having hit three goals in just 11 Ligue 1 outings for Guingamp, nothing suggested he would go on to become a global superstar, two-time CAF African Player of the Year (2006 and 2009), Chelsea’s most prolific ever marksman in Europe and a respected UNICEF ambassador. Now, having taken the long route to the top, he is the icon and undisputed leader of the national team, his frustration at lacking the international trophies to go with his standing only matched by the extent to which he is scapegoated by the Ivorian press whenever the Elephants fall short.
‘Tito’, as he is known by those close to him, was barely five years old when he left Côte d'Ivoire for the French town of Brest to join up with his uncle and tutor Abraham Tebily, a professional footballer. The youngster got started in the game at Vannes but then left Brittany to move to the suburbs of Paris, where he spent four years playing for Levallois. It was there that he was spotted by Ligue 2 outfit Le Mans, and two years after joining the Stade Leon-Bollee side he signed his first professional contract. He struck seven goals in 30 matches in 1999/2000 but despite failing to build on that showing the following season, he was lured back to Brittany by Gunigamp coach Guy Lacombe. Injuries blighted his maiden campaign at the Stade du Moustoir, but he reacted impressively in his second term to rack up 17 goals. Suddenly, he was on the road to stardom.
His one season at Marseille took him a good deal further down that same path, while earning him legendary status at the Stade Velodrome. He fired 11 goals in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Cup as Marseille ended the latter competition runners-up to Valencia in May 2004, and those efforts, added to his 18 strikes in Ligue 1, earned him a permanent place in the hearts of the OM faithful. The supporters were therefore devastated when the club agreed to sell their talismanic forward to Chelsea for €38m that summer, Blues manager Jose Mourinho having been won over during a game between Porto and Marseille. Drogba nonetheless needed a season in England to regain even a fraction of the respect and admiration he had enjoyed on the Mediterranean coast.
With Mourinho increasingly becoming a father figure, the burly striker went on to enjoy a busy year in front of goal as he collected his second consecutive Premier League title in 2005/06. The following season he helped himself to 20 goals to finish top scorer in the division, while Chelsea lifted both domestic cups to make up for letting the championship crown slip from their grasp. Mourinho’s departure in 2007 left Drogba in genuine shock, however, and it took him a few weeks to rediscover his best form. He recovered in time to sink Liverpool in the Champions League semi-finals that term, but the Blues eventually succumbed to Manchester United in the final. A year later, Drogba’s ill fortune in the competition continued when the Stamford Bridge outfit were sent packing at the last-four stage after conceding a dramatic late goal to Barcelona. It proved a testing season all round, in fact, with the Ivorian criticised for a dip in form, but he bounced back in style in 2009/10, topping the Premier League scoring charts and hitting the winner in the FA Cup final as Chelsea clinched the double.
Handed his international debut in 2002, the Côte d'Ivoire captain was his country’s first ever scorer in a FIFA World Cup™ match. Frustrated by the Elephants' performances in recent CAF Africa Cup of Nations tournaments – Côte d'Ivoire finished runners-up in 2006, semi-finalists in 2008 and quarter-finalists this year – he travels to South Africa full of ambition.
“We’re not only representing Ivorians but also millions of Africans,” he told FIFA.com last October. "We won’t be going there to make up the numbers.” On the qualifying front, he appeared just five times yet was still able to muster six strikes.