He played only 28 minutes, did not score a goal or make an assisting pass. But Didier Drogba still dominated the match and – well, except for Robin Van Persie’s airborne header – dominated the first four days of the World Cup.
There was something surreal about the way he raised his Ivory Coast team when he came into the match in the 62nd minute with Japan leading, 1-0, on Saturday night. He was out with a thigh injury – and advanced old age, at 36 – but he charged a lethargic and clueless squad just by stepping onto the field.
It was as if the Ivory Coast players said, “Uh-oh, the old man is out here. We’d better get in gear.” They started making intelligent runs and smart passes, and scored in the 64th and 66th minutes, both on crossing passes by Serge Aurier.
“There is no game in the world like that where a single sub changes the complexion of the game completely. Japan had their defensive concentration break down completely,” wrote my pal Doug From Florida, who knows this sport.
I had a stake in this, because I had written an advance article for Cigar Aficionado Magazine in which I had picked Drogba as one of the seven stars to watch during this World Cup. I had seen him carry Chelsea on his strong back in the Champions League final in 2012, his last match for Chelsea. He played the whole field that night, striker, sweeper, midfielder. I thought he could give Ivory Coast – the entire continent of Africa – a boost in this World Cup.
Soccer fans know that every World Cup consists of five distinctly different rounds – group play, round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. Each one is separate and worthwhile. Nations have great matches in the first round (Algeria in 1982, Trinidad & Tobago in 2010) and vanish before the knockout round. But still, their fans have memories. Emerging fans in the USA would do well not to think about the latter stages. Enjoy Drogba in the here and now.
The world is still waiting for the great African team. The players are there, leading squads all over Europe, but the national teams that are collected for major tournaments often seem hit-or-miss, coached by Europeans, not quite ready for the late rounds. Still, there moments.
I picked Drogba to be a charismatic presence in this tournament because I remembered being in Italy in 1990, thrilled to see 38-year-old Roger Milla, who had already retired once, come off the bench for Cameroon, over and over again. The Russian coach waited until the sun went down over the lip of the stadium, and then sent in the elder. Milla carried Cameroon into the quarterfinals, first time Africa had been there. Here’s what I wrote, back then:
Now Drogba forces his teammates to play together. Don’t think about who is going to win this thing. Think about the first round. Ivory Coast vs. Columbia on Thursday. Two teams with 3 points already. At high noon. Drogba may not start. Then again, Roger Milla did not start, either.
(I will be writing after the USA match Monday evening.)