The love affair between Didier Drogba and Marseille was a brief and passionate one, and it will be rekindled this week when he returns for the first time since his departure in 2004. On Wednesday, Chelsea takes on the French champions at the Stade Velodrome in the Champions League's Group F Matchday Six encounter.
Drogba was only at Marseille for one season, but you would not think so from the way he talks about his former club. Marseille finished sixth in Ligue 1 in 2003-04, with Drogba scoring an impressive 19 goals in 35 games in what was his third season in France's top-flight (the previous two were with Guingamp; and he finished second in the top-scorer charts behind Auxerre forward Djibril Cisse). It was in Europe where Drogba really came to prominence, with 11 goals in 16 matches. He scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 Champions League win over Partizan Belgrade, and opened the scoring against Jose Mourinho¹s Porto in a 2-3 home defeat to the eventual European champions.
It was at that game, on Oct. 22, 2003, when Mourinho first saw Drogba in action. "I had hardly sat down and this giant wearing a No. 11 shirt had already scored," Mourinho remembered in his moving preface to Drogba's autobiography, C'Etait Pas Gagné.
"I can still see him celebrating that goal as if it was his last, and transforming a crowd into a great ball of fire, of chants and emotion. I ran into him in the tunnel at halftime, and I said, 'I don't have enough money to buy you, but would you happen to have a cousin in the Ivory Coast who plays like you?' right in the middle of this very tense match. He started laughing, took me in his arms and said, 'One day you will be at a club which will be able to buy me.'"
Drogba would not have known that moment would come so soon. By the time Mourinho had won the Champions League with Porto and been appointed Chelsea coach, Drogba had been writing his own Marseille mythology, scoring against Liverpool, Inter Milan and Newcastle in successive rounds as his French team reached the Uefa Cup final, which it lost to Valencia.
Mourinho's first decisive act as Blues boss was to sign Drogba in 2004, even though not everyone at Chelsea was sold on the idea. "There were some who immediately expressed their doubts and asked questions: 'Why him? Why not this guy? Are you sure he will adapt? Is he really as good as all that?'" wrote Mourinho, who replied: "I want Didier Drogba."
The problem was, Drogba did not want to leave Marseille. "I always wanted to stay at Marseille and finish my career there," Drogba told director Cedric Degruson in a 2008 documentary about his life, called L'Incroyable Destin. "I wanted to do a Maldini. I've had a lot of affection at all the clubs I've played for, but Marseille was passion." When the club accepted a £24 million ($37.4 million) offer from Chelsea, Drogba was distraught. He even wanted Chelsea's doctors to find a problem with his knee so he could fail his medical.
Though he moved to Chelsea, he struggled in the first two seasons, his totals of 10 and 12 league goals often overshadowed by diving accusations that hurt him. In 2007, Drogba became the first Chelsea player to score 30 goals in a season since Kerry Dixon in 1985, and netted the winning goal in the FA Cup final. "That was my best season ever, and I¹m proud I managed to change the way people in England looked at me," he said.
His Chelsea career was so embedded to Mourinho that when the Portuguese coach left the club in September 2007, Drogba thought about boycotting its next game European game against Valencia in protest. He did not want to make himself ineligible for European matches in case of a January transfer to another team. As it was, he did play for Chelsea that night -- and scored in a 2-1 win -- but it was only after taking advice from Marseille president Pape Diouf, his former agent.
Diouf left Marseille last year but not before taking every possible opportunity to suggest a return for Drogba might one day be on the cards. When France Football magazine asked ex-Marseille players to send questions for Diouf, Drogba responded: "I'm not going to ask you when you're going to bring me back to L'OM, that would be too easy." Instead it was left to Robert Pires to ask the key question: "Do you think that bringing back former Marseille players for one last go is a good idea?"
"As long as the old-timers are still competitive, I can't see how they would hinder the club," Diouf replied. "Does this mean we could bring back a player like Drogba? When you know the price-tag for Didier, it remains hypothetical -- but we can dream, especially if everyone agrees to make an effort."
His successor as president, Jean-Claude Dassier, has carried on where Diouf left off, playing the populist card and telling So Foot that Marseille tried to sign Drogba last summer. "He earns per week what we could eventually give him per month, but we tried, even though it didn't happen," he said.
Drogba himself has kept relatively quiet before his return to southern France. Both Chelsea and Marseille have already qualified for the next phase of the Champions League, and while the visitors will use the game to blood in more youngsters, the feeling in Marseille is that this could be turned a gala match in honor of Drogba. His last public statement about the club of his heart came over the summer, when he told France Football that he still misses the port city. "I want to avoid talking about a return as that will only lead to more speculation -- but if I do come back, it has to happen naturally," he said.
Drogba will get a huge welcome this week but whether that will expedite a return to the club remains to be seen. After all, Drogba also wrote in his book that he is convinced that he will work with Mourinho again. "He's admitted that to me, and seeing as he has a divine gift, he must have a precise idea about the date."
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.