Didier Drogba is one of the great forwards in world soccer of the past 20 years. He has won four Premier League titles, two Premier League golden boots and scored the decisive penalty in a UEFA Champions League final. He has led his country, Ivory Coast, in three World Cups. At age 40, Drogba has nothing left to prove in his remarkable 20-year professional career.
So why is he still playing—and scoring—in the playoffs of a second-division soccer league in the United States?
The best love-of-the-game story in sports right now may be Drogba’s run in the USL Cup playoffs with Phoenix Rising, which meets Orange County in the USL semifinals on Saturday night (ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET). In Phoenix’s first playoff game, a 3-0 win against Portland Timbers 2, Drogba scored the opener on a turn-back-the-clock free kick from over 35 yards.
And in the next game, a 4-2 win against Swope Park Rangers, Drogba assisted on a second-half equalizer and scored the insurance goal at the end.
“I’m really proud of what I’m doing now, because it’s a story of football, of playing, of competition,” Drogba told SI.com in an interview on Thursday. “For me, it’s a good way to end my career, to be able to give something back to these young and ambitious players who want to become successful in their careers. I started the same way playing in the second division and ended up playing at some of the best clubs in the world.”
“This is what I love to do. If it’s not about passion, I don’t know what would drive me to play at age 40.”
Drogba joined Phoenix last year in the rare position of player/co-owner, recruited by ownership leader Berke Bakay as part of a diverse investor group that includes recently retired baseball pitcher Brandon McCarthy and the music producer Diplo. Phoenix is pushing to become an MLS expansion team, and the more he spoke to Bakay and the other owners, the more Drogba felt like it was a realistic possibility to achieve.
“It was a challenge that I found really interesting, and also the best way to start my transition into after my [playing] career,” Drogba said. “The project presented to me was very attractive—taking the team to MLS. All my career I’ve been facing every kind of challenge, and most people were saying, ‘No, it’s impossible.’ And I ended up achieving them. This is another great challenge.”
In March, Phoenix Rising released renderings for a 21,000-seat, climate-controlled stadium, and in July Drogba and his fellow co-owners met with MLS officials in New York City.
“They’re very interested,” Drogba said, “so we need to make sure that we are going to be one of the contenders, if not one of the favorites, to get the MLS approval. It takes time, but Phoenix is ready. All the sports are represented here, so there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a [major league] soccer team here.”
Meanwhile, Drogba is taking care of business on the field, too. His two playoff goals have been celebrated with just as much exuberance as he used to show when he scored for Chelsea. When asked if he’s surprising even himself with his postseason goals at age 40, Drogba couldn’t help but laugh.
“If I say no, I will sound arrogant, but it’s not,” he said. “This is what I’ve been doing all my career. The physical side can slowly leave you, but the technique and the ability to read a game, this will stay forever. I might not run like when I was 25, but the goals I scored are the ones I was scoring when I started playing. For me, it’s normal to score these goals.”
Have the quality of his playoff goals caused Drogba to consider playing beyond this season? After all, he recently wrote in a first-person column for the club’s website that these are the final days of his playing career.
“Right now, no, because I think it’s time to stop,” he said. “When I see where the team is now compared to where we started when I first came, I think they learned everything they have to learn from me. They grew, and the players improved a lot. And now it’s time for me to let them fly on their own. But I’ll still be there trying to help and bringing my experience to help the club develop and get to the next level.”
Drogba has nothing left to prove as a player, but that’s what makes his playoff run in a relatively anonymous U.S. soccer league so fascinating. And now he’s two games away from raising a trophy to end his storied career.