Last Saturday, in a packed Allianz Arena in Munich, Chelsea striker Didier Drogba stepped to the penalty spot with the chance to win the most prestigious trophy in world club soccer, to end the UEFA Champions League final with one 12-yard kick. The 34-year-old striker had done more than any other player to bring the Blues to the brink, scoring a driving header off a corner in the 88th minute to draw level with Bayern Munich at 1--1. As the scene unfolded, I thought back to another moment, one I spent with Drogba two years earlier inside a dusty compound, surrounded by soldiers wielding AK-47s, in the tense Angolan enclave of Cabinda.
This is an article from the May 28, 2012 issue
Drogba was there to play in the Africa Cup of Nations for his beloved Ivory Coast. I had come to interview him for a story on his role in healing the wounds of civil war in his homeland. Drogba is one of the leading humanitarians in world football—he has donated and raised millions of dollars to build a hospital in his native Abidjan—and while he was happy to talk soccer, we spent much of our time together watching news reports on the devastating earthquake in Haiti.
Drogba's first instinct, rare among athletes, is to listen. As the images from Haiti flashed on the TV, he said nothing, concentrating on the scene, processing the scale of the catastrophe. We discussed the role Brazil's national team had taken in that impoverished island nation, including sending its biggest stars to Haiti for a friendly in 2004 to raise money and lift the country's spirits. We talked about books; Drogba left the room to bring back his latest material. "I've been reading a lot of Paulo Coelho," he said, referring to the Brazilian novelist whose writing is infused with spirituality and self-discovery. He was also reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography and a history of the African diaspora in Europe. (Drogba moved to France at age five.) In 15 years as a journalist I have never had an interview with an athlete that felt more like a two-way conversation.
Drogba is nearing the end of his playing career—Saturday's game may have been his last with Chelsea after eight seasons—but he has no plans to slow down. When I asked him about his future after football, he said, "I want to help with a lot of things: my charity, the hospital. I hope to keep learning. For me it's important to open my mind. I love to meet people and listen to their stories, their experiences." All that passed through my mind as he stepped to the spot on Saturday in Munich. A muscular and swift striker who is powerful in the air and lethal in front of the net, Drogba hasn't always endeared himself to fans in England, who criticize him for gamesmanship, diving and, at times, lack of composure. Even when he plays well, he has often done something to temper his quality, and the final was no different: Three minutes into extra time Drogba clipped Bayern's Franck Ribéry in the penalty area and needed Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech to save Arjen Robben's spot kick to preserve the 1--1 draw.
PENALTIES ARE a cruel way of deciding championships, but the drama they produce is undeniable. After Bayern's Ivica Oliƒá and Bastian Schweinsteiger failed on their attempts, Drogba stepped forward with a chance to seize the first European crown in Chelsea's history. His record in championship games is one of the best in the world—nine goals in nine Cup finals—and on Saturday, Drogba made no mistake, burying his penalty inside the left post as goalkeeper Manuel Neuer dived the other way. Having upset mighty Barcelona in the semifinals, then toppled Bayern in its home stadium with four starters, including captain John Terry, suspended, Chelsea had won one of the most improbable titles in European history.
Drogba raced across the field to celebrate with his teammates, his arms darting outward in his trademark goal celebration. For all he had accomplished and all he still wished to do, it was impossible not to smile for him. You didn't even have to be a Chelsea fan.