How I learned to stop worrying and love the Drog
I was introduced to club football at a stage in my life where my sport-watching DNA was almost fully developed. Till then, apart from the consumption of unhealthy amounts of cricket, football, tennis and motor-sport were consumed in small, tasty bites – the grand-slams, the big races and of course, world cups and European international tournaments.
In 2005, a friend (who I remain eternally indebted to) made me watch the return leg of Chelsea v. Barcelona, quarter finals of the Champions League. By the time I figured out the qualifying mechanisms, the structure of leagues and cup tournaments and the seemingly unending history behind these, I was hooked. And Chelsea, the inexorable, grinding force of English football, was my team of choice. To me, they were the foot-balling equivalent of Steve Waugh – dogged, arrogant and successful. What was not to love?
As my familiarity with their squad grew over the next couple of years – (I used to obsess over figuring out team changes from one game to the next only through the faulty but rewarding aid of memory – an entirely needless exercise I am sure is engaged in by many fellow fans) – there was this one strange figure which confused me. The pantomime villain with the awkward touch, the sometimes-marauding-sometimes-lumbering forward, Didier Drogba.
Here was a man who was the lynchpin of the attack and yet behaved with the petulant imbecility of a teenager who needs a good thwack on the back of his head once in a while. He could conjure magical goals but more often than not, his shin, groin, knees, upper arms would bundle the ball into the goal, where all he has done is somehow managed to occupy the one spot in the field where such a deflection could result in a goal. Drogba seemed to be an accidental striker – a small packet of good luck followed him to the field and exploded frequently to confound everyone else. He was the Agarkar at the beginning of his one-day career – getting wickets off leg stump half-volleys – and sometimes even of Mark Waugh.
What was embarrassing was the falling and tumbling and play-acting that plagued his game. The thinnest blade of grass would trip him up and he’d be a Humpty Dumpty. His face would contort with a startling resemblance to that of Sonu Niga(a)m’s – when he was being tormented by Armaan Kohli’s snake-eyes in Jaani Dushman. Then, just when you’d think his season is over – nay, his career is over – he’d get up, and start barrelling down the pitch to make a mockery of the opposition defenders.
Now, when you support a team, you support it warts and all. Even if the wart is an indefensible cry-baby. So I’d ignore the tirades against his indiscretions and focus on the collection of shanks and touches that went into the back of the net.
But here’s the great thing – Drogba started scoring beautiful goals. The next couple of seasons, he started routinely turning in performances worth of a striker of one of the most formidable teams in the world. Magical ball-control, supreme skill, and an array of finishes that would make any striker proud. And he continues to do it – while not abandoning the core principles of his infamy.
We all project – and nothing affords so many opportunities for pop psychology projections as sport. In Drogba, we find the ugly, fallible anti-hero who is capable of beauty from time to time. He can elevate your mood with a great goal even when he has been exasperating a minute back. It’s not so much that he embodies greatness – it’s that he occupies it even when he is busy falling over.
So now, I am at peace with him. After all, I am a fan, and as a true fan, I have the ability to adjust my blinkers anyway I choose to. In my revised view, Drogba is the cruel target of defenders who mercilessly hack him down. Referees hate him and pundits ignore his contributions. He plays through pain and delivers again and again. He plays for the Blues and that’s all that matters.