A question of fate
Drogba insists destiny steered him away from joining Arsenal to become their chief tormentor
"Once when we were in the car on the way to training a truck lost control and crashed into us. I turned to him and said: 'You only get one chance in life, make sure you make the most of it.' He said he would remember me when he became a professional," Srebrenko Repcic, Didier Drogba's coach at his first club, Levallois SC.
Didier Drogba is a great believer in fate. It is fate, he reasons, that saved him that day in the Paris banlieue of Levallois-Perret and it is fate that has made him into probably the world's greatest centre-forward.
And it is fate, also, that will tomorrow mean he leads the attack at Stamford Bridge for Chelsea rather than, as so nearly occurred, Arsenal.
"If I did not sign for Arsenal then it was not meant to happen," Drogba says. "It was not my destiny. I believe a lot in this. It did not happen for a reason."
In any case, he argues, Arsenal did not suffer through losing out on him.
"I don't think he (Arsene Wenger) missed something because he had Thierry Henry. He did not miss something." Such words are an indicator of Drogba's self-effacement.
He is standing in the smart new complex of the Levallois Sporting Club having just had the football stadium in the industrial suburb by the banks of the Seine named after him. Drogba has clearly been overwhelmed by the events of the day just as he was overwhelmed, literally, by the human sea of children, teenagers, adults who clung to him as he toured the grounds, edging his way through the throng.
No act, no pretence. He was affected, even a little afraid.
It was in 2001 that Wenger thought of signing Drogba. He has told the story himself, many times. A sign that even the greatest talent-spotters are fallible. Drogba had, by then, moved from Levallois to Le Mans -- where Wenger mulled his move -- and was available for just £100,000. Wenger said non and Drogba, who had wanted to stay in France, moved to Guingamp then Marseille and, of course, Chelsea in 2004. By then the fee was £23.8m. There is a swell of pride as Drogba recalls the dividend the move brought for Levallois who, as his designated club formateur, were due a percentage of the fee.
And so Patrick Balkany, the mayor of Levallois, received a cheque for €700,000 from a certain Roman Abramovich to re-invest in the club.
"There were a lot of young boys and it was a long time ago," Balkany says when asked if he remembers Drogba. "But I remember when I received a cheque from Chelsea. A big one, from Mr Abramovich, for the transfer."
Balkany was at the ceremony, as was Repcic, now coaching the club's U-8s who swarmed around Drogba, hanging off him as they scored in a chaotic practice match. Drogba did not forget.
"I owe him a great deal," he wrote in his autobiography, published in 2008, of the Serb, a former striker with Red Star Belgrade. "His credo: 'you must live for the goal'. He made me happy to score. I was desperate to learn alongside him."
Repcic's pride was clear and he, too, was insightful into the motivations which drive his most famous pupil.
"He always had a fighting spirit," he recalls. "In his first season here Didier was only paid if we won. The bonus was around €200, which was a lot of money for him, but if we lost he got nothing. He always hated losing and used to cry with rage. He cried after every match we lost."
That emotional intensity -- sometimes too intense, as after the Champions League defeat to Barcelona -- remains.
Drogba joined Levallois, semi-professional and in the French fourth division, when he was 15 having been sent to France 10 years earlier from the Ivory Coast by his parents to live with his uncle, Michel Goba, a jobbing footballer himself.
"I spent four years here and they were the most important club in terms of my development," Drogba says. "It helped me build up my career and be at Chelsea today and be at the level I am at."
There is warmth in his words, far removed from the hard edge of the Premier League.
"You get something from amateur teams that are, in professional football, sometimes lost -- they are more selfish," Drogba says. "In an amateur team you always share things, you always travel together because there is not enough money and that's why also I always think about these teams because they are very important to me.
"When I signed from Marseille to Chelsea and I heard that they had a percentage of the transfer here that helped the club to survive, I was really happy. It's amazing what they built -- the tennis courts and so on. Kids can come here and train.
"I am very proud of what I have achieved over the years. Why should I change? Most people have known me for years and it's not because you have signed for Chelsea or another big team that you have to change. That is only for a moment. You have to stay who you are because there is a life after football."
With his life in football, Drogba knows that, after last weekend's defeat to Manchester City, Chelsea have to beat Arsenal. He also has an astonishing record of 12 goals in 10 matches against Wenger's side to maintain. Is it because of the French link?
"I'm not trying to use this as a motivation, although it's nice for the players who come from the French league to play against Arsenal because Arsenal is the team of the French league," Drogba explains.
"They all went there -- Sylvain Wiltord, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira. They used to say that it was the 21st team of Ligue 1."
In his autobiography there is a telling comment about Wenger.
"He had to prove himself in England, fight people's preconceptions and win," Drogba wrote. "Always win. So I had to score. Always score."
And always score against Wenger.
"I will try my best to keep up that record but it will not be easy," Drogba says of tomorrow's encounter. Not that he feels he has been a decisive factor in Chelsea's dominance of Arsenal.
"I don't think that one player can make the difference during all the years," Drogba says. "It's all about the team. I think that why we are successful at Chelsea is because we are a team and a team of good players. I think everyone respects Arsenal for what they are doing -- to get to this level with a team of young players, it's not easy.
"We still have the strength but football is not just about the physical battle, it's about playing and scoring goals and winning games. I think the game will maybe be more open than at Manchester City.
"But the only thing that I really hope is that we are going to win. We have to win." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Chelsea v Arsenal
Live, Sky Sports 2, tomorrow, 4.0
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