Early Doors

Heroes of 2012: Didier Drogba

Early Doors

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*This week we are running a series of articles profiling our Heroes of 2012, so Early Doors is taking a break from its normal schedule to make the case for football's most deserving candidate. After John Terry and Peter Herbert were both vetoed by its Eurosport paymasters, ED plumped for Didier Drogba.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word hero as "a name given to men of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods; at a later time regarded as intermediate between gods and men, and immortal."

Immortality might be stretching it a bit, but it is not for nothing that since Didier Drogba left Stamford Bridge in the summer Chelsea supporters have given a permanent home to a banner that simply reads: "Drogba legend."

Thanks to his numerous feats of strength and endurance, his extraordinary ability to bend fate and circumstance to his will and some genuinely godlike performances, that is precisely what Drogba became in 2012: a legend. And not the Tim Lovejoy kind of legend, but a proper, mythical hero.

A glorious Olympic year taught us that elite sport is all about peaking at just the right time, seizing the moment when it materialises in front of you, even if you've had to wait four years for the chance. But perhaps the most intense distillation of destiny came not in Stratford's Olympic Stadium, but in Munich's Allianz Arena in May.

Deep into the Munich night, after 120 nerve-shredding minutes had failed to separate Chelsea and Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, Bastian Schweinsteiger struck his penalty against the post. ED, sat up in the press tribune, allowed its gaze to flick to the halfway line, where Drogba started making his way towards a towering wall of noisy Munich supporters, hanging ominously over the frame of the goal where Manuel Neuer stood.

It was an electric moment - hairs on the back of the neck stuff. Here was Drogba, in his final game for the club, being given the chance to confirm Chelsea as London's first ever European Cup winners with his last ever kick in blue. An eight-year career in English football - encompassing triumph, disaster and controversy - would come down to this. His reputation would forever be founded on this moment - just ask John Terry, victim of a sodden and treacherous plastic surface in Moscow in 2008.

Drogba stood over the ball, adjusted his socks carefully, took three strides back and then whipped the ball to Neuer's right as the keeper dived left, spinning round in exultation, vindication, before the ball had even found the back of the net. Utter pandemonium ensued.

As a snapshot of ultra-pressure, of extreme drama, of taut emotion, it rivalled anything seen at Flushing Meadows, the Olympic Stadium or the Velodrome. But, like all the best legends, this was merely the greatest of a series of feats for Drogba in 2012, and one laden with symbolism.

Only 45 minutes previously he had broken Bayern spirits with a late equaliser to take the game to extra-time, arching his neck to convert with a fine header. In the added half hour he even contrived to give away a potentially fatal penalty - missed by Arjen Robben - to add a flavour of redemption into the mix.

Furthermore, Chelsea's very presence in Munich was in large part thanks to their inspirational striker: opening scorer in the 4-1 second-leg win against Napoli in March that transformed Chelsea's season, Drogba claimed the only goal of the game in the first leg of the semi-final against Barcelona, his left-footed finish a brief attacking flourish in a commendably resolute defensive performance. As no less a judge than Sir Alex Ferguson put it: "As far as I was concerned, he won the Champions League for Chelsea."

Yet this was not his only triumph. Just weeks before Munich there was Wembley, again.

It was Drogba who scored the decisive second goal in the FA Cup final win over Liverpool. He took his individual tally to eight goals in eight games at the new Wembley, becoming the first man to score in four FA Cup finals. It cemented his reputation as the ultimate big-game player.

But as well as representing excellence, Drogba's feats represented obstinance and resistance too. Chelsea tried to phase him out, along with John Terry and Frank Lampard, but it wasn't possible.

A man once demonised in England for play-acting, roundly abused wherever he went, had become pretty much the only likeable thing about Chelsea. The respectable face of the club.

Munich was the perfect ending to his Chelsea odyssey - the ultimate vindication of his enduring, muscular brilliance. And then, like that, he was gone.

But thanks to an incredible year, his legend endures.

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