When my favourite non- Lionel Messi footballer came to town last fortnight, I had two options: a) spend the Sunday in bed indulging in my favourite pastime of navel-gazing, or b) lift my amazingly still-responsive rear end and drive to the place where Didier Drogba would be breathing the same nitrous dioxide-laced Delhi air.
DIDIER, THE DIVINE: Drogba at the T20 football tourney in Delhi
“Now don’t get too excited,” my pal handling the ESPN event told me over the phone. It was an afternoon-long tournament of ‘T20 football’ — five players from some ten teams across the country kicking around a football inside
a cage with a netted ceiling for 20 minutes each game. “Drogba may not be playing at all. He’s been paid a bucketload of money to just come here as part of his endorsement duties, so...,” warned my friend, insuring himself from a future barrage of tropical swear words.
The names of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Harbhajan Singh, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and ex-India football captain Bhaichung Bhutia — the ‘star’ team that Drogba and the winning T20 team, with Bollywood boy Ranbir Kapoor in it, would be playing against — didn’t register in my 230 KB brain. I just heard the word ‘Drogba’, dropped my phone in the toilet bowl, carefully fished it out, dried it and confirmed whether I had heard right. I had.
So there I was, a middle-aged football fan with an upper back problem, craning my head from the stadium’s VIP lounge to see Didier.
On paper, the 34-year-old Drogba is a strange choice for me to worship. I didn’t support Chelsea, the club he’s played for since 2004 and which he’s left this month for a two-year stint with, er, the Chinese club, Shanghai Shenhua. And my support for Ivory Coast, Drogba’s country, is limited, since to support a national side the least one should do is to know where the country is on the map.
And yet, over the years, seeing Didier play against the teams I do cheer for — the now-woeful Arsenal and the Messianic Barcelona — I find him to be the glorious individual in a sport that celebrates team spirit.
Even his name, with the strong, rolling ‘dr’ at the beginning, the hard tackle of a ‘g’ in the middle, and the open-vowelled run at the end, sounds closer to Genghis Khan than to, say, Lampard (fish ’n’ chips shop owner?) or (the clown-sounding) Ronaldo.
Armed with an all-access pass, I planted myself directly behind Drogba as the footballer stood next to the netted cage, recording the amazing routine of three young free-styling artists (dancers with a football) during the interval.
And then it happened.
Before going into the cage to play for some ten minutes (scoring a goal after launching into a left-hand bull run), Drogba changed from being a spectator into a spectatee. As he was walking past me with a posse of people following him and the stadium erupting, I panicked, froze and, just at the nick of time, unfroze. Clasping his passing hand — rough and callused, with not too strong a grip — I shook it.
It was the same hand that had been attached to the arm that, in turn, led to the pony-tailed head of the Chelsea No 11 player on May 19 when, in the 88th minute of the Champions League final, Drogba dismissed gravity, turned mid-air like a giant Nureyev, landing on his feet again only after the ball had stopped spinning at the back of the Bayern Munich net. He went on to score the winning penalty on that Drogba night.
I had just shaken the hand of that man while looking into his darting eyes to tell him, “All the best.” (“All the best”??)
In that moment of contact between two men who had just crossed the prime of their professional lives, I passed on the smear of ketchup-chutney mix I had gained from my last round of samosa snacks from my hand to that of the divine Didier Drogba.
(Indrajit Hazra is a Delhi-based novelist and journalist.)