Ben SprattComment


Ben SprattComment

In July 2003, €6million could buy you a 21-goal centre-forward. Olympique Marseille pilfered a rapidly improving front man from Guingamp, inked him to a five-year deal and watched on in delight as his career took off at the Stade Velodrome. Didier Drogba would soon become Europe's hottest property; first, he fell in love.

"I loved this club even before I joined it," the Abidjan-born star wrote, in his autobiography, of his spell at l'OM. "I fell head over heels for it. One season was all it took to steal my heart."

For a long time, France's biggest club had seemed a world away for Drogba. After struggling at Le Mans, he waited until the age of 23 to make his Ligue 1 debut with Guingamp. The forward then started the 2002-03 campaign on the bench, but a 90th-minute equaliser against Lyon on the opening day was enough to earn a place in Bertrand Marchand's team - and he scored two minutes into the next game, a win at Ajaccio.

Drogba continued to net at a startling rate, finding the consistency that he had long strived for, and his tally of 17 league goals, plus four more in the cup, was enough to tempt Olympique rivals Marseille and Lyon. "Marseille were the team of my dreams when I was a boy, so I moved there," he later explained.

However, it was far from a vintage squad that Drogba would join at the Stade Velodrome. The club had not won a trophy in the 10 years since their Champions League triumph, having been hit hard by a match-fixing scandal that saw a talented team relegated and stripped of their top-flight title. Although l'OM bounced back to finish second in the league in 1998-99 - the side, featuring Laurent Blanc, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Christophe Dugarry, also reached the UEFA Cup final - consecutive relegation battles followed.

For the 2003-04 season, Drogba and Mido, a €12m recruit from Ajax, would be replacing Ibrahima Bakayoko - the previous campaign's top scorer, soon to be flogged to Osasuna - but other signings were not quite so expensively acquired. Philippe Christanval, released by Barcelona before the end of his contract, and Habib Beye boosted the back-line, while Bordeaux's Camel Meriem and Fulham's Steve Marlet arrived on loan. Similar temporary deals were agreed in January for Fabien Barthez, returning to his former club having failed to convince at Manchester United, and David Sommeil, who served as a makeweight as Daniel van Buyten left for Manchester City.

The expectation in the Marseille ranks was that stellar performances would be rewarded with a move abroad, and Van Buyten's path had been trodden by Robert Pires, William Gallas and Joseph Yobo in previous seasons. The club, too, saw opportunities to make money on their top players. Drogba may have signed up for five years, but there was surely little chance of him seeing out that contract. The Ivorian would flop and leave, or star and leave.

In the immediate future, though, a Champions League campaign stretched out before Marseille - their first since 1999-2000. Drogba appeared in both legs of the third qualifying round tie against Austria Wien, a 1-0 aggregate win, having debuted back at Guingamp in the league. The new man then opened his account at Lens and scored twice more in the next three matches ahead of a Group F trip to Real Madrid.

At Santiago Bernabeu, against the world's most famous club, Drogba's fine start to life with l'OM continued - for 25 minutes, at least. In a game that would form a microcosm of Marseille's group-stage campaign, the front man shook off an injury concern to start and then put his side ahead. A killer first touch, from Mido's pass, disorientated Raul Bravo and allowed Drogba the opportunity to coolly slip a finish beyond Iker Casillas. Then, though, the visitors collapsed. Roberto Carlos brilliantly equalised four minutes later, before Ronaldo's brace and Luis Figo's penalty gave the scoreline a deserved slant. Van Buyten's 83rd-minute header counted for little.

As an inconsistent league campaign continued - Marseille won 10 and lost seven of their 17 matches before the winter break - Drogba's European form contrasted his team's fortunes. He struck a perfect hat-trick in the final half-hour of a home tie with Partizan Belgrade to hand the French side a first Champions League win of the season, and against eventual champions Porto, as in the Madrid game, Drogba charged through the opposition defence to give l'OM the lead. Again, though, Alain Perrin's men could not build on the goal. Maniche and Derlei scored before half-time, Dmitri Alenichev extended the visitors' lead and, although Marlet pulled one back, Jose Mourinho celebrated a crucial win.

That would be Drogba's last Champions League goal for the club. Porto won the return fixture 1-0 two weeks later, then beat Partizan while l'OM lost 2-1 to Madrid. The French side were out before their final group game, but Mido's goal in Serbia earned a point that would take Drogba and Co into the UEFA Cup. Another adventure was on the horizon.

Marseille crashed out of the Coupe de la Ligue before Christmas, then suffered a similar fate in the Coupe de France in January. As Jose Anigo replaced Perrin, l'OM won just five league games across January, February and March. They would finish seventh. Whether by accident or design, the club's focus was now solely on their European exploits.

Entering UEFA's secondary club competition in the third round, Marseille were drawn against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. The Ukrainian outfit had previously knocked out Vaduz, Hamburg and Dinamo Zagreb, while they would enjoy the benefit of playing the second leg on home turf, where they were unbeaten in over a year. However, l'OM would not need to end that run after Drogba's first-leg penalty gave his side a 1-0 lead as they headed for Stadium Meteor. There, with the visitors' top scorer starting from the bench, Dnipro survived an early scare to dominate the game. Dmytro Mykhailenko missed their best chance, though, and Marseille held on. "To be honest, I did not expect it to be so hard for us," admitted Anigo.

Four-time European champions Liverpool were up next. A scrappy game at Anfield saw the home crowd focus their efforts on distracting former Manchester United goalkeeper Barthez, and they were rewarded 10 minutes into the second half when Steven Gerrard beat the Frenchman to the ball and squared for Milan Baros to score. A goal down, Marseille remained in the game. Drogba, celebrating his 26th birthday, controlled in the area, held off the challenge of Steve Finnan and struck past Chris Kirkland to net a vital away goal.

In France, it did not take long for Liverpool to restore their advantage. Emile Heskey finished from Gerrard's 15th-minute pass, putting Gerard Houllier's side back in the driving seat. However, the visitors had not counted on referee Arturo Dauden Ibanez's influence. The Spanish official spotted Igor Biscan's tug on Marlet's shorts and, although the foul appeared to occur outside the box and the Marseille forward got his shot away, the Reds defender was punished with a red card and a penalty. Drogba, of course, rifled home his eighth European goal of the season. Playing against 10 men, Abdoulaye Meite then headed the winner to take l'OM into the quarter-finals.

It had not escaped attentions that Drogba was the star of this Marseille side, nor that Anigo's men would have most likely been enjoying a quiet night in their respective homes on April 8, 2004, without the front man's contributions. Instead, they ran out again at the Velodrome against Inter, Champions League semi-finalists a year earlier.

Drogba had been steadily improving throughout the tournament, but it was a stroke of luck that presented him with the crucial goal in this tie. Just 14 seconds into the second half, the big forward ran onto a long punt with the intention to swipe a right-footed volley towards goal. Improbably, when he failed to make clean contact, the ball rolled away from defender Ivan Cordoba and onto his left foot. The finish was devastating. For Marseille, the celebration was too. Overjoyed by his fortuitous moment of magic, Drogba clambered into the crowd and blew kisses towards the rapturous supporters. He was shown a yellow card, his third of the campaign, and would miss the return leg.

That blow should have been softened by a second goal, from Meriem, with 25 minutes remaining. Profiting on a slip from Fabio Cannavaro, the midfielder ran through, rounded Alberto Fontana and, at the vital moment, slipped. He still managed to prod an effort towards goal, but, from a grounded position, could only clip the foot of the post. How costly would that miss prove?

Not very, as it happened. Marseille defended valiantly at San Siro and, when Cristiano Zanetti wildly sliced at an interception, after 74 minutes, Meriem was in once more. Running half the length of the pitch, the 24-year-old clipped the upright again but this time saw his effort creep across the line. Redemption. Without Drogba, l'OM claimed a place in the last four.

Spanish pair Valencia and Villarreal were kept together, while Marseille drew Newcastle United. More importantly, Drogba would be back.

Like l'OM, Newcastle's league form had been disappointing, having failed to win back-to-back matches since October, and the two sides were well matched at St James' Park in the first leg. Drogba struck a post, but he was marshalled well by Jonathan Woodgate and the game finished goalless. It would be all to play for back in France, where, crucially, Woodgate would miss out due to injury.

Initially more striking than his now renowned brute strength, Drogba's searing pace would make Marseille a threat on the break and, after 18 minutes of the second leg, when Newcastle threw men forward for a set-piece, he got his chance. Centre-back Titus Bramble might have had the raw physical attributes to match Drogba, but Aaron Hughes, covering from the right side, did not. Freed by Meriem, who was alert to pickpocket Hugo Viana, the 26-year-old ran directly at Hughes before chopping inside, leaving the defender on his backside, and dragging a finish past Shay Given. Cue pandemonium in the stands.

A second, clinching goal then came with eight minutes remaining as Newcastle parted for the Ivorian once more. Olivier Bernard conceded a foul on the left, allowing Laurent Batlles to deliver a low free-kick onto the unmarked Drogba's toe around 15 yards from goal. The outcome was inevitable. Marseille 2 Newcastle 0. A final showdown against Rafael Benitez's Valencia was secured.

Drogba had now scored against each of Marseille's previous seven European opponents, and he handed the club a further boost ahead of the final. Rumours had been swirling of a potential move to Lyon, who could offer Champions League football, but the forward was, apparently, not interested. "I owe it to Marseille to stay for at least one more year, even if we're not in the Champions League," he insisted. "We're building something here and I'm totally behind the coach Jose Anigo."

It took just over 45 minutes of the final in Gothenburg for that positivity to dissipate.

Drogba had threatened early on, but the golden opportunity of the first half fell Mista's way. In stoppage time, the Valencia forward controlled a cross from the left on his chest, in behind Beye, and knocked the ball past a charging Barthez. The Spaniard would not reach that touch, though, for his quick-thinking had caused the French goalkeeper to lead with his studs, hoping to make a block. The only thing Barthez blocked was the shin of Mista, who writhed in pain. It was a blatant penalty and the Marseille man was rightly dismissed.

With Meriem sacrificed, on came Jeremy Gavanon. Vicente's spot-kick gave the substitute no chance.

The handicapped Ligue 1 side battled bravely, but, with just over half an hour remaining, a second goal inevitably followed. With Marseille upfield seeking a route back into the game, Vicente broke and switched a wonderful pass into the path of Mista. Gavanon was, again, helpless as the forward toed in his 24th goal of the season. There was no way back.

For Marseille, a season of hope - in the UEFA Cup, at least - ended in despair.

And for Drogba and the club's supporters, things were about to get worse. In committing his future to l'OM, the 32-goal man had made a promise he could not keep. He may have been determined to stay in the south of France, but, given his hefty transfer value, the Marseille board were less convinced. Lyon were not the only club interested. Sizeable offers from England and Italy would follow.

On July 20, 2004, Chelsea announced the signing of Drogba for a fee in the region of €35m to €40m. Marseille had earlier rejected the Blues' advances, but only because they wanted more money - keeping the forward was not a realistic option. "What Chelsea offered was double that of Juventus' offer," club president Christophe Bouchet said. "We could not let such an offer go. Everything was finalised this weekend." Drogba was to be a crucial first piece of the side built by new manager Mourinho to finally end the London club's 50-year wait for a league title.

The player, though, has always maintained that the transfer went through against his will. When he headed back to the Velodrome with Chelsea in 2010, Drogba had no problem blatantly bemoaning his departure. "I'm coming home," he said. "This is a meeting I've been waiting forever since I left Olympique Marseille. I was disgusted at having to sign for Chelsea. That may seem strange, but that's how I felt. No offence, but Chelsea didn't mean a whole lot in France. It didn't mean much to me. I knew they were great footballers, but it wasn't my team. It wasn't my OM. I just didn't have any desire to be part of their team."

Then manager Carlo Ancelotti took no issue with his star's comments, instead speaking of his amazement at the bond between club and ex-player. "I do not recall any other player who has this sort of relationship with a club he played at for only one year," he added. "But it is clear Didier will always have a big place in his heart for Marseille."

However, Drogba's was not a unique love affair. The Velodrome's class of 2017 includes Florian Thauvin and Dimitri Payet - two players who returned unfulfilled by the riches of the Premier League.

And rumours of a return for Drogba, in recent years, have been met with hostility. For an individual seemingly so desperate to return to "his OM", the now 38-year-old has been quick to demand Marseille match lofty wage demands. "Each time I have said that [I would return], people said: 'Him, he talks, he talks, but he doesn't come back'," he told Canal+. "But it wasn't only up to me. You let a player go, he grows, he earns a good living, and you want him to reduce his salary by half? Who works to earn less? Of course, I would have loved to come back. I think I have done what I could for that to happen. I couldn't force the hand of the powers that be at the time."

Drogba agreed a return to big-spending Chelsea without a hitch. The Marseille fans responded angrily with a banner displayed at the Velodrome: "Drogba, stop saying you love l'OM. You make in a month what we won't earn in a lifetime. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and go back to China."

It's a shame for such a relationship to have soured, but a reprieve seems unlikely. Drogba and the Marseille fans will, at least, have that one special season.

By Ben Spratt, feature writer for IBWM. Full image credit goes to Charis Tsevis.