You may be a serial winner of medals and trophies, someone who ended a civil war, the proprietor of equine thighs, it doesn’t matter: No one looks kingly in short shorts.
Athletes often engage in feats of skill and one-upmanship on the margins of practice and on Friday, estimable Montreal Impact striker Didier Drogba – owner of UEFA Champions League medals and a national hero in his native Ivory Coast – settled a friendly post-training wager with goal keeper Maxime Crépeau.
Drogba had bet he could wallop four out of six free kicks past the 22-year-old reserve player. He didn’t, and it was time to pay up. “Higher,” Crépeau motioned, as Drogba hiked up his uniform shorts.
Finally, in mock exasperation, Drogba whipped them off entirely and began rolling up his spandex undershorts.
Crépeau looked on with evident amusement as the legend set off across the Olympic Stadium artificial turf in his stockinged feet, bound for the changing room. Lest it seem odd that a third-stringer could have this kind of interaction with one of the game’s titans, it’s not.
Drogba is easily the biggest and most decorated soccer player to grace a Montreal eleven, and next Tuesday’s MLS Eastern Conference final against archrival Toronto FC may be his last home game in Impact colours. He isn’t the sort to big-time his more callow teammates.
“The first week we met him was a little intimidating, for sure. When I was 14 or 15, I got asked, ‘Which striker would you most like to face?’ and my answer was Didier. I was a huge fan; now, he’s my teammate,” said Crépeau, a native of Greenfield Park, Que. “I never would have imagined it, but there you go, it’s real.”
For now it is, but all good things must end, and the two-game series against Toronto FC could spell adieu. If Montreal progresses to the championship final, it would play on the road as the lowest-seeded team in the playoffs.
“I’ve always wanted to score for [the fans], and to always answer ‘present.’ But it’s true that we’re coming to the end of the season and the end of my contract, so of course I’ll be honoured to be able to say thank you,” Drogba said on Friday. “This game has a special flavour to it, but I’m really focused on the Cup.”
There are many ways to measure the effect Drogba has had on the Impact, but his most lasting contribution may well be to the club’s culture.
Crépeau calls him “the ultimate professional.” Head coach Mauro Biello said his calmness under pressure and confident bearing have carried over to the rest of the squad.
“Didier has meant so much to this team and this city, and this country … we’ve been very lucky to have him,” Biello said.
It transpires Drogba has spent this week reminding his teammates not to get ahead themselves as they vie for a berth in the MLS Cup.
Although he allowed that the team “has matured, it has reached a new level,” he added “we must stay humble.”
When Drogba arrived in Montreal, his stated goal was to win trophies and make history. On Friday, he said “knowing the history of the club, where we started when I first came and where we are now, I think there’s a lot to be proud of.”
There are also regrets and unfinished business.
The CONCACAF Champions League final in April, 2015, springs to mind (Drogba didn’t formally join the club until several weeks later).
Montreal ultimately lost to Mexican side America despite jumping out to an early lead.
“All the players here always say to me, ‘It was amazing, it was an amazing accomplishment.’ I said, ‘But you lost. What did you really accomplish?’” Drogba said. “You remember this final as a loss. The next time you are in a final, do everything you have to to win … we need a trophy here. Then, you can say this was amazing.”
Tuesday’s game is likely to draw a Champions League-type crowd – the 2015 game was played in front of 61,004 people – and while Drogba said it’s good for the players to draw on that experience, it’s more important to understand what went wrong.
In that final, the Impact bombed forward despite having taken a 1-0 lead in the decisive game, and were ultimately punished for it (Drogba said “it was like suicide”).
A few months later, in the MLS playoffs, the Impact would once again lead and go on to lose.
“You need to cool down the game, take your time, change the rhythm when it’s needed,” Drogba said.
Montreal is a clear underdog in the league semi-final against Toronto, the same status it held going into previous postseason matchups with the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United.
It’s also entirely possible that should the Impact progress to the MLS Cup final on Dec. 10, it will have more to do with Argentine forward Ignacio Piatti than it does with Drogba.
This hasn’t been the smoothest season for the two-time African Footballer of the Year, who has scored 27 times in 33 games since coming to MLS and says he still hopes to play next year.
There was off-season talk that he might return to England in a coaching role.
He came back to Montreal in 2016 but battled hip and hamstring injuries in the regular season, playing in only 22 games.
On Oct. 16, he balked at being named to the substitutes’ bench in a crucial game against Toronto – his effectiveness diminished by back problems – but the subsequent drama has been dissipated by the squad’s strong play.
This is a team that has learned how to win without its most illustrious player.
Midfielder Hernan Bernardello and defender Laurent Ciman form the defensive spine along with ’keeper Evan Bush.
Piatti, who scored 17 regular-season goals (as many as Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco) and has added three more in the playoffs, has quietly become one of MLS’s very best players – that he was snubbed for end-of-season league honours was duly noted by his teammates.
The Impact’s other attacking options are nothing to sniff at either. Matteo Mancosu also has three playoff goals and Dominic Oduro is one of the fleeter players in the division.
Although Drogba is preaching humility, this is not a team that lacks self-belief.
“I think we’ll be fine against them … I’m not saying we’re going to come in and dominate, the main idea is to come in and win this game, and that’s what we’ll try to do,” Oduro said.
In all likelihood, Drogba, who has been dogged by back problems in recent weeks, will start the game on the substitutes’ bench; since coming to MLS, he has rarely played 90 minutes on an artificial surface, the Big O’s lumpy, hard turf isn’t kind on older ankles and knees.
As the MLS playoffs have demonstrated Drogba doesn’t have to play 90 minutes in order to turn a game – he did it as a substitute against the Red Bulls two weeks ago.
Drogba isn’t quite the terrifying pacy, physical threat he once was, but age hasn’t diminished his technical skills, which remain sublime.
After practice on Thursday, he dinked a delicate Antonin Panenka-like penalty shot over a helpless Crépeau.
It was the pinnacle of cheeky insouciance. Drogba celebrated as if he’d just won the Cup.Report Typo/Error