MONTREAL – He’s the former captain of the Ivory Coast national team, and also their all-time top scorer. He was voted the best player in club history by Chelsea fans, for whom he won four Premier League titles, seven FA and League cups and a UEFA Champions League. He's a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador who went down on his knees with his Ivory Coast teammates and begged his countrymen to put their weapons down.
He is Didier Drogba. And he’ll be at the Montreal airport on Wednesday afternoon, ready to wear Montreal Impact blue.
“When you bring in a player like Didier Drogba, everyone knows he’s a global superstar,” midfielder Dilly Duka, who shares initials and a jersey number with Drogba, told reporters on Tuesday. “Everyone has been watching his career. This is a player that you’re almost guaranteed that he’s going to come and help us and push for a title.”
The timing is perfect. Montreal acquired Drogba in a trade with Chicago on Monday, two days after finally moving into a MLS Cup Playoff spot with a 1-0 home win against the Seattle Sounders. This is a team that wants to win a championship. Drogba will have 18 months to make a push with his new club.
Drogba, 37, who played the last of his 254 Premier League games with Chelsea in May, will join former teammates and opponents as marquee MLS signings: the Lampards, the Gerrards, the Pirlos.
“He may not have won the World Cup, but for me, his status is comparable to Thierry Henry,” team captain Patrice Bernier said. “Thierry Henry is a notch above because he was [close to winning] the Ballon d’Or more regularly, but he’s one of those players that’s up there with all the others that came here lately. It’s tough to rank players – except Messi and Ronaldo – but for me, he’s in the top 5 players that have come to MLS.”
It hadn’t looked like signing an international superstar was part of the plan. Impact president Joey Saputo had slammed rivals Toronto FC’s spending last February, quipping that players now thought that “there’s gold in the streets” in North America.
But Drogba changed the game plan. When the possibility of signing him arose, the club didn’t think twice. He is, Impact Vice President of International Relations and Technical Development Nick De Santis said, the “total package.”
Saputo and De Santis spoke to Drogba in French and English, Montreal’s main two languages. Drogba was born in Africa, a continent that has provided 12.4 percent of Montreal’s population, according to provincial government documents. The club, De Santis said, thought of its multicultural city when signing Drogba.
“He’s an African that speaks French very well and has played on one of the best clubs in England,” De Santis said. “We can sum it up that way because we’re bringing in a player that the whole city can embrace – the English, the French, the Africans, everyone. For us, today, history is being made. We’ve always brought in quality players. Now, we’re bringing in an international player that everyone knows. Now that he's chosen Montreal, the project, our vision, the city, the language and all that, we'll welcome him here with great pleasure.”
Most of all, though, Drogba can still play, and it’s still how he’ll leave his biggest imprint. Head coach Frank Klopas has always been keen to add another forward to his roster. And Drogba is not just another forward.
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Klopas, as well as technical director Adam Braz, had the opportunity to talk with Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, who established his preseason training base in Montreal. Mourinho, like every other person that the club spoke to about Drogba, had only good things to say.
“He’s going to improve us because of his ability to hold balls up there when we’re under pressure, to give us a different presence in the box with his strength and his ability in the air,” Klopas said. “There are different kinds of characteristics that he brings, but it’s also his leadership and his quality.”
Two questions now remain: When is Drogba going to debut – don’t bet on Saturday at New York City FC (2 pm ET; MLS LIVE) – and is Duka going to leave him his beloved No. 11?
“I’d rather train with the guy, play with the guy, enjoy his qualities on the field than focus about the number,” Duka said. “It’s not an issue.”