The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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Shepherd in the Valley of Darkness

When I heard the news of the broken arm, the confession to Kolo Touré, the “for him, he said, the World Cup is finished,” I did not know what to do. I sat down. I was so flustered that even my thoughts stuttered a little. “It’s, it’s n-n-not f-fair” I thought. This was his World Cup. Even though ESPN is force-feeding Messi to the American public, Didier Drogba was the real face of the tournament. He wasn’t just playing for his country, he was playing for all of Africa; that’s what he’d said. Now the Ivory Coast’s chances were dashed and their matchup with Brazil in the group stage had gone from the most exciting game of the first round to another stepping stone on the seleção’s path to #6. This turn of events was tragic.

Then I stopped myself. Just whose loss I was mourning? This was Didier Drogba, striker for Chelsea; Didier Drogba, who has caused me to yell more obscenities at my television than any other athlete except for Dwight Howard; Didier Drogba, who has sent my beloved Liverpool out of contention in Europe and the Premier League multiple times. I should have been rejoicing in the schadenfreude of the moment. For minutes, two sides of my brain were locked in fierce combat. “He’s a good man!” “He’s a diver!” “He was on the cover of Time Magazine’s people of the year issue! He ended a civil war!” “He plays for Chelski! And he’s a diver!” Neither side would budge. How can a man who unified a warring country be the most polarizing figure in football?

A shepherd near a tree

Watching Didier play for Chelsea is a lot like playing a game of Where’s Waldo, only if Waldo were a volcano about to erupt. Sometimes he floats, other times he barrels, but most of the time he just materializes from thin air within the 18 yard box, as if the enemy back line is an invisibility cloak he can whip off whenever he chooses. Sure, Didier’s stronger than the defenders who mark him. He could throw them over his shoulders, wear them like a cape, as Jozy Altidore wore Joan Capdevila during the Confederations Cup. But Didier doesn’t have to, not with the way he times his runs. In the millisecond that it takes for Malouda’s low cross to skip to Didier’s feet and the announcer to yell “Drogbaaaaaaa!” Didier glances at the ball, and glances at the keeper, and begins to whisper them a lullaby. “There’s a Bible passage I got memorized,” Drogba says. Didier sees the ball preparing to respond and silences it with his first touch. “Ezekiel 25:17. The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly –”

But before Didier can finish, he’s already struck with great vengeance and furious anger. The cameras click because the cameras have been conditioned to click whenever they see a ball hurtling through the air past the ragdoll arm of the goalkeeper. Near post. Roof of the net. Keeper in a sad pile of limbs on the ground. Didier runs towards the corner flag with bulging eyes and outstretched arms. Stamford Bridge bathes him in sound and appreciation as they salute their shepherd in the valley of darkness, the best striker in the world.

A gathering storm.

And he is the best striker in the world. Quicker than Fabiano. Unlike Torres, his ligaments are not made out of overcooked fettucine. Better in the air than Rooney and Forlán. Craftier than Higuaín. And Messi…well, Messi’s a winger. Which is why it is so jarring to see Didier set up for a free kick. This is not the striker’s place. The striker should be lurking inside the six, waiting to poke in a rebound. Free kicks are for the little midfield maestros; the Sneijders, the Pirlos, the Xavis. Hell, Didier has one on his own team, yet he remains steadfast. And just when you expect Lampard to end the charade and take the kick himself, Didier catches the keeper leaning the wrong way and his shot dips into the bottom right corner. 2-0. The cameras train in on his face as he trots back to the center circle, and if you look closely, you can see him muttering “And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.” He’s been saying that shit for years.

But for all Didier’s transcendent play, he frustrates almost as much as he amazes. He is petulant, cheeky, and at times makes very, very bad decisions. John Terry most likely would not have had his Chelsea legacy marred by the wet Moscow turf had Drogba not been sent off earlier for slapping Nemanja Vidić in the face. How can Didier be heralded as a great man and a political difference-maker if he acts so childishly? Nelson Mandela never screamed “It’s a fucking disgrace” at a camera broadcasting on an international feed. Without the large stage of a World Cup on his home continent, Drogba may not have another chance to continue the gradual shift in how people view him. I mean, if you’ve already helped end a civil war and you can’t get people on your side, there aren’t very many more avenues to explore to gain their approval. They’re saying his surgery was successful. He may still get his chance.

I still can’t decide whether Didier is the righteous man or the tyranny of evil men. But what I do know is that South Africa 2010 should belong to him, that he’s desperate to put Earth’s second-biggest landmass on his back. More than anything, I know Didier is trying. He is trying real hard to be the shepherd.

Will Levinger is a student at Concord Academy. He will argue for Michael Parkhurst’s inclusion in the USMNT until the day he dies.


Shepherd in the Valley of Darkness

by Will Levinger · June 7, 2010

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