Achieving cult status in football is a precious and mysterious accolade that doesn’t always require winning trophies and is not necessarily reserved for only the most talented players; Matthew Le Tissier proved the first part and Gary Neville the second.
But on Saturday, Chelsea hope winning the Champions League will top off the career of one already-lauded terrace hero and usher in a new era for a pretender to his crown.
Didier Drogba is the man most Chelsea hearts will be going out to in Munich on what many believe will be his last game for a club he has served now for eight years; and David Luiz is the colourful defender who seems to be following in the great man’s footsteps through sheer personality on the pitch and who, to the relief of Roberto Di Matteo, has declared himself fit for the final.
Luiz will be crucial on a day when John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic are both missing due to suspension; but Drogba is the man with the potential to write a fairytale headline in Bavaria.
No-one has invested more energy and desire in the club’s Champions League obsession — or provided more controversy — than the Ivory Coast international who was sent off in the final in Moscow four years ago and banned by Uefa for an emotional and angry outburst following defeat to Barcelona in 2010. Love him or hate him, nobody could say football doesn’t matter to Drogba, whose powerful displays up front and equally muscle-filled defending at the back have made him the focal point of the modern Chelsea under a succession of managers and the chief reason they have lifted nine trophies in 11 seasons.
Blues fans love Frank Lampard and they worship captain John Terry who sums up everything that is Chelsea — good and bad; but they have a special place in their hearts for Drogba. An extra love that makes him a cult hero, not just a club hero.
“I want to do this for the fans,” admitted the striker ahead of Saturday’s game against Bayern. “It’s one of the biggest games of my life. I think I’ve played a lot with Chelsea but this one is going to be special because it’s only the second time we have reached the Champions League final. So we are going to do everything to go there and be ready to play against this German team. I’ve got a lot of disappointments but I’ve also got a lot of great moments in finals so I’m going to try to make sure that for my team-mates this one is a great one.”
Drogba of course is referring to the moment in Moscow when he lost his head and was sent off for slapping Man United’s Nemanja Vidic, leaving his team to face a penalty shoot-out without their top striker; but it’s not something he wants to dwell on.
“It’s not good to speak about the past because we have a great moment here. I could speak with you about Bayern Munich and the next Champions League final rather than speak about the other final. But we didn’t think our Champions League dream was over after Moscow. No, just the opposite. After Moscow we thought that we were going to get to the final the next year. But that’s the Champions League, it’s very difficult to reach the final and I think it shows how much we deserve to be there. It’s been four years and this time we want to do it.”
If Chelsea are to achieve their dream, then Brazilian defender Luiz will have a crucial part to play too. He may have faced heavy criticism this season (Gary Neville once said he defended as if controlled by a 10-year-old on his Playstation) but his obvious joy for playing football and his easy-going and exciting style of play have made him an instant hit with fans in the Matthew Harding Stand.
“They love my hair, they don’t love me,” joked Luiz. “But no, no — I love the fans. The first game when I came here all the fans helped me a lot. In Portugal I had a special relationship with the fans too because I try. I try and show them my football, not just for me, not just for my family but for the fans. The fans deserve that players always to come and say hi and hello before and after. This is so important for people. So for me, to win the Champions League for them would be special. This is the best game in the world for big teams and I am so happy to play this final. “One day when I was a kid in Brazil it was my dream and now I get my chance. My father and my mother will come to support the club and I hope we win. For me, for the players, for the fans.”
If Luiz can achieve that aim he will certainly be remembered for a lot more than just his hair and it will be the first step on the road to becoming a Chelsea terrace hero. That’s something Drogba achieved many years ago; and if the Ivorian adds a Champions League trophy to everything else he has already bequeathed the club he will be elevated to an even higher status. There isn’t really a word in the football vocabulary to describe it; but Southampton fans simply referred to Le Tissier as ‘God’. So maybe that will have to do...
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