by Joe Schwartz
This is the first post of many to come as Triangle Offense follows the World Cup with insights both local, in South Africa, Europe and South America. Today's take comes from Thad Williamson, an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and a Chapel Hill native who has watched the English Premier League for more than a decade. He maintains a blog about Manchester City.
Generally speaking, I am not a Didier Drogba fan. He plays for a club I do not much care for (Chelsea). He has never come off as a particularly selfless character, and he has a well-earned reputation for diving and other questionable on-pitch behavior, behavior that should be beneath a player of his quality.
Nonetheless, I was seriously dismayed to hear the news of Drogba's elbow injury sustained playing for the Ivory Coast in a friendly against Japan. Drogba is undergoing emergency surgery in an attempt to save his World Cup — as well, I would argue, the quality of the event as a whole.
Drogba is a key player in this tournament for three reasons. First, he may be the most on-fire striker in the world, having netted 37 goals for Chelsea in all competitions and having led the club to a league and cup double. At 32, Drogba has been in the form of his life and would be on anyone's short list of players worth paying a lot of money to see perform, no matter who he was turning for.
But it matters even more that he plays for Ivory Coast. First, Ivory Coast's preliminary group (Group G) promises to be the most intriguing and entertaining of the tournament: Portugal, Brazil and the Ivory Coast, three nations with legitimate aspiration to reach the semi-finals or better, each with distinctive styles of play, each with wonderfully colorful uniforms, each with major world superstars on board, battling it out to see who will make it to the final round of 16. Throw in North Korea, that few know much about but whom everyone expects to be very fit and to give tremendous effort, and this is by far the preliminary group most worth watching for the neutral observer.
Second, Ivory Coast is the only African nation in the first World Cup played on African soil to have any legitimate aspiration of winning the tournament itself. Ivory Coast does not have the depth of some of the European powers or of Brazil and Argentina, but it oozes European-top-club quality at many positions: Drogba, Yaya and Kolo Toure, Solomon Kalou (another Chelsea star), Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zakora, among others. Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ghana also have several big name players with international reputations forged in European club football, but Drogba is the gem that sets Ivory Coast apart.
With Drogba fit, the Ivorians are a team capable of doing some damage, a team with no good reason to fear any opposition. Manager Sven Goran Eriksson has been around the block a few times, and for all the flak he got as England boss, his teams never fell on their face at the big tournaments.
An absent Drogba would take some of the gloss off of not only Group G but the entire preliminary round, and possibly the tournament itself. The fact that it is not a foregone conclusion Brazil and Portugal will advance to the knockout stage adds quite a bit of spice to the tournament's opening weeks, and should make for some compelling football. Seeing an African team knockout an established power and then go on to make a deep, deep run in the tournament would be both a historic breakthrough in its own right and a uniquely timely one given the setting of this World Cup.
It's hard to believe that if any African team were to make it to the quarterfinals or better, it would not have the sympathies and support of most neutral supporters, at least this time around. The Ivory Coast with Drogba was the best hope for an African team to do just that. Let's hope Drogba's surgery goes well and we're not deprived of one of the world's great players and most intriguing national teams.