x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Out of Africa and in with a Champions League final chance

Suspensions and injuries mean Chelsea's contingent from the continent could have an opportunity to sway the match in favour of the London club, writes Ian Hawkey.

Didier Drogba. AFP
Didier Drogba. AFP

Roman Abramovich can seem an opaque figure, distant with the media, sparing with his public utterances, ruthless with some of his employees.

The Russian owner and benefactor of Chelsea, though, does have passions. Among them, an urge for adventure and exploration.

A few years ago, he set off on a mission to climb one of the world's most famous mountains. He approached Kilimanjaro in Tanzania via one of its more difficult ascents and ran into problems some 4,000 feet from the summit. He had to abandon the climb.

It was not the first time Abramovich had taken his private plane to Africa.

Didier Drogba, one of the players who has been on Abramovich's staff at Chelsea for all but a year of the magnate's reign there, recalls an unexpected trip by his boss to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, for a World Cup qualifier between Drogba's national team and Cameroon.

"He had come on his private jet," Drogba said, "I was pleased he could see my country close up, get a different view from the cliches in the press. When the PA system announced he was there in the stadium, everyone started singing his name, it was quite a moment. I think he appreciated, with what he saw, how important my nation is to me."

One effect of the huge Abramovich investment in Chelsea over the last nine years has been to raise the club's global profile and spread their fan base. A succession of domestic trophies have helped the process, as have repeated appearances in the later stages of the Champions League.

In Africa, especially, Chelsea's popularity has soared.

Individual idols have much to do with that and Drogba's dominant presence is key. But so is the fact that, of the heavyweight European clubs, Chelsea over the last decade have become the institution who have recruited African players most consistently.

Arsenal once had that habit; Chelsea overtook them; others have developed a reluctance to become too dependent on African footballers because of the inconvenience, every two years, of potentially losing them for up to six weeks in January and February at the African Cup of Nations.

When the Cameroonian Geremi joined Chelsea in the first summer of Abramovich's tenure - 2003 - he set in motion a pattern. A year later, Drogba arrived from Marseille. The following summer, it was Michael Essien, the Ghanaian powerhouse, hired from Lyon.

The transfer window of 2006 would be animated by the end of a long drawn out scuffle between Manchester United and Chelsea for Mikel John Obi, the Nigerian midfielder who had emerged as an exceptional teenage prospect.

A young Salomon Kalou, of Ivory Coast, settled in at Stamford Bridge the same year as Mikel. Even now, if you watch Chelsea's youth and academy teams you are struck by the number of African players enrolled there, players from countries like Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Tanzania, places well off the routes traditionally followed by European scouts.

Most of the senior African signings were recruits sought and endorsed by Jose Mourinho, Chelsea's most successful head coach of the last decade. He wanted a muscular, athletic, high-octane style of football to be played by his Blues.

In Essien and Drogba, Mourinho identified great physical assets; in Kalou he saw speed. In the dressing room, he then observed continental fraternising. Chelsea's band of Africans have developed strong bonds with one another.

In recent years, though, some of their links with the club seemed to be weakening. Essien's vast talents as a player have been compromised heavily by muscle and knee injuries. Mikel remains an enigma in the eyes of many fans. Since his conversion to the role of holding midfielder, he has matured in many respects, but imposes authority too irregularly. Kalou and Drogba, meanwhile, had, for the first part of this season looked like they were being ushered towards the exit.

Several factors have placed Chelsea's African contingent suddenly at the heart of today's Champions League final. There is the renaissance of Drogba, 34, above all.

At the beginning of 2011/12 - the last term on his current contract with the club he has served for nearly eight years - he was deemed second to Fernando Torres in the pecking order of strikers by the then head coach Andre Villas-Boas. Torres kept misfiring, while, in the last three months, Drogba, has simply soared.

Kalou, 26, had felt cold shouldered by Villas-Boas, who was dismissed in March. Since Robert Di Matteo has taken over as interim head coach, the winger has felt his own qualities of skill and speed, and his willingness to work back and forth along his flank, have been better appreciated.

"Robbie [Di Matteo] hasn't excluded anybody. He has given everybody a chance and that is important," Kalou said.

The younger of Chelsea's Ivorians has a chance of starting tonight, although he would acknowledge that, if he does, it may be partly to do with suspensions. With Ramires and Raul Meireles banned, midfield options have been thinned.

Which may also give a chance to Essien, who has been injured much of the season and still lacks the fierce energy that made him such an essential contributor to Chelsea when they were a greater force in the Premier League than they are now. Di Matteo would like to utilise Essien, but may fear he cannot do so for a full 90 minutes.

With Branislav Ivanovic also suspended, Jose Bosingwa is a strong candidate to start at right-back. Bosingwa is a Portugal international, who joined Chelsea from Porto in 2008, but was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Should Bosingwa, Mikel, Essien, Kalou and Drogba line up together, half the outfielders for Chelsea would be African born.

There are precedents in European Cup finals for such a strong influence from Africa, but you need to go back 60 years to find them. Portuguese club Benfica's golden era in the competition - five finals and two victories between 1961 and 1968 - featured a number of players from the then African colonies of Mozambique and Angola, including the captains Mario Coluna and Jose Aguas, and the peerless striker Eusebio.

A trio of Africans picked up winners medals in 2009 - Barcelona's Cameroonian Samuel Eto'o, the Ivorian Yaya Toure and the Malian Seydou Keita - and in 2010, when Eto'o's then Inter Milan squad colleagues included Ghana's Ali Sulley Muntari and the Kenyan midfielder Macdonald Mariga. Drogba would dearly like to have his hands, at last, on the trophy he has always envied of three-times European Cup-winner Eto'o, with whom he has a competitive, king-of-their-continent sort of rivalry.

"It's the one prize we haven't won at Chelsea in my time here," said Kalou.

Lifting it would certainly make Chelsea the team to follow for thousands of new, young fans, from the foothills of Kilimanjaro to the wide, busy avenues of Abidjan.