African icon Didier Drogba is switching focus from time on the football pitch to the boardroom as he plots the next phase of his life that has already started with his move to United States second-tier side Phoenix Rising.
The Arizona desert is a far cry from Europe’s elite stadiums and UEFA Champions League finals, but for Drogba, who turns 40 in March, it is an important step in his life.
He admits his playing career is winding down, though in the latter part of the club’s 2017 United Soccer League season he still looked sprightly enough, netting 10 goals in 13 starts for the side.
He perhaps has one more year in him, but for the Ivory Coast star, one of the greatest players ever to come out of Africa, he says he is having more fun learning about the business of football.
He is now a co-owner of Phoenix Rising, brought on board to help the club with their aim of winning one of the four Major League Soccer expansion spots to be handed out in the coming years.
They have missed out on the first two, which were announced in December, but have high hopes for the next award which will be made known sometime in 2018.
“When I had this offer, I was thinking, ‘well, I have been a player before, but never an owner’, so it’s a good challenge,” Drogba tells FORBES AFRICA in Phoenix.
“It’s interesting for the future as well and what I would possibly want to do when I stop playing. I am going to be 40 in March, so it’s about time to think about what’s next. To apply what I was thinking a few years ago.
“The plan is going well; this opportunity is amazing because it puts me straight into what I want to learn. I enjoy more the fact that I am learning a lot about the other side of the game which is very important.”
Phoenix Rising is a little over a year old, having been formed by a consortium led by local businessman Berke Bakay when he purchased the status of Arizona United.
Drogba took little persuading to come on board as the opportunity to be a “founding father” at a new club excites him.
“It’s an amazing project here, to build a team from scratch and apply for an MLS license. To [potentially] be part of the biggest league in America, it’s a good challenge.
“I played before in this league [MLS] with Montreal [Impact] and I had time to understand the league and the challenges, and to see how this opportunity could become a big one. That’s why I came here, to try to make history.”
Phoenix Rising had a few African players on their books in 2017, including South African Miguel Timm and Gladson Awako from Ghana.
Drogba hopes that his presence, and that of coach Patrice Carteron, who led Mali to third at the 2013 African Nations Cup and won the African Champions League with TP Mazembe, will provide a platform for more players from the continent.
“The league already has a lot of African players, but I hope my presence here will be an opportunity to bring more players and give them an opportunity to get better contracts, to get respected and to have a chance in their life. It’s what it’s about,” Drogba says.
“People say, ‘football players are making money’, but it is actually a way to deliver from this [hardship], it’s their life. It’s a different job but they still have to work to earn their money.”
Drogba is set to keep playing in 2018, which will surely be his last as a player, though he says he still feels that same competitive spirit as when he first took to the pitch as a teenager.
“I’m having fun and that’s really what keeps me playing because my teammates are great and I feel like a kid when I see the ball. I’m still a competitor,” he says. “I don’t think that is something I will lose one day.”
The Ivorian adds that while he does enjoy being on the pitch, he is energized by what he is learning off it.
“The physique is OK, so I carry on playing, but the fact is I enjoy more that I am learning about the other aspects, the other side [business] of the game, which is very important.”
It is then, perhaps, a time for reflection and for a player that won so many trophies in a glittering playing career, most notably with English Premier League side Chelsea, it is hard to pick three moments that mean the most to him.
“My first goals as a professional player, I scored twice [against Cannes in August 1999],” he says after some contemplation.
“Then the year I spent in Marseille. I had the chance, as a Marseille fan, to play in that stadium and it was a dream come true. It is something very special to me.
“Finally, Chelsea – not only the Champions League [win], but Chelsea the club, the people, the games we lost, the games we won, those years are very special as well.”
And he says he could not have dreamed of the success he would have as a player, especially as something of a late bloomer who only really rose to global prominence when he joined Chelsea at the age of 26, but would later win two African Footballer of the Year titles, among many other accolades.
“I am beyond satisfied, of course I was dreaming of becoming a footballer, playing in big stadiums, 60,000 people and all that, but I never thought that I would go so far,” he says.
“Even if I had the dream, even if I had the desire to succeed, for me football has always been my passion and not my job. Maybe that is why I am still enjoying it now.”