If soccer is a religion in England, then the Slug and Lettuce pub in Putney is its Vatican. There, over warm beer and soggy fries, middle-aged men pontificate on everything from the inherent sinfulness of the offside trap to the fallibility of Wayne Rooney's left foot. But like church officials confronted with Galileo's telescope, football's high priests can't quite make sense of Didier Drogba. "He's a weapon, not a footballer," says one. "A specimen," says another. "The scariest footballer in the world."
Drogba, 32, a striker for England's Chelsea Football Club and the captain of the Côte d'Ivoire team, has shown the world what's possible when power and grace fuse on the soccer pitch. Imagine the body of an NBA star with feet as nimble as a prima ballerina's. When the World Cup kicks off in South Africa in June, he will carry the hopes of a continent as Africa's best-known soccer star. (West African fans will toast him with a beer glass called the Drogba. It's nearly twice the size of a normal mug.)
No one knows the rickety and high-spirited but often heartbreaking touring bus that is African soccer better than Drogba. At the 2006 World Cup, his homeland ravaged by civil war, he organized a statement from the Elephants, as the Ivorian national team is referred to, calling for peace. Many credit the ensuing calm for allowing reconciliation to begin. At a match last March, 22 Ivorians were killed in the crush to see their beloved heroes play. After the game, Drogba resolved to donate every dollar he earns from endorsements to a charity he set up to build new hospitals in the country.
Drogba is conflicted about his stardom; the same love of No. 11 that brought Ivorians together in 2006 also led to the fatal tumult last year. "I'd like the country to ultimately be able to deal with political problems itself," he says in his soft, French-accented English. "It's not really good to depend on the win or defeat of the national team. That means there is something wrong."
On the pitch, Drogba is known for the strength with which he holds off opposing defenders; it's that awesome ability that scares and baffles the high priests at the Slug and Lettuce. But why should it surprise them? This sensitive young man already carries so much of Africa's weight on his wide, sturdy shoulders.