By Ridge Mahoney
Professional and major-college sports teams often tolerate extreme behavior from their stars, but refusal to play is usually grounds for dismissal or at least suspension.
Not so in Montreal, where owner Joey Saputo stepped in Tuesday to calm the waters roiled last weekend when Didier Drogba, who had been informed by head coach Mauro Biello that he wasn’t starting against Toronto FC, refused to accept a spot on the bench.
Biello has preferred the energy and craft of Matteo Mancuso, a July signing who has scored three goals in 15 games and brought a different look to Montreal, which has been shut out only once in his seven starts.
The head coach made this bold move is in spite of Drogba’s production: 10 goals and six assists in 22 games (18 starts). Yet he’s scored only twice since nailing a hat trick against Philadelphia July 23 and at times his 38-year-old legs seem to stagnate the Impact attack.
Without Drogba, the Impact played out a 2-2 tie that clinched a playoff spot but seemingly left way up in the air the Ivorian star’s future. On Tuesday, Saputo revealed he’d spoken with Drogba and all has been resolved. Drogba has been fined, per league rules, but he will not be suspended. Montreal closes out the regular season Sunday at New England and will play a Knockout Round game next week.
Drogba’s Designated Player contract, which pays him about $2.2 million per year, expires at the end of the season. The team hasn’t said anything about retaining him or letting him go and only time will tell if this incident affects those considerations.
“I think he wasn't in agreement with the decision that was taken,” said Saputo, who is rarely given to such understatement. “But I think the meeting was more to clarify exactly why he did what he did, and also just to clarify because of the decisions that he took the situation that he put his teammates in.
“He understands it, and I think what's important is to have an understanding that moving forward he knows exactly what the role and responsibilities with this club will be, and what role the coaching staff will give him.”
Such a brazen case of special treatment could rip apart a locker room and alienate a fan base, but this is familiar ground for Drogba and his teams. His checkered past didn’t stop thousands of fans from packing Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport last summer to salute him upon arrival, and he utterly mesmerized the fan base along with MLS by scoring 11 goals in 11 games.
The Impact does not dictate he play on artificial turf, which is a reasonable compromise given his age and history of knee problems. The team allowed him to work with a personal trainer in Qatar and miss part of preseason training.
Turning down the shirt for a big game, though, is a severe breach of team loyalty, at least in the vast majority of situations. If a rift has opened up between Drogba and his teammates, it will surface in a game or other situation at some point. But they know all too well he’s different, he’s a singular force, a “big personality,” as Revs coach Jay Heaps calls players such as Drogba and Jermaine Jones, who left New England and signed with Colorado rather than take a huge pay cut. Heaps traded to get Kei Kamara, cut loose by Columbus for squabbling with a teammate over a penalty kick, in part to energize his squad with a' forceful presence.
“When you lose a player like that on the field and in the locker room, it can cost you games and points,” says Heaps. “They can be a handful but they can also be the reason you win games maybe you shouldn’t.”
Like his star player, Saputo is a big personality. The family diary business is valued at more than $5 billion. His picture used to dominate the home page on the club's Web site. He spent lavishly on charter flights and training camps in Mexico to fuel the team’s dramatic run to the 2014-15 Concacaf Champions League finals. He jumped right into the fray to acquire Drogba, whose MLS rights were originally held by Chicago.
If Saputo says everything is cool, it must be so. It’s up to Biello and the players to make it work. And if Drogba comes off the bench and scores a goal and/or helps the team win, not much else matters, at least in the short term.
“The situation has been resolved to the club’s satisfaction,” said Saputo in the team statement. “Didier has accepted to assume the role that the head coach sees fit while contributing to the success of this club moving forward. When he came to Montreal, Didier said he came here to win, and he still has the same objective.
“Our main priority now is to focus on the last game of the season and the upcoming playoffs. With the players and the leadership that we have on this team, we are convinced that we can make a run at the MLS Cup.”