Since watching England take to their travesty of a national pitch for their friendly against Mexico, I've been wondering about the wisdom of pre-World Cup friendlies. When you're about to put your national team on the world's biggest stage, why take the risk of friendlies? I understand that national teams need a chance to play together, but there are definitely risks involved, and today we saw fears realized: While playing a friendly against Japan, the Ivory Coast lost their best player and the hope of an entire nation. Defender Tulio Tanaka caught Didier Drogba with a high boot, sending Drogba to the ground. Of course, most of those watching took no notice, considering the drama queen hits the ground roughly 2,734 per match. But in this case, Drogba had to be helped off the field and was sent to hospital for scans on his right elbow. While the Chelsea website continues to remain positive, calling Drogba a 'doubt' for the World Cup, most media outlets are saying he has a fractured elbow and won't see playing time for the Elephants.
3.2 - average number of goals scored by the Ivory Coast with Didier Drogba in the qualifiers for the 2010 WC against 1.9 w/out him. Missing. (From OptaJean)
If Drogba does have to rule himself out of the cup (another source has said he'll be back in ten days) it's hard to imagine the Ivory Coast putting up a good showing. But in this run-up to the cup, a captain's armband seems to make a man a marked target. First we had Michael Ballack falling prey to a tackle by Kevin-Prince Boateng in the FA Cup final. Ballack, the captain of Germany, had to be ruled out of the World Cup. And then, also today, Rio Ferdinand was sent to hospital for a scan on his left knee, and re-emerged on crutches. It is nearly certain that he won't be playing in South Africa.
But these injuries don't spell instant capitulation for the national squads. Ballack is a solid midfielder and leader for Germany, but they could've easily progressed without him--it's just the three or four other injuries that are making Germany a doubt to go further than the quarter-finals. As for Rio, that's not much of a loss for England. He's been out much of the season due to injury, and in friendlies didn't make much of an impact. In fact, anyone complaining about Emile Heskey's inclusion in the England squad needs to give it up once and for all--his challenge that removed Ferdinand from the team could possibly be his greatest contribution. While Rio certainly was a great center-back, he hasn't looked the same since all of these knocks, and his role will be adequately filled by Ledley King and Michael Dawson, who was just called to South Africa. The armband will be passed to Steven Gerrard, which might be a poor choice considering that he's already limping off the pitch after each appearance.
With the latest report that Drogba has told his teammates that his World Cup run is finished, the Ivory Coast is in a much more precarious situation. Didier was more than just a striker for the squad. He was more than just their talisman, even. Drogba is the emblem for an entire country, and he was set to carry that responsibility quite well. While his goals for the Elephants were clearly important, his presence and leadership were essential. Without Drogba, it is almost inconceivable that the Ivory Coast will emerge from Group G.