LONDON – After maddening and thrilling football fans in equal measures for eight years, Didier Drogba’s combustible Chelsea career is over.
And it was fitting that one of football’s most theatrical characters went out with one final, dramatic flourish.
With the last kick in his last game, the 34-year-old Drogba won the Champions League for Chelsea on Saturday, scoring the decisive penalty in the shootout against Bayern Munich.
“Even the greatest stories come to an end,” the Ivory Coast forward wrote Tuesday on his official website. “My contract is finished and I am now prepared to leave the Blues. It is with great sadness but also with much gratitude that I announce (to) you my departure from Chelsea.
“I played my last game for the club in Munich and I am delighted to have finally been able to lift the Champions League trophy after an incredible final.”
Success in European football’s illustrious knockout competition is the culmination of a thrilling career with the west London club, where he also won three English Premier League titles, four FA Cups and two League Cups.
“(Leaving) has been a very difficult decision for me to make and I am very proud of what we have achieved,” Drogba said. “But the time is right for a new challenge for me.”
That new challenge could be in football’s new frontier: China.
The two-time African Player of the Year has been widely linked with a move to Shanghai Shenhua, which former Chelsea teammate Nicolas Anelka joined in January and now coaches.
But a career in politics could also be beckoning when Drogba hangs up his boots, having used his status in Ivory Coast to help unify a country that saw at least 3,000 people killed in postelection violence in 2010, and has seen other disorder over the last decade.
But while Drogba is regarded as something of a peace figure away from the pitch, during matches he can be one of football’s most inflammatory players.
He has infuriated fans with what they view as a habit of diving, and enraged referees with his aggressive foulmouthed conduct, earning several bans from UEFA.
Saturday’s final was redemption for Drogba after being sent off in the 2008 Champions League final loss to Manchester United for slapping Nemanja Vidic.
Drogba was – usually – Chelsea’s man for the big occasions, contributing nine goals in nine finals.
Chelsea was on the verge of losing a second European Cup final when he planted a powerful, late header in the Bayern net to send the game into extra time.
Despite conceding a needless penalty that was saved by Petr Cech, he more than made amends for giving Chelsea that scare when it came to the shootout. Facing the hostile Bayern crowd, Drogba coolly dispatched the fifth and last penalty past goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
It was Drogba’s last act in a Chelsea shirt, which he ripped off before prancing in front of the visiting fans, savoring every last moment of adulation.
“Winning the game was the turning point, that’s why I decided (to go),” Drogba told the BBC.
“We’ve made a story all together, and I want people to remember that,” he added. “I think it’s the best time to move on.”
But with his Champions League exploits entering Chelsea folklore, Drogba isn’t likely to be away from Stamford Bridge for long.
“I may come back in the future, but in a different role,” he said.
Drogba’s header in Munich put his final Chelsea tally at 157 goals in 341 appearances.
“I am sad, even if (leaving) is part of the life of a footballer,” Drogba said. “We have to accept it. Above all, I will remember all the great seasons I have had here, and all the emotions that will remain forever etched in my memory.”
Drogba was one of then-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho’s early signings in July 2004 when he moved from Marseille for 24 million pounds (then $45 million), a British record for a striker at the time.
“Didier has contributed so much to all of Chelsea’s recent successes,” chief executive Ron Gourlay said. “He has been a consummate professional during his entire time here and as one of the natural leaders in our squad he has been an inspiration to a lot of our younger players.”
His departure was no surprise to the Chelsea hierarchy.
“We have known for some time that this outcome was likely,” Gourlay said. “But Didier and the club only made a final decision on that in the last couple of days, because for obvious reasons neither Didier nor the club wanted to distract focus away from the Champions League final. The talks were amicable all the way through.”
Rob Harris can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris