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Chelsea’s Veterans Prove Age Is No Barrier to Success

Chelsea's Didier Drogba
Chelsea's Didier Drogba shoots during the penalty shootout of the Champions League final football match against Bayern Munich in Munich. Photographer: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

In what may have been his last game for Chelsea, Didier Drogba struck a blow for the oldies.

The 34-year-old hit the winning penalty in a 4-3 shootout to deliver the Blues their first Champions League title, against Bayern Munich two days ago. He’d also scored the tying goal for 1-1 in Bayern’s Allianz Arena before 30 minutes’ extra time failed to separate the sides.

The Ivory Coast striker was signed in July 2004, a year after Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought the team. Six months ago, Drogba and Frank Lampard, 33, who captained the team in the final, were on the substitutes’ bench as Chelsea’s former manager Andre Villas-Boas promoted younger players.

“They’ve proven everyone wrong, you know,” Ryan Bertrand, a 22-year-old whose appearance in the final was his first in Europe’s top-tier competition, said in an interview. “It’s crazy for people to say they’re old players and they’re past it. They proved it tonight: They’ve gone and won the biggest club football trophy there is to win.”

Villas-Boas lasted just eight months in the Chelsea post as his project to revitalize an aging squad was ruined by poor results. In February, U.K. news media including the Daily Telegraph said he’d be allowed to “clear out” the likes of Drogba, Lampard and Florent Malouda, 31, if he kept his job.

He didn’t survive and was dismissed in March. Interim manager Roberto Di Matteo then turned to the old guard and they didn’t let him down. Under Di Matteo, Chelsea lost only three out of 21 matches in all competitions and added the European Cup to the F.A. Cup won against Liverpool earlier this month.

Stunned Bayern

Drogba powered in a header just before the end of the regulation 90 minutes to stun Bayern’s red-shirted fans, who were singing victory songs after Thomas Mueller’s 83rd-minute goal looked like ensuring a win. The Chelsea man has now scored nine goals in the nine major finals he’s played with the Blues, including the second in the 2-1 win over Liverpool. His contract is about to expire and he’s refused to say whether the winning penalty would be his last kick for the team.

Drogba is likely to discuss his future with management later this month. His teammates say they want him to stay.

“I think every player involved in the football club hopes that he stays but he’s obviously got his own decisions to make,” defender Gary Cahill said in an interview. “It’s befitting he took the penalty that’s won us the cup. He got us back in the game late, and he does seem to turn up in these big games.”

Abramovich has spent $1 billion to get Chelsea to compete against Europe’s most successful teams, and it has won three domestic league titles and four F.A. Cups. Lampard, who collected the latest trophy from UEFA President Michel Platini alongside suspended captain John Terry, 31, said it’s too early to know whether the Russian will keep faith with the older players.

Relief and Joy

“Chelsea moves forward,” he said in an interview. “Whether the team stays together, individuals stay, who knows? No one lasts forever.”

Previously, the closest Chelsea went to winning the Champions League was in Moscow in 2008 when Terry missed a penalty in a shootout that would have given the Blues victory against Manchester United. They’ve reached the semifinals or final six times during the Russian’s ownership.

The players’ celebrations reflected relief as much as joy.

“We were an hour on the pitch after the game because we’ve been waiting such a long time for this,” Lampard said. “It means even more. We could have won it five times and maybe get bored of winning it. It seems even more special when you haven’t won it before.”

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