Phoenix Rising’s Didier Drogba sparked J.J. Watt’s love for soccer, Chelsea

May 15, 2021, 6:55 AM

Phoenix Rising Football Club and the Arizona Cardinals Football Club: two football clubs in the same state, same Valley, but two very different sports.

At the center of each club is former PRFC player and current part-owner Didier Drogba and Cardinals defensive lineman J.J. Watt, respectively.

And well before either star made their way to Arizona to resume their professional playing careers, Watt fell in love with both the game of soccer and Drogba’s former English Premier League side Chelsea FC because of the Ivorian.

“Playing FIFA on video games was my first true interaction,” Watt told NBC Sports’ Men in Blazers. “So we were playing and I would pick Ivory Coast every time. No clue why, but I would pick Ivory Coast every time and obviously Drogba was the legend.

“So I was like, ‘Alright, who does Drogba play for?’ And just started following Chelsea because Drogba was on Chelsea. All of a sudden they’re winning Champions League and they’re winning the Premier League. I’m like this is unbelievable — this is the best team ever.”

Drogba is one of the greatest footballers to ever walk the earth — and certainly one of the best African players of all-time — as the striker finished his career with five top-10 finishes in Ballon d’Or voting from 2006-2012. In 2007, Drogba came in fourth behind Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. To put that in perspective, only Ronaldo and Messi won the award as the world’s greatest footballer from 2008-2017.

Watt wanted to make sure he got to see his soccer idol play at Stamford Bridge before departing Chelsea, where the Ivorian helped lift four FA Cups, three league cups and the famous 88th-minute equalizer in the 2012 Champions League Final that he would win for the London side in penalties. Drogba also won four Premier League titles, the last of which came in 2014-15 under then-head coach Jose Mourinho, who is set to become manager of Italian Serie A’s AS Roma in 2021-22.

“It was the songs, the traditions — vastly different than an American stadium, vastly different than an American fan experience,” Watt said of his first Premier League experience at Drogba’s last game with Chelsea.

“No big video boards, no commercialism, no cheerleaders. There’s no extra thrills or anything. It was literally just about the game.”

The Ivorian would go on to play for the likes of Turkish Super Lig side Galatasaray SK — who reached a partnership agreement with Phoenix Rising via PRFC governor and Istanbul native Berke Bakay — as well as MLS’ Montreal Impact before finishing his playing career in the Valley.

Watt was also amazed by how integrated each club is in the fabric of its respective community compared to professional sports teams here in the United States.

“That is the coolest part about the Premier League by far,” Watt said. “It is the neighborhoods, it is how they come together to create the songs and the banners and the flags, the away trips. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, it’s hard for me to grasp.

“Because we say we love our teams and there’s plenty of people that do love their teams — face paint and everything. But it is a different level. Imagine if someone tried moving Everton from Liverpool to a different city. We over here do it all the time. We bop teams around city to city. That would never ever happen over there.”

One of the biggest differences between any professional American sport and European soccer is promotion and relegation, which the Cardinals defensive lineman is a fan of. Watt is also bullish on the future of the game of soccer as a whole in the United States, as the country will host its second FIFA World Cup in 2026.

“The soccer profile in America and the proficiency and understanding of the fans will only continue to grow that game,” he said. “And if we ever get relegation and promotion, who knows what could happen because that could be pure chaos over here.”

Perhaps the biggest name in U.S. men’s soccer right now is 22-year-old Christian Pulisic, who is in his second season with Watt’s beloved Chelsea. As a fellow athlete, Watt understands the struggles of injuries and the time it takes to to settle into a new team. But like any proper Chelsea fan, he also wants to see his team return to the top of the table and buy the world’s best talent.

“Alright we’re done. Move on. Buy somebody new. Let’s go, let’s get this going,” Watt joked of Timo Werner’s first-season struggles at Chelsea. “Can we get (Dortmund’s Erling) Haaland? Somebody get Haaland on the line.”

And if Watt’s love for Chelsea wasn’t enough, he is also married to the game of soccer — well sort of. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of Year’s wife is Kealia Watt, a professional footballer who spent her college years at North Carolina (2010-13) before being drafted No. 2 overall by NWSL side Houston Dash in 2014 and then traded to the Chicago Red Stars in 2020.

Kealia Watt has also represented the United States at both the youth and senior team levels, including scoring the game-winning goal to beat Germany and win the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. In fact, she set the record for the fastest goal scored in a USWNT debut by scoring just 48 seconds after coming on in the 81st minute in a friendly against Switzerland in 2016.

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