LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – They held the USL Cup preview news conference in the LeRoy Neiman gallery of the Muhammad Ali Center on Tuesday, and the venue seemed appropriate as the participants filed in and were seated behind a table.

Louisville City FC will look to defend its USL Cup title against Phoenix Rising FC tonight at 8 p.m. at the University of Louisville’s Lynn Stadium, in a match televised by ESPN2.

It’s a big deal for LouCity, and has been throughout the season for a franchise that weathered the loss of a popular coach, a month without a coach at all, and has come on to find excellence again – and a nine-match winning streak -- at the end of an admirable campaign.

But much of the attention tonight will be on the other side. Phoenix is led by captain Didier Drogba, and no fan of the sport is without an appreciation for that name, and his deeper significance to the sport on the planet.

In 2010, already with a decorated career to his credit, Drogba was weighing whether to play in the World Cup in South Africa. He had suffered a broken arm and wasn’t sure he wanted to make the effort to rush back to his Ivory Coast team for another demanding tournament.

He said he was in a hotel room in Switzerland when he got a phone call that changed all that.

The person on the other end of the phone urged him to play. He said, “A World Cup in Africa without you, is not a World Cup.”

The voice belonged to Nelson Mandela.

Drogba has played in the biggest finals the sport has to offer, and is known for playing his best in big games. At Chelsea, he helped win four Premier League titles and was “Man of the Match” in a UEFA Champions League final. He’s won four FA Cups. When the Ivory Coast qualified for the World Cup in 2006, Drogba issued a plea for Muslim and Christian factions which had split the country into civil war in 2002 to lay down their arms, and a cease fire ensued.

He’s known for his charitable and humanitarian work. When he signed an endorsement deal with Pepsi, he donated the money to build a hospital in his hometown. Throughout his professional career, he has helped fund the amateur club where he started out. He teamed with U2’s Bono and Nike to raise awareness for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. In February of this year he met with French president Emmanuel Macron and the FIFA president in Paris to discuss sports development in Africa, and as a United Nations Development Partner ambassador has worked to fight poverty, and has been commended by the U.N. for his work several times.

That he says tonight, in Louisville, could be the final competitive match of that storied career, gives the game significance beyond the gleaming silver cup beside the table at the Ali Center on Tuesday. Drogba joined the Phoenix franchise as an owner-player last season. His presence, 1.6 million Twitter followers included, has brought attention to the growing league.

“I’d like to give a special thank you to the captain, Didier Drogba, for his contribution to the USL,” league president Jake Edwards said. “In the final season of an illustrious playing career, as a world class player and a sporting ambassador, Didier has been an inspiration to so many, and we thank him for choosing to continue his amazing career in the USL and with Phoenix Rising over these last two seasons. And as the great man himself Ali continued his career after boxing and did amazing things as an ambassador for sport, so will Didier, who is extremely active in all the charitable work he does.”

LouCity’s players and coaches, of course, understand this attention. Captain Paolo del Piccolo said that the team doesn’t resent it, nor, however, is it distracted by it.

“For us, someone like Drogba has all of our respect,” he said. “Not just because he’s a big-time player, but because of the kind of person he is, all of the things he’s done around the world. And we see how he treats his teammates. A lot of us have played in situations where we played with bigger players than we are who don’t treat their teammates with respect. But to see how he is with his team is something we all admire. We kind of expected that he would be the headline, and that’s not something we have a problem with. Even last year when we made a run to the Cup, we were kind of just a sideline story, but that’s kind of where we are. We just play as hard as we can.”

For his part, Drogba said he’s content that his career has come full circle – though he didn’t completely shut the door on continuing to play the sport on Tuesday.

“Maybe not. No, no, no. I feel good,” he said, after being asked about his final game. “I really feel good. I’m really enjoying my time with my teammates and playing in this league. You know, it’s very interesting for me, because that’s how I started my career. I was young, I was in a lower league, and playing in stadiums of all different kinds, and to be there now, after being at the top, playing in the biggest stadiums in the world against the best players, it’s refreshing for me. I’m enjoying it. My teammates are really, really some of the best. As human beings, they’re amazing. It’s really good to come in the dressing room and see only people with good hearts. Yes, I said this was my last game. But after the last game I received a few calls, and I don’t know. Let’s see how it goes tomorrow.”

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