He's considered one of Africa's greatest ever footballing exports, but Chelsea star Michael Essien may not find his place in history books quite so assured. IBWM welcomes our newest correspondent, Gary Al-Smith.
A shadowy figure jogs round the Karl Reindorf Park, home of Ghanaian Premier League side Liberty Professionals. His head is down, not in depression, but with focused attention.
Except for a few maintenance staff, the rest of the park is empty. The team has just finished training and Michael Essien is the only one staying behind for some extra kick-abouts and warm-ups. Immediately he is done, he gets home to his Dansoman residence. And sleeps his brains out for at least six hours.
For all the years Essien played at Liberty, this was his routine. Every day, all year round.
That was Essien eleven years ago. And this story is told by Robertson, Liberty’s team manager since they got into Ghana’s Premier League in 1999. He’s since left for the USA.
“Essien is a very determined guy. He always thinks of how far he has come and makes sure nothing stands in the way of his future,” said Robertson when I last spoke to him.
I guess that about sums up the 27-year old who, last Friday, announced that after a decade of playing in the national colours, he’s had enough. For now.
“I think I will be taking a break. Not retiring, just not playing for time. I have to take the right decision for myself.
I don't know whether they will be disappointed because they have done fine without me.”
With that single decision, he just ensured that he will leave football remembered as an exceptionally gifted player. But he will not be remembered as a Ghanaian legend.
Never a legend
Hours into writing this article, I was holding up for a proper definition of who a football legend is. Then I woke up on Sunday morning to the news that Stephen Appiah had retired.
A smile spread on my face: now that is a Ghanaian legend!
Appiah has been Ghana’s captain since 2002 and is Michael’s best buddy in the squad. As far I know exceptional national team players are those that feature and play an integral role in its success. National legends are those who have gone through much to play for the shirt.
Legends would go through earth, wind and fire. By 2006, Appiah was a living Black Stars legend. Essien was not, and four years on, he still isn’t.
His position to quit – for now – is understandable. Yet, all he has done is to give his critics more incendiary material. Essien has not shown 'abnormal' passion for Ghana and his countrymen, simply, cannot vouch for his unshakable commitment to the national cause.
As we’re using Appiah as a legendary yardstick, let’s consider two scenarios. In 2006-07, Ghana’s captain saw recurrences of a knee injury that had affected his play for some time. Even though his time at Fenerbahçe became fractious, Appiah always played with grace for Ghana.
The media laid into him mercilessly anytime his form was in question, yet his composure was one of class. His given name was soon changed unanimously from Stephen to ‘inspirational’.
Essien was, and still is, another matter. His handling of his relationship issues with his ex-belles, claims by several Ghanaian and British newspapers about how badly he treated his father, and general criticism from the media has usually been met with swift rebuttals and threats to sue newspapers in court.
No matter how right you are, PR people would tell you, it does little to build goodwill. Especially when it is with your countrymen.
No one doubts the football attributes of the Bison, but when those same attributes lend doubts to the system that helped you hone it, it’s a sad case. Those who helped Essien become the player he is include Emmanuel Kwasi Afranie, a multi-decorated Ghanaian coach at all levels.
“It’s difficult to know what to say but it is this semi-retirement is his choice. I was a bit disappointed with his decision but you cannot deny the fact his injury on national duty was a critical factor. Still, your country is your country.”
True, it is. The heart of the club v country row has been with issues like this one. On three occasions he got injured while playing for Ghana, but as many point out, tens of other players have faced similar situations before him and not one has called ‘partial retirement’ on his national career.
But let’s face it. Over the years, the Chelsea man has done a fantastic job of distancing himself from the good books of his people. It seems he actually strives to make himself a mystery. It is agreeable that a player of his competitive nature would feel robbed after looking at his teammates get to the quarter-final of the World Cup without him. Or before that, the African Cup final.
He told the official Chelsea magazine before this season started: “I’ve had a few months that have been very difficult. But it was good to be back with the team at the start of pre-season and I’m looking forward to the new season. Fortunately I’m the type of person who takes everything as it comes and very calmly, and that’s what I’ve been doing through my rehabilitation.”
He's taken it calmly, alright. But the majority here in Ghana feel betrayed by a man whose patriotism has been questioned on more than a few occasions. Two weeks before the start of the 2006 Nations Cup in Egypt, Michael sustained an injury after a Nigel Reo-Coker challenge.
He missed the tournament due to the injury and Ghana felt his absence deeply.
Days after Ghana were eliminated in the group stages, Essien featured in the Premier League. The attacks in Ghana were immediate and understandable as there were no prior reports of his improving condition. One day Chelsea said he was injured, the next he had made a miraculous overnight recovery.
But being Michael Essien has its advantages, as his versatile nature ensured that Ghana soon needed for the pre-World Cup preparations and the tournament proper.
Since then, there have been a few cases in point where his passion for the shirt have been in doubt. Sadly, whoever advises him clearly only took the fact that Chelsea are the ones who foot the bills into context.
But as Afranie said, “country is country.” Michael Essien should never forget that.
Gary writes on African football for several media outlets including kicker, WorldCupBlog & ESPN