Though still just 23, Michael Essien is already widely regarded as one of the finest players in world football.
The tough-tackling Chelsea midfielder, currently one of the leading lights in the African game, cemented his hero status in his homeland of Ghana with some powerful, impressive performances at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. Powered on by Essien, the Black Stars reached the Round of 16 in their first-ever finals appearance.
Now, five months on from that unforgettable experience on German soil, the dynamic midfielder is fully focused on Chelsea's quest for their own particular Holy Grail: the UEFA Champions League. Fresh from the London side's pulsating group clash with FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou, Essien spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about the London club's storming start to Europe's premier club competition and the fight against racism in football.
FIFA.com: Michael, the 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Chelsea was a fantastic game of football. How did it feel to take part in a match like that?
Michael Essien: For me personally it's a real pleasure to be involved in games of this magnitude. It's a great feeling to have got this far (in my career) and be able to enjoy wonderful experiences like these. To play in a game like Barcelona-Chelsea or at the World Cup finals is a dream come true for any footballer.
All in all it was a very positive evening for football, wasn't it?
Yes, it was fantastic to play in an atmosphere like that. There were no racist chants or anything of the sort. The public got to see an excellent game of football between two brilliant teams. The fans came to the stadium determined to enjoy themselves and that's the way it should be. It's all about showing that we mean business when we talk about kicking racism out of football.
Many observers feel that Chelsea are currently the best side in Europe. Do you agree?
We're one of the best and, while I still think we've got some way to go, we're definitely on the right track. The mood in the camp at the moment is absolutely top-class, our self-belief is growing all the time, and the results reflect that. We need to keep performing well and see what happens in the future, but I'm very optimistic.
There has been a lot of speculation surrounding Jose Mourinho and his coaching methods. What does the coach have to say before a massive match like the one against Barça?
For huge games like these you don't really need any extra motivation, so there's not much more a coach can say to ensure you give everything you've got. So Mourinho doesn't have to do anything out of the ordinary, he just lets us know what he expects of us, and once we cross that white line it's all down to us.
You are yet to celebrate your 24th birthday and you have already played at a FIFA World Cup and in the UEFA Champions League. Is there any one experience that really stands out?
It's all been an amazing adventure, especially given that these two competitions feature the best players in the world. My goal has always been to thoroughly enjoy every game and live the experience to the full.
Would it be fair to say that Barcelona-Chelsea compares favourably to the France-Italy game at Germany 2006?
(Laughs) Sounds perfect to me, let's leave it at that!