When the world's attention turns to the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ next month, Michael Essien will be making his second appearance on the biggest stage, but many question marks surround the AC Milan midfielder. Still considered an automatic choice for Ghana's Black Stars when healthy and available, the former Chelsea star has struggled with injuries and playing time over the last few years, and at 31 years old, he is eyeing the end of his career.
However, after missing the last World Cup with a knee problem, Essien tells FIFA.com about his excitement with the talented Ghana team, which he goes out of his way to laud. “The squad for this tournament is the best Ghana has to offer, and the quality in depth is extremely good, especially in midfield. We have multiple options in most positions which is always a plus for any side.”
The former Lyon dynamo, nicknamed the “Bison” for his incredible strength and his ability to dominate a match from box-to-box, is wary of making the prediction that Ghanaians want to hear: that they will do one better than in South Africa and finally become the first African nation to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup. It seems a wise position given their brutal draw into Group G with Germany, Portugal and USA.
“Our initial aim will be to get out of the group into the second round, and then take it from there game by game. Who knows? We are certainly capable of going one better and making it to the semi-finals or even finals. Anything can happen, but we are realistic enough to know we cannot aim that high from the start. Get the first objective of making the second round out of the way, and we will see how far we can go. It will be a journey without doubt, one we are looking forward to.”
Perhaps befitting a player of his experience, Essien looks back fondly at the growth of Ghanaian football over the last decade – a time when the Black Stars reached their first finals in 2006 and then came within Asamoah Gyan's missed penalty of reaching the last four in 2010. “I think we have done well for a nation that made its debut on the world stage in 2006. We did okay in our first outing and went one further in South Africa, and that says a lot about the players and the nation as a whole. Our desire to do well spurred us on in both World Cups, and I think it is fair to say we have done better than some of the nations who have been to three or more World Cups.
The squad for this tournament is the best Ghana has to offer, and the quality in depth is extremely good, especially in midfield.
“Germany 2006 was very good, and we had a great time throughout the tournament. We were a young, talented group with no World Cup experience and in some way that helped us because we were fearless and had nothing to lose. Throughout the qualifiers we played very well and bonded as a team, as brothers. When we got to Germany we were ready to deliver and we did our best. I am proud to be one of the first players to be at Ghana’s first World Cup.”
However, Essien is still obviously disappointed at missing out in 2010. “It was tough especially because it was Africa’s first World Cup. More importantly the 2006 team had matured with new players injected into the team from the U-20 World Cup-winning team in Egypt a year earlier, so we were probably in better shape and more experienced to do well than in 2006. That proved to be the case, so I would have loved to be there.”
Long may he runEssien beat the deadline to make a surprise switch from Chelsea to AC Milan on the final day of the transfer window in January, and the midfielder insists he is happy at his new home despite limited playing time and a poor season for the Italian giants. “Milan is good, and I am settling in nicely, which is important. Everyone is friendly at the club and are looking after me well, so I cannot complain. We are all working as a team to bring the club to where it belongs, and with time, I have no doubt the glory days will be back.”
The midfielder is less sure about his international future, saying: “If I suffer no further big injuries, continue to play well and continue to be selected for the Black Stars, then who knows ... I may be at another World Cup. After [Brazil] it will be business as usual: back to playing club football and if selected for the national team, I will carry on. There are African Cup qualifiers and the 2015 tournament in January, so that will be the next objective.”
Beyond that, the iconic figure is taking it as it comes. “I do not think coaching is for me and as it stands now I have no plans of taking up coaching after football. You never say never obviously, but currently it is not part of my plans.
“I am lucky as well as proud to have and to still be playing for the best clubs in the world. All in all, I have not done badly and long may it continue.”