Essien forever in Appiah's shadow

Founder and editor of Just Football Jonathan Fadugba on two of the finest midfielders Western Africa has ever seen

What is a legend? What does the word mean? What does it signify when you describe someone as legendary?

In the modern day lexicon, legend has passed into regular usage. For people under a certain age it is thrown around casually. Indeed the axiom, “Legend is a word thrown around all too casually these days, but…” is one of the most overused phrases around today, which pretty much exemplifies my point.

In England, a million and one legends are crowned every day. Someone might ask you the time, and you respond accordingly. “10.30.”

“Thanks mate, you’re a legend.” There you go. Legend. Done.

The term’s resonance has been watered down in recent times, but in a sport that creates as many heroic characters as football, room still exists for the word in its truer sense, somewhere.

Defining a legend is an issue Ghana has had cause to contemplate of late, after two fairly major pieces of national team news emerged neatly at around the same time.

First, news broke of the decision by Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien to temporarily put his international career on hold.

"I think I will be taking a break,” Essien was reported to have said. “Not retiring, just not playing all the 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."

After fighting back from a long-term injury sustained on international duty with Ghana at the African Cup of Nations in Angola earlier this year, Essien announced he would be ruling himself out of international duty for the foreseeable future in order to concentrate on maintaining form and fitness for club.

Then, only days later Stephen Appiah, captain and Black Stars stalwart, announced his own permanent retirement from international football.

“I have thought long and hard over this decision with my family, the Ghana FA and my friends. I think that this is the right moment for me to make way for the younger ones to take over the mantle because I believe they are capable.

“Ghana football has given me a lot and for that I am grateful to the people of my country for giving me the noble opportunity to represent them. It is now time for me to concentrate on my club career but I am available in any capacity to help my country if my country needs my experience and knowledge.”

For one of these subjects, the announcement provoked renewed nostalgia, pride and eternal admiration in the hearts and minds of Ghanaian people. For the other, it led to barely concealed contempt. 

In Ghana, Stephen Appiah always has been and likely always will be a national treasure. He is their icon, their leader, their David Beckham – if Beckham possessed the heart of a lion and the charisma and unifying powers of a statesman.

Since Stephen Appiah first donned national colours in 1996, at sixteen, Ghana has been on an upward curve that culminated in the West African nation becoming one of the best eight teams in the world. You might argue Appiah’s presence and Ghana’s rise are not coincidental.

Football connoisseurs in Ghana will tell you that, while the current generation of Black Stars made it to two World Cups, it was the team of Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah that was truly Ghana’s most brilliant. Problem was, internal rifts were widespread. The Pele/Yeboah fallout is infamous. The two just could not get along. The resulting fractured team spirit ultimately and sadly caused the downfall of a potentially great Ghana team.

Then Stephen Appiah came along. Unifier of the people, bringer of peace, Appiah used his diplomatic skills, charisma and immense leadership qualities to patch up, if not totally heal, internal rifts within a notoriously divided Ghana camp. The spirit Appiah created was absolutely fundamental in Ghana becoming a united front, and as captain his presence was vital in leading Ghana to their first ever World Cup in 2006.

His passion, commitment and dedication to the Black Stars shirt is also the stuff of legend. When Ghana needed their captain at the 2004 Olympics, Stephen Appiah was there, diverting his attention away from Juventus in the middle of an excellent first season in Turin.

When his world was turned cold by a serious, infected knee injury that would have ended the careers of lesser men, and his club Fenerbahce turned it’s back on him and offered no support, Appiah was there, dragging himself around the world for country, travelling to the 2008 African Cup of Nations just to help out where needed.

And, in an incident that will probably come to define Stephen Appiah in a Ghana shirt, when handed the responsibility of a decisive penalty to advance his side through to the knockout stages of World Cup 2006 in Nuremberg, the Black Stars’ number 10 was there, elevating his countrymen to new heights.

Contrastingly, there is Michael Essien. To date, Essien’s international career has, unfortunately, failed to really take off. Three times he has been injured while on international duty. Consequently Chelsea’s midfield machine has often been absent for Ghana’s milestone moments.

When Ghana played their second round World Cup match against Brazil in 2006, Essien was not there, ruled out through suspension. When a youthful Black Stars team unexpectedly advanced to the final of the 2010 African Cup of Nations, Essien was not there, injured after playing just a handful of minutes. Indeed, that same injury meant Essien was also not there for the greatest achievement in Ghana’s football history in South Africa.

And while bad luck has unquestionably played a part in Essien’s rocky relationship with country, so too have some dubious decisions. In 2006 ‘the Bison’ missed the African Cup of Nations through an injury sustained with Chelsea. Ghana suffered badly in his absence and were eliminated at the group stage. Days later, Essien played in the Premier League. People were livid. To this day, some still accuse him of faking injury in order to dodge national duty.

“I want Essien to know that we are tired of his antics. When the great Abedi Pele played for us, he was an even a better player yet Abedi never turned his back on his nation,” wrote one Ghanaian journalist regarding Essien’s recent choice. The stream of disapproving articles in the Ghanaian media since has been telling.

For football supporters in Ghana, remaining humble and mindful of your roots is valued as importantly, if not more so, than raw talent. Stephen Appiah possessed both in abundance. Thus, he has earned legendary status.

"For us Stephen Appiah has become a symbol of our football history as he proudly represented the badge,” Ghana’s FA stated in an announcement of their intention to honour Appiah’s contribution to Ghana with a testimonial later this year. “He is an example for all, for the youth and future generations. We are very proud to have had the honour of having worked with such a true leader.”  

In terms of ability Michael Essien is one of the most gifted midfielders in the world, let alone Africa. But doubts about his commitment to country, exacerbated by other off-field issues that have clouded his reputation, and now this quasi-international retirement, mean Essien is a long way from becoming a legend.

In the eyes of the Ghanaian people, rightly or wrongly, Essien may never be considered with the love, warmth and admiration of their legendary number 10. Features * News * Interviews * HomeInteract: Twitter * Facebook * Forum