We’re less than two weeks away from the World Cup, and football fans — Ghanaians in particular (sorry, Mo) — are cringing from the news that Michael Essien won’t recover from a January knee injury in time to participate in the first Cup to take place in Africa. I’ll assume that this blog is read by folks (both of you) who don’t know much about world football, and will warn you now that I’m going to use this space to document my thoughts on the tournament as the anticipation builds and the drama unfolds.
Over the past five years, Ghana’s Essien has become one of my favorite players, despite playing for a club team — Chelsea — who I don’t particularly care for. Nicknamed “The Bison” for his exceptional speed and strength, he’s the prototypical defensive midfielder (or “holding midfielder”). Essien is beautiful to watch because he’s always involved in the action, and glides across the field from goal box to goal box, exploding towards the ball when it’s available. The defensive midfielder is tasked with breaking up the other team’s attack and linking the ball between the defense and the offense. This player must be tough, possess great stamina, and be able to anticipate and take the right angle on the ball. Since the defensive midfielder plays just behind the attack, he/she should be able to shoot the ball on goal with power from range, and should also be able to win balls at every level of the field. In short, the defensive midfielder has to do everything that’s required of a soccer player, and do it well. Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark share that position for the United States, and they’re both solid and sometimes better than that. Bradley is a great tackler and able distributor, and Clark is a fantastic athlete who covers a lot of ground.
Without Essien, Ghana is going to have a tough time advancing from a difficult group that includes Germany, Australia, and Serbia, but I still think and hope they will (they have another fantastic player in Stephen Appia). Going in, I thought that Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire were the two African sides with the best chances to advance deep into the tournament. But Didier Drogba’s Les Elephants have the toughest draw of all, facing Portugal and Brazil in the opening round (and North Korea, which should be interesting).
Here’s a video of Essien’s brilliance, which I’ll be sad not to see in South Africa. Warning: the soundtrack is hideous, so turn it off and put on some Nas or Bach or Tribe Called Quest (“Brother brother brother, Essien you’re like no other.”)