ON THE DIRT PITCHES OF ACCRA, WHERE MICHAEL ESSIEN SPENT PART OF HIS CHILDHOOD, PASSERSBY WOULD STOP TO WATCH HIM PLAY SOCCER, OFTEN BAREFOOT. IT'S A TRADITION IN AFRICA TO TIP A YOUNG PLAYER WHO IMPRESSES you, and some spectators would throw loose change at Essien's feet. It would be easy to say that the foundation for his success as one of the world's best midfielders was laid on the dusty fields of Ghana's capital, but Essien cites a different starting point: the kitchen of his mother, Aba. Essien's father left home when Michael was young, and the boy was raised by Aba and his four older sisters. They baked and sold bread to make ends meet, and their labors freed Michael to chase a ball around the dirt. "They did all the stuff for me," Essien told The Guardian of London. "All I had to do was go out and play my football."
He did that very well, and in 2000, at the age of 17, he signed with an agent who had ties to the French club Bastia. He played there for three seasons before moving to Lyon, where his reputation as an imposing defensive midfielder with the skill to go forward was formed. He helped Lyon to consecutive league championships and twice to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. That caught the attention of bigger clubs, including English giant Chelsea, which paid a $44 million transfer fee in 2005 to secure Essien's services.
Chelsea fans quickly settled on a nickname for their new star: the Bison. It fit, as Essien is a quiet person but a fierce competitor who isn't afraid to use his stocky 5' 10" frame to knock opponents off the ball. In his first season in England he was banned for two games by UEFA after a fierce tackle on Liverpool midfielder Dietmar Hamann, and because of an accumulation of yellow cards he missed Ghana's second-round game against Brazil at the 2006 World Cup, which the Black Stars lost 3-0. "I think I have a mean streak. On the pitch sometimes I go crazy," Essien told The Guardian. "I don't talk much, but on the pitch I am a very different person. I forget about my shyness, everything, and just do my job."
Essien's bite is just one aspect of his versatile game. At Chelsea he has been used all over the midfield. He filled in at right back for a stretch when the team was shorthanded, and he even played some center back. As a result, in 2008 the Blues signed him to a new contract that will keep him at Stamford Bridge until 2013. Chelsea's manager at that time, Luiz Felipe Scolari, said, "It is clear to me that Michael Essien is one of the best midfield players in the world."
Despite praise like that, Essien, now 27, is probably not given enough credit for his inventiveness and goal scoring. In the 2009 Champions League semifinals against Barcelona, he hit one of the best goals of the year, a left-footed volley from outside the box to temporarily give the Blues the lead.
Ghana's rise in soccer stature has paralleled Essien's own. He made his debut for the Black Stars on their U-17 team, which he helped win the bronze medal at the 1999 FIFA U-17 championship, in New Zealand. Then, at the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship, he led his country to a second-place finish behind host Argentina. Finally he ushered Ghana into the knockout rounds of the 2006 World Cup despite being placed in a tough group along with Italy, the Czech Republic and the U.S.
After the Black Stars' second-round exit in '06, Essien said they could go even further in the 2010 Cup. He speaks often of his hopes for the national team and the next generation of kids playing for pocket change on Ghana's patches of dirt. "It is still special for us professionals," he said, "to return home and bring joy to the people of Ghana."