OH, BOY. IT’S MICHAEL ESSIEN ALL OVER AGAIN.
As Thomas Partey struggles to stay fit for club and country, the murmurs from his home country are becoming louder and louder. There is a real danger of creating a toxic relationship between player and fans ahead of the biggest football tournament of the year.
Football fans have very short memories, and the mistakes of yesterday often get repeated, sometimes with consequences that are regretted too late.
Essien was averaging over 30 appearances per season in his first three seasons at Chelsea. Then his rubbery knees meant he managed just 25 appearances across the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, combined. The 2010-11 campaign started with him in top form again thanks to good health – or so it seemed.
In 2009, he had played a pivotal role in Ghana’s qualification to the World Cup, when the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations came around. After gingerly playing just 45 minutes in the opener against the Ivory Coast, Essien would not be able to complete training ahead of the second game after picking up a knock. Doctors soon confirmed the worst: his tournament was over.
This was the second time the player, then just 27, had been injured while on national duty. But this one would rob him of something precious – a place in Ghana’s historic 2010 World Cup campaign later that year, which his dodgy knees would not allow him to be a part of. The disappointment of that absence, coupled with (what one would imagine) was a natural desire to preserve himself, forced him to ask for time off the national team.
His obvious year-on-year knee problems should have made it easy for his countryfolk to understand his careful approach toward honouring call-ups, but no. This man, who – when fit – made it to the final shortlist of the Fifa Player of the Year, not once, but twice, was instead shunned by his own people.
Opportunist. Unpatriotic. Self-serving. Insular. That’s what he was called.
I recall wondering, as a young journalist, why the man never responded or attempted to explain the issues. Essien, media shy in the extreme, rarely granted interviews, allowing the perception that he was unpatriotic to fester. And, as the great Ghana team of that era repeatedly got close to silverware – six consecutive Afcon semis and two finals between 2008 and 2017 – but never won any, the once most expensive African player ever was always a convenient target.
One particular hurtful quote came from no less a person than a former Ghana FA chairman, Dr Nyaho-Tamakloe. Speaking to Ghana’s biggest-selling newspaper, Daily Graphic, in 2013, he said: “I see Essien’s problem as a psychological complex that makes him feel comfortable when he plays among whites, but operates with suspicion when he is among blacks, and that explains why he performs very well in Europe than in Africa, even though there were times that he had played well for the Blacks Stars, but generally he has never shown the will to die for the country.”
Doubting one’s commitment is one thing, but for a black African to project racial undertones on another is quite another. Today, the quote may seem bizarre, but here we are, getting there again.
A decade on, Ghana has managed to produce another London-based world-class midfielder. And, like they did with his Chelsea predecessor, Arsenal’s Thomas Partey is beginning to realise that pleasing his countryfolk is an extreme sport.
In four years as an Atletico Madrid player (2016-2019), Partey had just two injuries.
His transfer to Arsenal was supposed to showcase his significant talent to a bigger global audience. But injuries will not let the 29-year-old be great. To date, he’s had six injuries since 2021, missing 38 games in the process, as opposed to just seven in Spain. He has missed five times more games in London than he did in Madrid, in four years less.
AND THAT’S NOT ALL.
For his national team, Partey has played only 25 per cent of games under coach Otto Addo, who got the job in February – a total of eight matches. Injuries have ruled him out of qualifiers against Madagascar and Central African Republic as well as friendlies with Japan, Chile, Brazil and Nicaragua. Put another way, since the Black Stars qualified for Qatar, the team’s deputy captain has been absent.
Frustration among fans presently is, therefore, understandable. But what is not is the increasing characterisation of the player as a shirker and deserter.
His most recent ‘sin’ was to have pulled out of the Ghana-Brazil friendly (on September 23) during the warm-up after feeling some muscle discomfort, only to produce a 73-minute masterclass at last weekend’s North London derby in Arsenal’s 3-1 win.
How could he have recovered so quickly to play so well, fans wondered? What they forget is that he sat out the Brazil game not because he was injured, but because the medical team took precautionary measures. This is not strange; if anything, sitting out in this manner is commonplace with top-level footballers.
Fans also forget that Arsenal, who pay his wages, have probably missed his services more than the national team. Having signed a five-year deal worth £45 million with the Gunners, it should be completely unsurprising that he thinks about his daily bread, too.
An agent of one of Ghana’s current key players told SuperSport: “If I were managing Partey, I will truly have advised him to retire from international football after signing that Arsenal deal. To play for your national team is an honour, but is it worth your career or financial future when you’re done playing?”
One has to imagine that this option has occurred to the player himself, which begs the question: is Partey communicating enough or is he repeating Essien’s mistakes?
WHAT ESSIEN DID NOT DO
In hindsight, Esien’s biggest mistake was to choose silence.
This was apparent when, in a 2018 interview, Essien reflected on his relationship with the national team. Speaking to GHOne in his homeland, he said when asked about a possible return: “If I am called to the Black Stars, no! I am retired. I even retired before we went to the World Cup in Brazil but I was called to come and help. And then in Brazil, they treated me like…”
He did not finish the sentence, but was referencing the 2014 World Cup fiasco where he, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari were accused of instigating junior players to demand bonuses owed them from authorities.
What Essien did not say in that interview was that he had several chances to correct many false assumptions over the years, but had always declined. His legacy, from the Ghana national team point of view, is very chequered, despite being among the country’s most decorated players of all time.
SO, THEN, PARTEY HAS A CHOICE.
With the World Cup about 10 weeks away, and with his injury-prone nature in mind, perhaps this is the best time for the Arsenal star to begin directly speaking to expectant fans: to reassure them, to explain his fragile condition, and to put a human face to it all. Modern fans are not dumb, and they can tell when players are trying to be transparent.
And to the fans: Ghana rarely produces players of Partey’s quality who play at such big clubs. The once-great Black Stars are not what they used to be, and it is richer with him in the team – so a bit of empathy would not be out of place.
You know what they say about the goose that lays the golden eggs? You don’t kill it, you manage it.