Michael Essien seems to have been in the footballing consciousness for an eternity. The Ghana legend will, however, only turn 32 later this year. The concluding chapter of his glittering career will seemingly come in Italy, with Essien swapping Chelsea for AC Milan in January.
He made the move to the San Siro ahead of the FIFA World Cup™, with a view to gaining full level of fitness to take into Brazil 2014. It was not to be, though, with Essien playing just 19 minutes as he struggled to recover from injury. The tournament proved a different kind of heartbreak for 'The Bison' compared to four years ago, when he missed the entirety of Ghana's run to the South Africa 2010 quarter-finals. In South America, the Black Stars crashed out after three games, finishing bottom of an admittedly tough Group G.
Since that disappointment, James Kwesi Appiah has left his role as coach after drawing with Uganda and beating Togo in their opening qualifying matches for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Essien was not in the squad for that double-header, but has played a part in AC Milan's positive start to the Italian Serie A season. In an exclusive chat with FIFA.com, the enthusiastic midfielder discusses his international future, his hopes for the coming season and being among familiar faces in Italy.
FIFA.com: I imagine you didn't play as many minutes as you would have hoped in Brazil. How do you assess Ghana’s performance at the 2014 World Cup?
Michael Essien: You’re right. I hardly played in Brazil, which was disappointing for me personally and as a whole we didn’t do well based on our performances and experience at past World Cups. 2014 didn't live up to expectations and overall it was a poor campaign.
Ahead of the tournament, you tipped Ghana as potential semi-finalists. Why do you think they did not achieve that goal?
The semi-finals prediction was an ambitious one, but it’s always good to have high ambitions and we certainly set out to do better than 2010. Unfortunately we didn’t get anywhere near that because we didn’t win games. Apart from the Germany game, which we could have even won, the rest of the games were just not sufficient to see us advance from the group stages.
You saw the eventual winners up close when Ghana played Germany in the group phase. Did you think at that time they could go on and win the World Cup?
At the group stages it’s always difficult to tell who the eventual winner will be, so I can’t say I could see them as winners at that point. They are a very good tournament team, so I always knew they would be there or thereabouts. I am not surprised they won it though because they combined experience with youth very well, and any team that can do that always has a chance.
What does the future hold for your own international career?
At the moment, I haven’t decided what I want to do next in regards to my international career.
What are your hopes for the new Serie A campaign with AC Milan?
I am hoping to contribute to Milan’s success in any way I can and hoping we can finish in the top two or three. We have high hopes of doing well and my job like any other Milan player is to fight for the club when called upon so we can succeed as a group.
Do you think Milan could benefit from not playing in European competition this season, as Liverpool did last season in the English Premier League?
Yes, I'm sure it will help us although we still would liked to have been in Europe. We have to look ahead but we mustn't forget we need to work hard to be able to do well in Serie A. Not being in Europe doesn't automatically mean you'll do well. It means fewer games and good recovery times compared to those in Europe but we still have to work hard and take our opportunities as they come throughout the season
What is Filippo Inzaghi like as a coach?
He's a good person first and foremost and is doing a good job as a coach too. He's relatively young as a full-time Serie A coach but I have no doubt he'll do well if he carries on in this way. It’s not easy to coach and manage football clubs, let alone a great club like Milan, so I have a lot of respect for him for taking up the challenge and he is giving it everything he has.
Fernando Torres has recently signed on loan for Milan. How do you think he will do at the club?
I really hope he does well for Milan and for himself because he's a top striker and we'll benefit from his goals. He's a hard worker both in games and in training and that can also serve him well at Milan. One thing Milan can expect to see is 100 per cent all the time from him. I am convinced we'll see lots of goals from Fernando.
You, Torres and Alex are reunited at the club after playing together at Chelsea. Does it feel good to be among familiar faces?
Of course it’s nice to have them all here, and also [Marco] Van Ginkel, who joined on the last day of the transfer window. They are some of the nicest people you will meet in football and we always talk about our days at Chelsea. Hopefully we can bring some of the Chelsea glory days to Milan.
You obviously have a special relationship with Chelsea as a club and Jose Mourinho as a coach. How do you think they will get on this season in the Premier League?
I think they'll do well as always. Jose has rebuilt the team in his own image now and they'll fight for everything this season. They have to ability to win things and that’s what they'll be doing. Chelsea have become a football force in Europe in the last ten years and I can see that carrying on for the next ten years or more.
Another familiar face from your time at Chelsea is Claude Makelele, who is now manager at Bastia. After your own time in France, do you still keep up with the action in Ligue 1?
Yes I look out for the results of all the clubs I played for in France. Incidentally, Bastia was my first club in Europe so I have a double incentive now to check out their results both for the club and for my good friend Claude. He was a top player and I’m sure he will be a top coach as well. He has the experience, having been Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant at Paris Saint-Germain for a few years.
Obviously you are quite a way from hanging up your boots yet, but would you think about following Makelele into coaching one day?
I have always said no to coaching as I don’t think it’s for me. Coaching is a whole new ball game and not for the faint-hearted, which rules me out! But you never know and stranger things have happened in football.
You are the founder of the Michael Essien Foundation, can you tell us a little bit about that?
The foundation was set up to help the people in my village in Ghana with basic amenities like water, toilets, books and anything that will help them. We also try to place kids in vocations so they can learn a trade. We've recently moved it on to the wider Ghanaian community by trying to raise funds for charities that deserve it. So for instance, the last Game of Hope in Ghana raised funds for four charities. We're here to help where we can and it’s my way of giving back to the community and people who helped me achieve my aims. We're planning another game of Hope in London in 2015 and planning is in its infancy but we'll see if we can pull it off.