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Sports Features of Saturday, 27 May 2006

Source: Malcolm Folley for jesternix.net

The Tragic Secret that drives Chelsea's ?25m star on to glory

Michael Essien reveals how he has taken inspiration from the death of the brother he never knew

When Michael Essien launches Ghana's World Cup campaign in Hanover in three weeks time he knows that, back home in Accra, four generations of the family he left behind as he sought his footballing fame and fortune will be following his progress.

His mother, Aba, will settle down in the comfortable home Essien bought for her and his grandmother in a suburb of the capital and watch Ghana's match with Italy on the satellite TV the ?25m Chelsea midfielder has had installed there.

Essien's sisters - Alice, Gladys, Joyce and Diana - will, in all likelihood, join their mother, along with any number of their own eight children, many of them wearing the Chelsea kit Essien has dutifully dispatched to his nephews and nieces.

The atmosphere will be lively and colourful, an appropriate celebration of both Ghana's and Essien's debut on the world stage of football's greatest competition. Only a photograph of a smiling boy on display alongside other family pictures at Aba's home will tell a sadder story. For Paaquiche, the boy in the photograph, is the tragic brother Michael Essien never knew.

According to those who saw him, Paaquiche had the same shining ability with a football as Michael has displayed in helping Chelsea to their second Premiership title in a row. Samuel Kwaitoo, a Ghanaian journalist, recalls:

"Michael's lost brother was a bundle of talent, just like him. He died in a mysterious manner just three days after he was carried shoulder-high by his team-mates after leading his school to win an inter-school competition".

Essien has never spoken of his brother and, even now, he has to be coaxed into talking of the tragedy that robbed his mother of her first son. "I didn't know Paaquiche as I am the baby of the family," says the 23 year old Essien. "My sister Diana, who is the next youngest, is five years older than me and the others are all much older still. But my mum has told me all about him and I've seen the pictures she has of him. He was captain of the school football team and my mum was very saddened by his death..."

Essien's voice trails off as he talks of his mother's loss. He is devoted to her, telephoning every day since he joined Chelsea nine months ago. Aba, in turn, has seen every game her son has played, courtesy of her satellite dish.

"She doesn't really know about football but she never fails to have an opinion on the way I have played," says Essien, smiling. "We are very close. I love my mother more than anything." Chelsea's enforcer is a man of contrasts. Robust and confident on the pitch - ask Liverpool's Dietmar Hamann, the victim of the crunching challenge that earned the Ghanaian a two-match Champions League ban, if you doubt that - Essien is painfully shy away from it.

His footballing prowess can be traced to his father, James, who played as a modestly rewarded professional in and around Accra. But Essien's parents separated when he was young and his mother became the dominant influence in his life. It is a relationship forged by the tragedy of his brother's death.

In Michael, Aba has been granted the chance to see a son rise from a poor but loving childhood to attain a place on the world stage. Her wish to hear from him daily is the understandable response to what she has had to endure. "My dad left not long after I was born," says Essien. "I grew up with my mum and four sisters."

His instincts for the game surfaced as a small boy, playing bare-footed on the dirt pitch in the village of Awutu Breku, where his mother had moved her family from to take a job in a bakery.

Essien attended the local Roman Catholic school until he was awarded a scholarship, because of his footballing talent, to St Augustine's Senior Secondary School in Cape Coast, the country's ancient capital.

"I played in bare feet for a long time, almost three years," recalls Essien. "I wanted to be a footballer from as long as I can remember."

His father lived only 15 minutes away and Essien continued to see him. "I still speak with my dad," he says. But it is to his mother that Essien has always turned for guidance. N part, she is the reason Essien is not a Manchester United player today.

After he had impressed in the U-17 world championships, where Ghana took the bronze medal, Essien and another teenager, Abraham Atiku, were invited to trials with United. Essien was asked back but his chances of gaining a contract were beset by work permit problems.

United's management proposed a compromise: as an interim arrangement Essien could play his football in Antwerp, a club with an affiliation to Old Trafford. But Aba disapproved. "My mother much preferred that I went to play in France," says Essien.

Frenchman Fabien Piveteau, a fledgling football agent who had been a goalkeeper at Monaco under Ars?ne Wenger, signed a deal with Essien and, with his mother's approval, the teenager went to stay with Piveteau in Monte Carlo. Piveteau, who had also played for Bastia in the French First Division, eventually opened the door to the Corsican club for Essien.

"I didn't speak a single word of French when I arrived." he says. "At first, I was desperately homesick. It was tough."

But fortune smiled on Essien as the club's academy housed another Ghanaian boy called Prempeh. "We shared a room and that helped me to settle." So did private French lessons; within six months he could comprehend the language, within a year he was near-fluent. From Bastia, Essien moved to Lyon in the summer of 2003, winning the French championship in successive seasons and reaching the Champions League quarter-finals twice. Club captain Claudio Cacapa remembers him as a naturally combative player, even in training. "It's impossible to beat Michael, you can't get passed him," he recalls. "He frightens everybody."

Last summer, Essien made it plain to Lyon that he had set his mind on a transfer to Chelsea. His position was non-negotiable.

Ironically, his prospects of commanding a permanent place in Chelsea's midfield next season can no longer be assumed as a foregone conclusion after German captain Michael Ballack was signed by Jose Mourinho last week. Even so, Essien says defiantly: "I came to Chelsea to win trophies."

For now, his focus is on the World Cup as Ghana travel to Germany in company with fellow African nations Ivory Coast, Togo, Angola and Tunisia. "It was my dream to be a footballer," he says. "Now it is more than a dream to be going with my country to our first World Cup. We are in a tough group with Italy, the United States and the Czech Republic, but if we work hard, why can't we pull off a surprise?"

While Essien accepts that surviving beyond the Group stage will be a triumph for Ghana, he appreciates that the ambition of Chelsea colleagues John Terry, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole is on another plane.

"These are very important players to England," says Essien. "JT is a rock. I've never seen a defender like him. He's a tough guy, scared of no-one. For me, Frank is like a half-striker with all his goals. Joe can win a game on his own with a little piece of magic. No-one can quite tell what life for England will be like without Wayne Rooney because he is such an exceptional player. When he was injured playing against us at Stamford Bridge, it was not only JT, Frank and Joe who were upset. I saw the pain in his face and I had to feel sad for him, too. But we know football can leave you up one minute and down the next. Who knows? He might still make it to play in the World Cup."

Before he left to join Ghana's squad at their training camp in Austria - ahead of warm-up matches with Turkey (in Germany on May 26), Jamaica (at Leicester on May 29) and South Korea (Edinburgh on June 4) - Essien was granted four days' unexpected leave. Where did he go? Home to visit his mother.

The next time she sees him, Essien's World Cup will have started in earnest.

regards Harry