Number 19: Michael Essien
Position: Central Midfielder
Club Team: Chelsea FC, English Premier League
American-Based Professional Athlete “Soulmate”: Tony Parker, PG, San Antonio Spurs
Murtaugh: See how easy that was? Boom, still alive. Now we question him. You know why we question him? Because I got him in the leg. I didn’t shoot him full of holes or try to jump off a building with him.
Riggs: Hey, that’s no fair. The building guy lived.
The list is finally in the TYAC staff’s top 20 players to watch at the 2010 World Cup. Exciting times around the home office, that is, if you like six foot tall fleet of foot and defensively tenacious midfielders with relentless (isn’t even the right word in this case—it’s better than relentless) work rates and a prone for the spectacular who play with ice water in their veins in the World’s largest moments.
If you don’t like that, then just wait for another post about the United States strange, Oregon Ducks inspired, Blackburn Rovers looking kits they’ve decided to take to South Africa and stop reading now. But if you like versatile box-to-box midfielders with championship pedigrees and FIFA player of the year nominations that possess physical presences so intimidating they earn nicknames like “The Bison,” well then you’ve come to the right place.
Michael Essien, the most well-respected and accomplished player on a Ghana side that playing close to home certainly is capable of a deep run this summer, is our number nineteen. Had we rated him higher, it would have been mostly beyond debate. Essien is nothing short of a superstar, a former FIFA World Player of the Year nominee in 2006 who that same season led Chelsea to an EPL Title and, as all Yanks remember, dominated the midfield in the decisive, heartbreaking fixture for the red, white and blue in 2006. Fully recovered from a string of injuries that plagued him for a year, Essien’s skill set is so complete that he is one of a handful of players in the world you can point at and say “If he is at the top of his game, he will be the difference between victory and defeat.” What’s even better is that Essien is not the sole starlet in the Black Stars midfield. Sulley Muntari of Inter Milan combines power and pace with a great offensive mind and allows Ghana to terrorize defenses on the flank. Steven Appiah, who serves as the captain, is without question the heartbeat of the team and is a tenacious defender with a great passing touch. Together, these three men are the most popular men in Ghana, at least until Joshua Clottey knocks Manny Pacquiao out in the seventh round and wins the WBO Welterweight Title March 13th. At that point—we may have a four man debate.
What makes Essien even rarer is that not being the most popular man in Ghana doesn’t bother him. He’s a superstar, to be sure, but he’s perfectly fine with playing the role of secondary starlet, and able lieutenant to Chelsea’s bigger superstars, namely Didier Drogba and English folk hero Frank Lampard. Very rarely are superstars labeled “perfect teammates”, but this is precisely the label Essien received from his former boss, Jose Mourinho. Essien is perfectly content that Lampard and Drogba get the lion’s share of the glory at Chelsea. He goes about his business (which is being a star) and occasionally provides a golazo when the moment is there for the seizing.
This satisfied and able lieutenant approach to stardom generates a rightful and rather uncanny soulmate pairing with three-time World Champion, former Finals MVP and world famous husband, San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who knows a thing or two about being not simply the most accomplished and well-respected player from his country, but about being a willing and able secondary superstar. Much like Essien, Parker is a tenacious two-way player capable of taking over a game in an instant if he’s asked too. He understands that Tim Duncan will always be the primary star in San Antonio—but I assure he’ll accept winning before he makes a scene about it. Sure—Parker is having a bit of a down year. Maybe having a stable marriage to Eva Longoria has caused a bit of complacency. Nonetheless, Parker has always made his bank in the playoffs and he’s coming off a year where he was in the MVP discussion after shooting an absurd 50 percent as a point guard and averaging 22 points and seven dimes a night. Listed behind only Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James in what the NBA defines as “clutch scoring”, Parker shares Essien’s propensity for brilliance when the lights are brightest, and you can add three points to his career scoring average of 16.7 when most normal people who have lives and names don’t rhyme with “MEIL” starting watching the NBA (the playoffs). Like Essien’s spectacular goals, Parker’s teardrops in the lane are the stuff of legend, and all the more remarkable given his size (6’2), which always makes scouts and analysts use my second-favorite basketball cliché—Parker “plays much bigger than he is.””Most of all, Parker is, according to Greg Popovich, an indispensable and perfect complement to superstar Tim Duncan, and as such he makes the other half of one of American sports most successful (if not currently the most successful) “power duos.”
As two spectacular players content to be the “other superstar,” Essien and Parker conjure up images of great duos past and present. Batman and Robin. Riggs and Murtaugh. Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Frodo and Sam. Bill and Ted. Thelma and Louise. Serena and Venus. Shaq and Kobe. Lennon and McCartney. Glavine and Maddux. Meyer and Tebow. Pippen and Jordan. Our culture is obsessed with power duos like those listed above. They are the subject of Olympic, VH1, E True Hollywood Story, MTV and ESPN Classic folklore, not to mention a favorite discussion for countless bloggers. Often times, what makes them so appealing is the debates that rage beyond the obvious question—“How do they make it possible to interact?” For some, they make it work as long as they can—see Shaq and Kobe, Thelma and Louise, Lennon and McCartney. The results are tangible and nothing short of brilliant and finally a breaking point is reached where a messy end or split is forced. Others simply move forward, even when it might be time to move on (Riggs and Murtaugh, George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell).
While all of these pairs, whether they stay together or split, are in any discussion historically tied at the hip; ever so often, we see a rare pair—a duo that stands the test of time together, both in the physical and historic sense. Outside of the two men from Liverpool, these are the most special pairs. Glavine and Maddux, Meyer and Tebow, Serena and Venus, Pippen and Jordan, Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan. These pairs weather all manner of destructive forces to make history and, in the words of the immortal Preston, manage to “be excellent to each other” in perpetuity.
There can be any number of explanations as to why those particular duos stand together beyond historic association. The answer to “Why they did it” is in fact the fun in making such a list. What’s clear is that it takes a distinct balance in personality and an ability to be a starlet who doesn’t care a great deal about being in the shadow of another starlet. That’s imperative, especially because a quick glance at the list indicates that most of the duos who survive have a clear “superstar”—a hero and a trusty sidekick, if you will. The accompanying frenzy that goes along with being a power duo is destructive when one starlet doesn’t like the “supporting” role in which he or she is cast. The best duos—well—there is something greater than the “role” they play to them—usually winning, or being the greatest rock band in the history of the world in the case of Wyld Stallyns—and as such they can accept the “baggage” of being the secondary star. No one has handled this with more grace than Scottie Pippen, Tom Glavine, or Venus Williams. Well, except possibly perfect soulmates Michael Essien and Tony Parker—who play secondary starlet roles to English hero Frank Lampard and San Antonio Spurs four-time World Champion cyber-engineered robot, Tim Duncan, respectively. As the calendar moves toward the NBA Playoffs and the World Cup, we’d do well to watch these “other superstars” closely.
Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.