JOHANNESBURG, May 25 (Reuters) - Michael Essien earned instant international fame as Africa's most expensive footballer when he moved to Chelsea in August but it was just two months earlier that he engineered his side's passage to the World Cup finals.
Essien's trademark prowling of the midfield, long-range passing and timing of his late incursions into the penalty area galvanised Ghana to a surprise 2-0 away win over group leaders South Africa in Johannesburg.
The win in June last year launched a come-from-behind bid by the Black Stars that culminated in a first World Cup appearance. Essien, 23, played a stoic role for his country in the World Cup qualifiers, a vital ingredient in an all-powerful midfield whose responsibilities also extended to goal scoring.
Essien is something of a reluctant hero, catapulted into the world spotlight after Chelsea badgered Olympique Lyon for his transfer at the start of the season, eventually paying 24.5 million pounds (38 million euros) for him at the end of a lengthy stand-off.
As a youngster, his mother had to persuade him to leave home to train with the Ghana under-17 side at the world championships in New Zealand in 1999.
That led to a trial at Manchester United but Essien was not quite ready for such a big move.
After idling for several months in his agent's apartment in Monaco, Essien signed for Bastia in France and three seasons later moved to Lyon, where he won successive Ligue 1 titles in 2004 and 2005.
His national career started in at the deep end at the 2002 African Nations Cup finals in Mali but after an anonymous start he proved the bedrock for a first World Cup qualification.
Since moving to England he has been part of Chelsea's second successive Championship winning side and shown himself capable of handling the physicality and pace of the English game. That should come in handy at the World Cup too.
His father, James Essien, also played for Ghana's national side .