African icons Didier Zokora and Michael Essien face off in Indonesia
They have met in Wembley cup finals, the Premier League and the African Cup of Nations. But on Saturday night, two legends of the African game, Didier Zokora, of Ivory Coast, and Michael Essien, of Ghana, will renew an old rivalry in Indonesia.
Essien and his unbeaten Persib Bandung team travel from their base in Java to Semen Padang in Sumatra for a clash that will feature two of the biggest stars -- both recently arrived -- of Southeast Asian football.
Former Chelsea favourite Essien has tended to play for more successful teams than ex-Tottenham midfielder Zokora, winning league titles in England and France and getting to continental finals. But past meetings between the two, whether for club or country, have been fairly even.
"For me, Essien is a great player who is still an idol, I've met him at Real Madrid and playing with him is an honour," Zokora said this week. "I will give the best for the team, and we are optimistic of taking the three points."
Zokora spent three seasons in North London, joining Spurs in the summer of 2006 after he had impressed for his country at the World Cup in Germany. That was a year after Essien signed on at Stamford Bridge where he helped Chelsea to the Premier League title, a feat repeated in 2010.
In their first campaign together in England -- although Essien had won the 2004-05 French title with Lyon when Zokora's Saint-Etienne were seventh -- Chelsea took second, finishing three spots above Tottenham.
Despite that, Zokora's first London clash with Essien was a happy one. In November 2006, Spurs came back from a goal down to defeat Chelsea 2-1, a first victory over their rivals since 1990. When Chelsea won 1-0 in April, Essien was injured and Zokora came on as a late sub.
The following season, both players were on African Nations Cup duty in January 2008 when Chelsea won 2-0. They played the full 90 in the return match, a thrilling 4-4 draw at White Hart Lane in which Essien got on the scoresheet.
In between those two meetings, the Africans took the Wembley stage as Spurs lifted the League Cup with a 2-1 win. It was Zokora's only trophy in England and helped compensate for a lowly 11th-placed finish.
In Zokora's final campaign in North London, he and Essien were involved in a 1-1 draw in August. And the Ivorian came on as a late sub at the Lane later in the season as Spurs won 1-0. However, in the end, once again Essien would look down on his African rival, finishing five spots higher in third.
In the summer of 2009, Zokora departed for Spain, but there have been subsequent on-pitch encounters. The last competitive one came at the group stage of the 2010 African Nations Cup. Then, Essien was struggling for fitness and came off the bench at half-time, as he has sometimes done for Persib this season, as he adjusts to life and football in the country.
Zokora, who earned 123 international caps, was lively as the Elephants ran out 3-1 winners. Ghana had the last laugh, going all the way to the final where they lost to Egypt, while Ivory Coast exited at the last eight.
Yet that Ivorian victory was sweet revenge for their 4-2 loss two years earlier at the same tournament. That gave the Black Stars a third-placed finish, with Essien having a fine game for the team who many had tipped for the title, especially as Ghana were hosts.
Seman Padang are hosts on Saturday. Zokora has played two games so far, and has cut a solid and composed presence in the middle. While the headlines are about these two stars, the game sees the mid-table hosts looking to move into the top six, and the undefeated visitors seeking a return to top spot, above PSM Makassar.
For Zokora, it is a familiar position of Essien playing for a team higher in the standings. But the 36-year-old has plenty of experience of beating his rival. Essien may win the wars, but Zokora has prevailed in plenty of battles.
Essien is settling after a mixed start at Persib. "He is combining well with the other players in the team," coach Djadjang Nurdjaman said.
Zokora has seemed to have had no problem in adapting to life on the pitch in Indonesia with Semen Padang.
"Zokora is a good player," said coach Nil Maizar. "It did not take him long to become part of the team. He is a very professional player, and he plays the best he can in every game.
"All the players are already very familiar with Zokora because he really enjoys playing at his new club."
If the Ivorian icon wants to finish above the Ghanaian in the league for the first time in his career, three points on Saturday will be vital.
For fans, however, the clash is not only important in terms of points and title challenges, it will also bring a taste of Africa and London to West Sumatra.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.