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Friday, July 19, 2024

Mohammed Kudus: AFCON’s biggest box office star after Mo Salah and Victor Osimhen

“Mohammed Kudus is the star of African football. Ghana hasn’t had a special talent like him since Michael Essien. He is an entertainer like Jay-Jay Okocha. Without a shadow of a doubt, he will be considered the best African footballer in the world.”

Jeremy Seethal is talking about the player he coached as a youngster at the Right to Dream academy in Ghana. The coach-turned-scout has seen Kudus transition from a raw, young, street footballer into one of the hottest attacking midfielders in the game. Kudus has thrived in the Premier League at West Ham United and is hoping to stamp his quality all over the Africa Cup of Nations, now that he is fit.

It is no surprise Seethal believes Kudus has a high ceiling.

“You have Mohamed Salah who is coming to the end of his journey in terms of playing at the highest level,” says Seethal. “Then you have Victor Osimhen who is an incredible forward, but Kudus is a box office talent. You pay money to see a talent like Kudus play. Look at Kudus’ impact for West Ham. He’s already established himself as one of their best players.

“If Ghana were on the same level in world football as France, Kudus would get the same level of attention as Paul Pogba. Perhaps even more given how talented he is. Ghana finally has a player that shows why we get excited over African players.

“He will be the big hope for Ghana at the Africa Cup of Nations.”

Kudus evades Portugal’s Neves Ruben during the World Cup in November 2022 (Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

Kudus is from Nima, Accra, and he has taken an unconventional route to the top of European football.

He started his ascent with the local club, Strong Tower, then joined the Right to Dream academy before heading overseas to join Danish side Nordsjaelland, for whom Seethal has scouted for since 2015. “The Strong Tower was the pride of my town,” said Kudus. “It still holds a special place in my heart. I was just 10 at the time, but that’s when my football journey took a serious turn.”

Kudus’ game progressed in Denmark before he joined Ajax in 2020, spending three years at the Dutch club. He signed for West Ham in August for £38.2million ($48m) on a five-year deal — with the option of a further season. Kudus has settled in smoothly and made an immediate impact, departing for the tournament in the Ivory Coast having scored 10 goals across 23 appearances.

Kudus missed Ghana’s AFCON opener against Cape Verde with a hamstring injury with his absence keenly felt as Chris Hughton’s side suffered a shock 2-1 loss. The 23-year-old has trained with his national teammates this week and will be assessed by medical staff before Thursday’s game against Egypt.

Ghana will be desperate for him to be fit — he is the man who can rescue their campaign. 

His country have not won the tournament since 1982. Kudus, who has scored nine goals in 30 caps, made his debut for the national team in 2019 under James Kwesi Appiah. But there was initial reluctance to bed in emerging prospects like Kudus.

“Not only Kudus, but some other young players — some people felt the young players didn’t deserve the Black Stars call up,” Appiah said in an interview with Dan Kwaku Yeboah TV. “But for me, I had watched them and I believed them.

“I always told my players: ‘Don’t prove it to me, prove it to Ghanaians. If you do well, that’s for your own good’. My job was on the line because I was warned that if I lost the match (against South Africa in November 2019) I would be sacked. I didn’t mind because I knew I was doing what was good for the country.”

Now Ghana have the best attacking prospect the country has produced in over a generation.

Kudus on the run against Mexico in Charlotte, North Carolina (Jared C Tilton/Getty Images)

There are many factors in how Kudus developed into Ghana’s most important player, but the main foundations were laid in Nima.

Mohammed Awudu, a painter, is from the area and is well placed to talk about Kudus’ journey. In November 2022, Kudus scored twice against South Korea at the World Cup, becoming the first Ghanaian to score twice in a fixture at the tournament. Awudu painted a mural of Kudus in his hometown to honour his achievement and inspire youngsters.

“Nima is a difficult area to live in,” says Awudu. “You can have as many as 50 people living in one house.

“The thing about Kudus is he was so disciplined and knew he had to get out of his comfort zone. That’s the game changer. That’s what enabled him to fulfil his dream. Most kids here don’t want to take a risk and leave, but Kudus had no problem doing it. He knew it was for the best.

“Kudus is like an ambassador for the youngsters. Parents will tell their kids to go to school, be good, ‘be serious about your life’, and they will use him as an example. That was the reason I did the painting. I wanted to celebrate Kudus to show the young kids what is possible when you are disciplined. He messaged me on Instagram thanking me and he came to the launch.

“Give it two years, Kudus will be the best African player. I’m confident one day he will win the Ballon d’Or. Everyone has seen his growth. Now he’s shining at the highest level. He’s a superstar.

“A lot of Ghanaians support West Ham because of Kudus. It was similar to when Essien played for Chelsea.”

Essien excelled at Chelsea (Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

When Kudus arrived for the unveiling of his mural in Nima, he was embraced by the locals. Family were also present and Hajia Khadija, his grandmother, was overwhelmed with joy.

“We used to punish him for leaving school to pursue his dreams of playing football,” she said. “But now we are elated that God has made his dreams come true.”

After joining West Ham, Kudus returned to Nima and made donations of food, water and other supplies to residents. Despite his achievements, he has not forgotten his roots or those who helped him as an adolescent.

“You’re often left to your own devices in that area,” says Seethal. “There are kids there who are talented at football but it’s easy to go down the wrong path. Nima can make or break a young person. Kudus knew he was talented at football and he had the opportunity to better his life. So many players his age go off the rails.

“It’s a rough area and it’s easy to think short-term and prioritise other things.”

Joshua ‘Ayoba’ Awuah first spotted Kudus playing on the streets in Nima before inviting him to play for Strong Tower. But it was at the Right to Dream academy where Kudus’ talent was honed. He joined the academy as a youngster and is now their most celebrated old boy.

Seethal remembers his initial interaction with Kudus.

“I had just arrived at the academy from South Africa, it was 2012 and my first day on the job,” he says. “His team Strong Tower played against our team and Kudus was above the level of our group. He was roughly 11 or 12 and did unconventional stuff that no one else could do. Straight away you’re like, ‘This kid is special’. All the coaches referred to him as a street footballer with unbelievable creativity.

“What you’re seeing now is what he was like as a youngster.

“After that performance, we started to get the ball rolling on him joining our academy. My boss (Joe Mulberry) was in Accra at the time and I didn’t want to bother him about Kudus. But he guided me through the process of what to do, along with another coach in our system, Umar Abdul Rabi. In the end, we got it done and it was a good feeling.”

Coaches were aware Kudus idolised Thiago, the Liverpool midfielder formerly of Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Kudus posted a picture of Thiago’s shirt on his Instagram page after playing against him for Ajax in November 2018.

Seethal and others were so determined to help Kudus fulfil his potential that they had a special nickname for him.

“I remember sitting on the sidelines and seeing Kudus scooping the ball over a player called Bassett, who was the best player in the academy,” Seethal says. “Bassett couldn’t get in the game because Kudus was just dominating. It was 8am, I was still new to Ghana and it was like seeing a Springbok in action.

“We started calling Kudus ‘Thiago’ because he was a big fan of Thiago. Then we started calling him ‘Thiago Alcantara’ in full. That drove Kudus even more and he’s always had that inner drive about him. He was an unassuming quiet kid who was extremely dedicated to his craft.

“Even then he had confidence that he could be the best player on his day.”

Kudus playing for Nordsjaelland in April 2019 (Lars Ronbog / FrontZoneSport via Getty Images)

Kudus’ team-mates at West Ham keep a close eye on his performances for Ghana. Joseph Anang, in particular, will be charting his progress. The 23-year-old goalkeeper, also from Accra, often drives Kudus to training sessions in a Volkswagen Polo and has helped the attacker settle in London.

“’Starboy’ is my guy and as soon as I knew Mo was being signed, we found an instant connection,” said Anang. “We come from similar backgrounds — he gets me and I get him. We watch games together and have lots of conversations about our journeys. Him coming here and seeing him smashing the Premier League has been my highlight this season.”

Kudus enjoyed three productive years at Ajax (Maurice van Steen/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

Seethal believes Kudus’ performances for club and country will help shift the narrative over African footballers.

“Thanks to Kudus, the perception of African footballers is slowly changing,” he says. “The big clubs in Europe are taking them more seriously but there is still a long way to go. For example, if Antony (of Manchester United) cost £90million ($115m), how much does Kudus cost? Why wasn’t he trusted to do the same job as Antony?

“Clubs will be thinking, ‘Why didn’t we sign this guy?’.

“Kudus is a £100million player now. He’s the entertainer who can score goals, but I’m just happy he’s changed his life. I’ll never forget that 11-year-old boy impressing me on my first day on the job. I’m so proud of him.

“I get goosebumps thinking about what he will achieve in the future.”

(Top photo: Rob Newell – CameraSport via Getty Images)

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