Ghanaians were shattered to learn that their national team’s captain, and arguably its most influential player at the time, Stephen Appiah, wasn’t going to feature at the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) that the country was set to host.
Appiah would be with the squad alright – for morale, mostly – just not with a chance of appearing on the field for Claude Le Roy’s Black Stars. There was no shortage of prospective takers for his place in midfield, as well as the No.10 shirt that Appiah had donned with great distinction and adorned with such valour over the years.
The latter, eventually, was assigned to Kwadwo Asamoah – a young midfielder who had just said goodbye not only to his teens, but also to the Ghana Premier League, where he cut his teeth with elite talent hub Liberty Professionals and caught the eye.
Despite the great promise he held and the magnitude of expectation his new number brought, Asamoah didn’t feature until the final minutes of Ghana’s third-place match-up with neighbours Ivory Coast, with a rousing 4-2 comeback victory and bronze already secured.
In the years that followed, Ghanaians would see a lot more of Asamoah, as he took his place as one of his country’s greatest-ever footballing exports. Swiss club AC Bellinzona was Asamoah’s first destination after leaving his homeland, but a move across the border with Italy followed almost immediately, eventually landing him a transfer to Udinese.
The Stadio Friuli was accustomed to nurturing Ghanaian stars-in-the-making, including Appiah (mentioned earlier), and Asamoah was only the latest in that line. Like those compatriots who had come before him, Asamoah impressed and thrived in that environment, culminating in a 2012 departure to another Italian top-flight side that traditionally plays in black-and-white stripes, Juventus.
Here, too, Asamoah walked the path of Appiah, a former bianconero.
Could the younger man really meet the Old Lady’s lofty demands, though?
About that, Appiah had no doubts.
“I think that Kwadwo Asamoah has proved that he is one of the best midfielders in Italy,” the ex-Ghana skipper told Goal.com at the time.
“I believe he is going to do well there.”
Asamoah, it turned out, delivered just fine.
Settling wasn’t the hardest thing, as he wasn’t exactly new to life in Turin. Asamoah had made a brief stop in the city, on the books of Torino, Juventus’ local rivals, en route to Udine. He returned a more mature, more rounded player, and at a time Juventus were seeking to build on a first Scudetto in nine years.
They’d win the next eight, six of which had Asamoah’s hands on the trophy.
But while all that silverware undoubtedly lit up his résumé, the cost would be paid by Asamoah for the rest of his career. And it’s tough to argue that the glitter of laurels was worth losing the sheen that first earned him national – then global – renown.
Asamoah, up until that point, was reputed mainly for his ability on the offence. A lock-picking expert, Asamoah had always had an eye for the pass — and for the odd goal — as was abundantly evident throughout his days at Udinese. He also had stamina and strength and speed in spades, yes, but it was his skill on the ball which stood out as Asamoah’s strong suit.
Juventus, though, didn’t have room in the middle of the park for the new boy to make a display of that mastery – not with the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio in there, with Paul Pogba still to come. So obvious was Asamoah’s quality, though, that Antonio Conte, the manager, was still keen to have him on the pitch in some role.
And so he handed Asamoah one of those wing-back slots that are so essential in the 3-5-2 system that the Italian tactician holds so dear. Versatile and diligent as he was, Asamoah reached deep into his locker to find the tools required to meet the new challenge.
Juventus’ new left wing-back – or left midfielder, if you’d rather have it that way – excelled, and, by the end of his first season at the Juventus Stadium, found himself rated by Bloomberg as the 27th-best footballer in the world; that recognition came in 2013, when Asamoah was also named Ghana’s Player of the Year a second time (in a row).
Asamoah was flying high, but he soon came crashing. November 2014 brought his career’s first major injury, damage to a knee from which Asamoah would never fully recover. It wasn’t, in fact, until May 2016 that he was fit enough to start two consecutive Serie A games.
By the time Asamoah put it all behind him – or so we thought, at the time – Juventus had moved on. The setup and structure under Massimiliano Allegri, Conte’s successor, had been altered to one that didn’t always accommodate a wing-back.
That meant Asamoah – now not a guaranteed starter – got deployed every now and then in central midfield, but, eventually, he would be dropped deeper into the left-back berth, to be contested with Brazil’s Alex Sandro and accomplished Frenchman Patrice Evra.
The intense competition dictated that Asamoah played rather infrequently, but even when he got the nod, he only seemed a tamed, pale version of his former self. The splash of creativity that used to colour his game so brightly had faded, dimmed by defensive demands.
In the end, only a faint trace of it remained. Asamoah, in his final Serie A appearance for Juventus, a 3-1 home victory over Bologna, was pressed into service as a centre-back – a frustrating, if fitting, finale to his ‘backward’ evolution at a club where he was supposed to explode.
Any hopes of a renaissance at his next station, Inter Milan, Juventus’ great foes, didn’t see the light of day. Asamoah’s travails at left-back continued, albeit across a more regular run of games, under head coach Luciano Spalletti.
The start of the following campaign, 2019/20, saw Conte, his old boss, take charge of the Nerazzurri, and Asamoah was immediately moved upfield, reinstated in that wing-back role to which he’d grown so accustomed at Juventus; the struggle for fitness was soon back, though, and that second wind quickly dissipated.
A move to Sardinia in February 2021 – months after saying his goodbyes in Lombardy – would prove short-lived and forgettable, but for the fact that it was there, on the books of Cagliari, that Asamoah – already the most decorated African to have ever played in Italy, with 13 domestic trophies and three [runner-up] medals in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League – claimed the record for the most league appearances of any African on the peninsula, increasing his tally to 279 (250 of which he started).
Across all club competitions, Asamoah, who announced his retirement in early October, was involved in a remarkable 352 matches, yet only a small fraction of that – mainly at Udinese – came in central midfield.
A breakdown of his 71 international caps would reflect a similar pattern, with then-Ghana head coach Kwasi Appiah taking a cue from Conte to stick Asamoah on the left flank. The net effect was the same as was seen of Asamoah at club level – a lot of industry, yes, but very little of the attacking input that should have defined the footballer he’d be remembered as.
For a player of such prowess, a return of 17 goals and 43 assists in that many appearances for clubs and country could well be described as paltry. Asamoah was capable of so much more, but circumstances – well beyond his control, of course – conspired to limit him and blunt his edge.
The tributes from his former teammates – such as Appiah who, like Asamoah, was severely hampered by a long-running battle with injury he never really won – have been glowing, and rightly so, but it’s hard not to take a somewhat dimmer view of the career the 33-year-old has just brought to an end.
Like John Mikel Obi, the other great African midfielder who hang his boots in the last couple of weeks, it was his conversion into something he never was that – more than the recurring injuries, or even his unassuming, spotlight-repellent self – ultimately obstructed Asamoah’s quest to reach the fullness of his potential.
For all the rewards and records, Asamoah would have much to rue – and nobody would have justifiable cause to blame him if this generational talent feels any regret, even if just a tinge of it, about not having the sort of flourish his career deserved.
Enn Y. Frimpong – Ink & Kicks