About this there are no doubts at all: Mohammed Kudus is in ‘the zone’ now.
After a difficult first two seasons at Ajax Amsterdam, during which he suffered a terrible long-term injury before being shunted to the periphery of the team following his return to fitness — nearly culminating in a frustration-inspired summer move to Everton last year — Kudus has finally found his groove.
He has thrived, interestingly, despite being deployed this season in offensive positions under a succession of managers (Alfred Schreuder, first, and now John Heitinga): 16 of his 38 appearances have seen him utilised as a centre-forward, with another 13 coming as a right-winger.
Though Kudus had prior experience of featuring in such advanced roles — with Nordsjaelland, his former club, in Denmark — this, in the context of his three-season-long Ajax career, represented quite a shift, given he had rarely strayed outside midfield under previous boss Erik ten Hag.
The returns, a glance at the numbers reveals, more than justify all the adjustment required of Kudus over the past eight months or so.
Ajax may not be having the best of seasons — out of all cup competitions and having to watch rivals Feyenoord run away with the league title that the Godenzonen had hopes of housing for a third season running, with the not-so-exciting prospect of Uefa Europa League football looming — but Kudus is having himself quite a campaign, certainly the most productive yet of his career.
His 18 goals make Kudus Ajax’s unlikely overall topscorer, and the tally of five assists is also the most he has managed in a single season at Ajax. It’s the sort of form that the clubs with the deepest pockets in Europe, those that regularly visit the Ajax talent farm to pluck the next big thing, find irresistible.
Suitors are circling — especially England’s notorious spendthrifts, reportedly — and there is a growing, if grudging, acceptance at the Johan Cruijff ArenA that Kudus won’t be around next season. Should that prove the case, Kudus would be firmly on his way to achieving a personal objective, and, in doing so, live a dream that his countrymen have long looked forward to seeing fulfilled.
“I believe everything is possible in this world so, definitely, yeah I will be chosen one day [as African Footballer of the Year],” the 22-year-old, speaking to Ajax TV last month, confidently expressed.
Not since Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew completed his hat-trick of African Footballer of the Year award wins in the early nineties has a Ghanaian been honoured by the Confederation of African Football (Caf) as the best among his continental peers. A handful, like Samuel Osei Kufuor, Michael Essien and Asamoah Gyan, have come very close to breaking that jinx — but it just hasn’t happened.
Kufuor and Essien spent their best years playing for some of Europe’s biggest clubs — Bayern Munich and Chelsea, respectively — doing so with distinction. Both won the Uefa Champions League, along with a smattering of domestic silverware between them.
Both, however, were defensive-minded players, neither doing the kind of stuff that catches the eye nor racking up the numbers that draw the loudest applause; and that, largely, is how Kufuor was eventually beaten to the gong by Nigerian Nwankwo Kanu (1999) and El Hadji Diouf of Senegal (2001), respectively.
Essien missed out for similar reasons in 2007 — only finishing first runner-up to French-born Malian Frederic Kanoute — ending up as yet another victim of the fact that such individual awards are almost always the preserve of attackers or, generally, players who are able to provide goal contributions in substantial volumes.
The African Footballer of the Year prize has, in fact, been dominated nearly entirely by a swarm of forwards, especially since the turn of the century, with the most conspicuous outlier being former Ivory Coast international Yaya Toure, a central midfielder by trade.
Perhaps, though, Toure was really no outlier at all: between the seasons that bookended his four-year monopoly of the award (from 2010/11 to 14/15), the legendary Ivorian delivered just over a 100 goals and assists for his club, Manchester City, including the imperious 13/14 campaign that alone accounted for 36 of that total (twice as many goals as assists that season).
It’s such a rarefied zone that Kudus, with his edge sharpened by progressive role changes at Ajax, has entered. The anticipated move to a prime destination in European football — wherever that proves to be — would also keep him firmly in the limelight, a degree of prominence that Ghana hero Gyan (mentioned earlier) never really enjoyed.
Gyan’s profile is modest and pretty unremarkable, by the standards of premium club football, but for a memorable blur at Sunderland — yet even that feels like little more than a footnote to a rather brilliant international career that saw him smash Ghana’s all-time scoring record and shine at three consecutive editions of the World Cup.
At one of those, South Africa 2010, Gyan shone brightest and was heavily fancied to be crowned by Caf. Ultimately, though, that three-week star turn wasn’t enough to overturn the odds in favour of Samuel Eto’o Fils, the Cameroonian striker who’d won the award three times already and had toiled all-season to help Italian side Inter Milan to complete a historic Treble under Jose Mourinho.
Kudus has already debuted at the Mundial, standing out as Ghana’s best performer in Qatar last year, and is boldly embracing that talismanic role in which Gyan flourished for the national team during his time. And he, unlike Gyan, won’t come up in the African Footballer of the Year conversation only in the immediate aftermath of a World Cup.
Given his trajectory, age, potential, and the high ceiling all that promises, Kudus could well be the one that finally brings it home.
Enn Y. Frimpong — Ink & Kicks