Charles Akonnor’s tenure in charge of Ghana’s Black Stars should be well and truly underway now, some 18 months on from his appointment as head coach.
It does feel, however, that the project has barely taken off (the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly eaten away some of that time), given that there isn’t yet a clearly identifiable player around whom Akonnor’s plans would crystallise.
Two of the more eligible candidates, Thomas Partey (Arsenal) and Mohammed Kudus (Ajax Amsterdam), are arguably Ghana football’s most visible faces in Europe, and either of them seems fit enough to play that role.
Team-building is a task that can never be underestimated by any coach, and, as Akonnor prepares to lead Ghana to his first Afcon as head coach and attempt to reach Qatar 2022, he’ll have that in mind.
Key to doing so effectively is to identify and pick a player — that central, talismanic figure — to build the team around.
Once upon a time, the Black Stars had no shortage of such personalities. Each in his own right, midfielders Stephen Appiah, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Laryea Kingston were kingpins; together, as contemporaries, that quartet rallied the national team to achieve great things for the best part of a decade, starting with qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
Their greatest individual attributes (talent aside)?
✅Character. ✅Mental toughness. ✅Consistency.
In the current Black Stars squad, fortunately for Akonnor, there is a player who combines all those traits of the aforementioned ex-internationals: Thomas Partey.
The England-based midfielder’s stock as a national asset has only soared since his senior Ghana debut in 2016. It’s not just his ability as a footballer that has impressed; it’s also his understanding and appreciation of what it means to sacrifice everything to achieve excellence, and his willingness to do just that.
Partey has always been a Ghana skipper in the making, and Akonnor’s decision to make him first vice-captain is evidence that the Black Stars boss is already aware of what the 27-year-old brings to the table.
Even better, Partey — unlike some younger options Akonnor might want to consider for the cornerstone role (see below) — is in his prime, ready-made, and raring to go with minimal fine-tuning.
Mohammed Kudus is, in a sense, a defining player in Black Stars history.
In November 2019, Kudus became the first man born in the 21st Century to play — and score — for Ghana’s senior national team. He has since had just four more caps — blame COVID-19, again, and a long battle with injury for that — but Kudus is already regarded as something of an undroppable, a leading light in the dressing room.
Wait, have you seen him play?
There is a certain air of maturity about Kudus’ game, belying the fact that he is still a couple of months away from his 21st birthday. The fact that his contributions thus far — helping seal qualification to the next edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, namely — have proven so decisive for the Black Stars has quickly established him as an influential figure in the squad, even if Kudus’ characteristic bashfulness wouldn’t permit him to admit that much.
It also makes him one of the guys — heck, the guy — Akonnor would do well to build his team around.
True, Kudus isn’t the most experienced Black Star around, a truth already conceded in this argument. Still, not quite embodying the team’s present casts Kudus — blessed with the advantage of youth and a higher ceiling than most of his colleagues — as very much its future.
Now I know it’s not in the nature — and, indeed, interests — of many a Black Stars coach to plan with the future in mind, with Akonnor’s immediate tasks of winning next year’s Cup of Nations and qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup especially discouraging a long-term strategy.
Knowing Akonnor, however, he would love nothing more — well, aside winning next year’s Cup of Nations and qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup — than to bequeath a team primed for the future to his successor, whoever that may be; it is, after all, the sort of inheritance Akonnor was delighted to get from his own predecessor, Kwasi Appiah.
If that is his thinking — and, really, why shouldn’t it be? — Akonnor could do worse than hand the keys (not the darned armband, note) to Kudus, leader of the ‘new school’.