Sammy Bartels writes: Can Mohammed Kudus manage the pressure of ‘carrying’ the Black Stars at AFCON 2023?

Sammy Bartels writes: Can Mohammed Kudus manage the pressure of ‘carrying’ the Black Stars at AFCON 2023?

The murals on the walls around Nima and Kanda celebrate the Mohammed Kudus, the new star of Ghana football.

Along with these paintings are the words ‘possible’ and ‘pride’ which emphasise his meteoric rise and status in the country.

His legions of fans are waiting expectantly to see him elevate the Black Stars into the latter stages of AFCON 2023 with captivating performances.

This is a huge task for a young man who has never even played at the African Cup before.

Kudus understands what is at stake. In a video recorded for the Black Stars social media platforms, he posits that being part of the Black Stars squad is a huge privilege and comes with a lot of responsibility.

There is a lot of pressure, he says, but he does not joke with national team football.

It is not just the fans who are expecting. Ghana’s entire campaign hinges on Kudus’s performances.

The impact he could make on Ghana’s AFCON campaign is not lost on Black Stars coach, Chris Hughton as he admitted in a recent interview on TalkSPORT “He’s a very talented player there’s no doubt,”.

Chris knows exactly how he wants to deploy Kudus at AFCON. A Black Stars team struggling to score regularly could do with some of the creativity and goals Kudus is providing West Ham “The type of player he is, you look at him as a 10 because he’s a goal scorer, you want to get him close to goal…”, Chris recognised.

Kudus is clearly the talisman of the Black Stars and Chris Hughton’s X-factor, especially after Thomas Partey’s withdrawal.

The World Cup in Qatar established the young star as the new main man for Ghana. Kudus’s performances will yet again be subjected to microscopic analysis.

Unfortunately, Kudus is still recovering from an injury he sustained in his last game at West Ham before heading to Ghana.

There is uncertainty about his fitness although the Ghana Football Association says the injury is minor. Will Kudus be fit enough to start Ghana’s campaign? Should Ghana field a half-fit Kudus and at what cost?

These decisions could define Kudus’s relationship with Black Stars fans and affect his rising stock in the English Premier League.

In 2022, Kudus withdrew from Ghana’s AFCON squad.

His absence with injury from Cameroon generated prattle from fans and the media that only worsened after Ghana crushed out of the tournament.

The speculation was enough to force him to issue a statement to reaffirm his commitment to the Black Stars. Kudus was at pains to emphasise that “I believe in Ghana; Ghana runs through my veins.”

A year on the pressure to deliver is even worse. Kudus’s fine form for West Ham means he is a potential star of the tournament and is being mentioned in the same breath as Mo Salah and Sadio Mane.

Nevertheless, if the fitness concerns are genuine, then he faces a tough decision. Kudus himself admits that the only way he can help the team is to be fully fit and ready.

There are several precedents for this quandary, but Michael Essien’s story offers the best context.

Most people trace the midfielder’s decline as a player to the knee injury he sustained at the 2010 AFCON in Angola. The Chelsea midfielder was Ghana’s biggest star at the time.

With Stephen Appiah ravaged by injury and on the decline, there was pressure on Essien to show up despite concerns over his fitness.

He played only the second half of Ghana’s opening game because of the hamstring strain he was carrying. A few days later he went down during a training session and was ruled out of the rest of the tournament with a knee injury. Essien was originally due to be out for just 6 weeks following that injury which occurred in January 2010.

He ended up missing the rest of the season for Chelsea and failed to recover in time for South African 2010 as the Black Stars romped to the quarter-final of the World Cup.

More injuries would follow as the once formidable ‘Bison’ faded at Chelsea.

Kudus is mindful of the politics around his fitness, availability, and performance for the Black Stars. He would also have an eye on his watershed season at West Ham United and the future ahead of him in the Premier League.

Having waited enthusiastically to make his first appearance at the AFCON, has AFCON 2023 come at just the wrong time for the rising star of Ghana football to be able to properly make his mark?

Credit: Samuel Bartels (@SammyBartels)

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