831 players, 32 teams and four matches per day – following the football World Cup can get a little overwhelming. For the next month, The Indian Express will cut through the clutter and handpick the biggest storyline of the day every morning
Portugal vs Ghana (Group H)
9.30 pm, Stadium 974
They’re 33 seconds of pure, unbridled joy: Teenaged boys and girls buzzing with excitement, standing on top of a table and punching the air, dancing, running around in no particular direction, shaking their heads in disbelief and, right at the end, a young boy looks into the camera and shouts: ‘KUDUS’.
Those were scenes of trainees at the Right to Dream academy in Accra, Ghana, celebrating a goal by the football school’s most famous alumnus, Mohammed Kudus, for Ajax against Liverpool in the Champions League in September. It was a thumping strike – Kudus taking the ball from his strike-partner Steven Bergwijn’s feet, controlling it with his first touch and unleashing a cannonball that silenced Anfield.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) September 16, 2022
It was a goal by a man enjoying a purple patch in his career, finding the back of the net in every second game he’s played this season and grabbing the attention of the top European clubs, including Manchester United who can do with the signing of a beaming young attacking midfielder after an acrimonious separation with their biggest star, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Between the two, Ronaldo and Kudus will provide a fascinating sub-plot to an engrossing Group H tie between Portugal and Ghana. The 37-year-old Ronaldo, after a troubled season at his club where he has mostly warmed the bench, will hope to offer a throwback to his mercurial past and help a talented Portuguese side realise its potential. Kudus, 22, will aim to provide a glimpse into the future by carrying his club form to the international stage and propelling an underperforming Ghana into the knockout rounds.
Kudus is relishing the opportunity to play against Ronaldo, whom he grew up watching, but has promised he won’t get carried away. “I think it will be a great moment to share the same pitch with an iconic player like Cristiano Ronaldo. We all looked up to him and watched him on TV,” he told Ghana’s TV3. “But with all the respect, we will approach the game with the same mentality… My mentality is approaching every single game like when I was playing in the academy.”
The academy Kudus refers to is the same place where his goal against Liverpool sent a bunch of trainees into a state of trance. He was 12 when he left his home in the slums of Accra and moved a hundred kilometres north to Akosombo to join the academy, moved to Denmark in 2018 before joining Ajax Amsterdam two years later. All this while, he hasn’t forgotten his roots.
When he was putting his pen to paper at Ajax, after impressing current Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag, Kudus was seen wearing a t-shirt that had ‘Nima Native’ inscribed on it. Nima – which means the City of King – is the locality in Accra where Kudus was raised.
In a music video he posted days later after signing for Ajax, Kudus provides a peek into his life: a humble background, growing up in a tough neighbourhood, a family that sold a local delicacy, Tuo Zaafi, on the streets to support his dreams, and a mother who Kudus says at the end of the song, “risked her life for me.”
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The 2017 Under-17 World Cup in India, where Ghana were in the same group as the hosts, was the first career-shaping step for Kudus, who was so impressive throughout the tournament that he was signed by Danish side Nordsjælland at the age of 17. “He is comfortable doing extraordinary things,” Nordsjaelland sports director Jan Laursen told the website ghanasoccernet.com.
There’s enough evidence of it by now. Kudus ‘the dribbling machine’ executing Cruyff turns in Ajax colours, skipping past defenders, raking up assists and scoring goals.
Whether he can translate his club form for the country remains to be seen. Ghana, after a tough qualifying campaign and a poor African Cup of Nations, will surely be hoping for that. And so will the dreamy-eyed teens at the Accra academy, for whom Kudus is already a legend.
Other fixtures of the day:
Switzerland vs Cameroon (Group G), 3.30 pm, Al Janoub Stadium
Switzerland surely need to pick up all three points against a lesser-talented Cameroon team, if they want to make it to the knockout stages, especially with their two main rivals playing later in the day.
Uruguay vs South Korea (Group H), 6.30 pm, Education City Stadium
With Son Heung-min confirmed to play a role in this game, South Korea have a chance to become another Asian team that can cause an upset. Uruguay are well-drilled and organised, with some exciting forward players.
Brazil v Serbia (Group G), 12.30 am (Friday), Lusail Stadium
The highlight encounter of the day sees Tite’s side, touted as World Cup favourites, open their campaign in their trickiest group stage game, against a talented set of Serbian players. A big test for the selecao.