The Uruguay coach, Diego Alonso, blamed the penalty given to Portugal in their second group game for his side’s exit from the World Cup.
A 2-0 win over Ghana on Friday was not enough to take second place in the group, South Korea’s victory over Portugal meaning they finished above Uruguay on goals scored. There was penalty controversy – again – against Ghana, with two extremely good appeals ruled out by the German official, Daniel Siebert, in the second half. Uruguay’s players furiously surrounded the referee at the end and, after André Ayew had a penalty saved for Ghana in the first half, Federico Valverde had run up to Siebert to celebrate, but Alonso was more exercised about the previous game.
José María Giménez fell in challenging Bruno Fernandes, the ball striking his hand as he did so. Ifab’s guidelines specifically state that that should not be given as a foul but the VAR official, Abdullah al-Marri, of Qatar instructed the Iranian referee, Alireza Faghani, to review the decision, after which he gave the penalty from which Portugal made it 2-0. Had that game finished 1-0, Uruguay would have gone through.
“We are out because of the penalty for Portugal and what it did to the goal difference,” Alonso said. “That was awarded but according to Fifa was not a penalty.” Exactly what communication there has been remains unclear.
“I would have liked to see this version of Uruguay before but this is what happened,” Alonso went on. “I don’t have anything to say to my players: they broke their backs and gave their best selves. Everyone can see what happened in previous match.”
He said it was too early to talk about his future, but the Ghana coach, Otto Addo, is leaving the national team. “When I started last year,” he said, “it was clear that I would stop after the World Cup. My family and I see my future in Germany. We are very happy there. I said when we qualified that I would resign after.”
He urged fans not to blame Ayew for missing the penalty. “There is nobody who hasn’t missed a penalty,” he said. “People who don’t know much about football will give that person the blame.”
Finally the tears came. For the closing few minutes he had managed to hold them back, as the news came through and his teammates continued to chase. But the final whistle came like a life sentence and suddenly he could hold back no longer. He buried his crumpled face in his jersey. The Ghana fans caught a glimpse on the big screen and let out their largest cheer of the night. For a few seconds the world was watching Luis Suárez crying. And the world was not – shall we say – overly uncomfortable with this state of affairs.
A revenge of sorts, then, even if nobody was much in the mood for celebrating. And for Uruguay, perhaps the final cruel twist of a strategy that seemed to be working perfectly, right up until the moment it didn’t.
What if they had converted some of those chances in the second half? What if they had started playing a little earlier against Portugal? What if they had started playing at all against South Korea? For now, those questions could wait. After all, there were scores to be settled, honour to be satisfied.
As the referee, Daniel Siebert, and his team strode from the pitch, furious Uruguay players stood in their way, shoved and jostled, demanded answers that would never come. José Giménez grabbed an assistant by the arm and immediately held both hands up in mock innocence, the old habits dying hard. In a way Uruguay were leaving the World Cup in the same way they had played it: gracelessly, begrudgingly, with chips on their shoulders.
The great shame was that they were capable of so much more and at times during this chaotic 2-0 victory they showed it. For most of the game they dragged Ghana all over the park, seized control of midfield, attacked with vision and purpose. The rest of the time they simply defended heroically. It took three games for Uruguay to show us what they were made of, and by the time they did it was all too late.
Giorgian de Arrascaeta deserved better. For years he has been one of Uruguay’s great lost talents: an attacking midfielder hailed as the next big thing when he first emerged but now 28 and perhaps wondering if it would ever happen for him. He has won pretty much everything there is to win with Cruzeiro and Flamengo and yet for some reason Uruguay have never quite seen his best. Óscar Tabárez never felt brave enough to give him the free role he played in Brazil. Now, under a new coach, on the biggest stage of all, he had two goals and the star billing he deserved.
The back five deserved better. Guillermo Varela, perhaps lucky to keep his place ahead of Martín Cáceres, put in a ferocious shift at right-back. Giménez, a defender who would slide tackle his own grandmother, made countless last-ditch interventions and a mighty block in the dying minutes. Fede Valverde, such a dynamic and creative player with Real Madrid, deserved better: brilliantly disruptive in a deeper role.
Did Suárez deserve better? In a way he probably did. After all, he was the key to the whole exercise. Not so much in terms of anything he did on the ball; at the age of 35, Suárez now barely looks as if he has the energy to swing his own leg. But his role against Ghana was quietly vital and it was a role ingeniously prepared for him over several days.
Everyone knows the history: Ghana, the handball, the penalty, the grudge. And in the build-up it was a grudge Uruguay were quite happy to indulge. Suárez was assigned pre-match interview duties and obviously refused to apologise for the handball, even when one Ghanaian journalist called him “the devil”. Suárez was made captain: there he was, grinning away for the cameras at kick-off. At every turn Ghana’s players and coach tried to maintain a strict focus. But at every turn Uruguay were putting Suárez in their eyeline.
How does this work in practice? Perhaps, if you’re a defender, you stick a little closer to Suárez than is wise. You pay him attention. You pay him so much attention that you take your eye off the cross and miss it completely.
You sit too narrow and allow De Arrascaeta too much space for a shot. For all that they tried not to, Ghana ended up fighting the last war, playing the man and not the game. Never watch the magician’s hands or you might miss the trick.
And so Ghana, too, leave with a cruel sense of unfinished business. They were good enough to win this, good enough to qualify. They were a slip away from earning a draw against Portugal. They missed an early penalty here. They sunk their enemy, and yet somehow he managed to take them with him.
Afterwards their crushed fans took a certain solace in Suárez’s plight but it did not feel quite as sweet as they had hoped. They were learning, perhaps, that vengeance and victory are two quite different things.
There are no winners in revenge missions. Sentiment demanded that Ghana should right the wrongs of the 2010 World Cup quarter-final against Uruguay and expiate the hurt of Luis Suárez’s last-minute handball on the line. But Uruguay, and Suárez in particular, have no time for such romantic notions of redemption. Ghana were again eliminated after missing a penalty but their only consolation was that, although Suárez set up two, it was South Korea who went through to the last 16 with Portugal.
It was a game haunted by the memory of events at Soccer City 12 years ago, and specifically by that one moment in the final minute of extra time. The image was always there, a perverse footballing pietà, flitting in the peripheral vision: Stephen Appiah in the foreground having had the initial blocked effort (which was probably offside, although nobody talks about that), John Mensah and the goalkeeper Fernando Muslera falling together with Andrés Scotti, Dominic Adiyah stretching having headed the loose ball goalwards, Diego Fucile with back arched and left fist thrust up having missed his attempt to handle, and Suárez, arms out, leaping to his right to claw the ball away. It is the Pisgah of African football, the moment when it saw the promised land of a World Cup semi-final, but was denied.
Billboards across Accra this week have depicted the incident with the slogan: “REVENGE!: Let’s support the Black Stars.” The fact that Ghanaians still feel the pain of that moment acutely was made clear by the pre-match press-conference. Suárez, with a characteristic sense of provocative showmanship, appeared alone and seemed entirely unfazed by a Ghanaian journalist saying that many in his country saw him as “the devil himself” (adding “el diablo”, lest there be any confusion) and wanted to “retire” him. He didn’t regret it, he said. He had been punished. He had been shown a red card and missed the semi-final as a result. It wasn’t his fault Asamoah Gyan had missed the penalty.
Was this an elaborate wind-up? Suárez had played just 81 minutes in the group stage and had been distinctly unimpressive, managing just one shot on goal (off target). But if this was one enormous mind-game Uruguay carried it to the extreme, naming Suárez as captain. Was that in the mind of André Ayew, the only Ghana player at Al Janoub to have been in the 2010 quarter-final, as he stepped up to take a penalty?
For, of course there was a penalty, and of course it was laced with controversy. How could it not be? And for added narrative value, it came for an incident in the 18th minute – 18 being the shirt number worn by Adiyah. Sergio Rochet, the Uruguay keeper, clearly tripped Mohammed Kudus but initially Ayew was ruled offside. When VAR proved he had been played fractionally onside by the heel of Matthias Olivera, the penalty award was automatic. Ayew’s kick, though, was dismal and easily saved by Rochet.
There was further VAR penalty controversy just before the hour as Darwin Núñez went down under a challenge from Daniel Amartey. The idiosyncratic German referee Daniel Siebert didn’t give it, was told to consult the screen and, unusually, decided not to overturn the decision, signalling he had seen a slight touch on the ball. It was a decision that proved vital for Uruguay’s goal difference; had that been given and converted, they would have gone through rather than South Korea.
For Ghana, the moment had been there, and the moment was missed. There was a sense of inevitability to what followed. Few sides are as good as Uruguay at sensing a game’s emotional pulse. As Ghana reeled, Uruguay surged. Mohammed Salisu had already cleared off the line from Núñez when Suárez’s shot was half-blocked by Lawrence Ati-Zigi. The ball was probably spinning in anyway but Giorgian de Arrascaeta nodded over the line from close range.
Six minutes later, he had his second, volleying crisply home after a clever Suárez flick. He may be 35, the belly starting to show beneath the shirt but, though much is taken, much abides: there is magic yet in his brain and his touch, and perhaps particularly when the boos of opposition fans get the blood going.
And the fury, so strangely lacking against South Korea, was back. He raged at the officials, getting booked shortly after the Núñez penalty had been turned down, needled away at Salisu and put his body in the way to win free-kicks before being withdrawn to predictable jeers from the Ghana fans after 65 minutes. He had beaten them again.
The devil, perhaps, is never truly done but, this time, it was not quite enough. He ended the game in tears on the bench having realised South Korea had beaten Portugal, a shot of him on the big screen allowing the Ghana fans one more burst of celebratory booing. They had gone out – but at least they had taken the devil with them.
Ghana’s task is now clear: bury the ghosts of Soccer City and reach the knockout stage. Victory over Uruguay, who defeated them so heartbreakingly on that climactic night in 2010, would complete the job and on present form drama seems a given. A rollercoaster evening’s work against South Korea brought a two-goal lead, courtesy of Mohammed Salisu and Mohammed Kudus, before a pair of fine headers from Cho Gue-sung pegged them back. Kudus, the gifted Ajax forward, had the final say and the details only partly convey a compelling, intensely absorbing spectacle. South Korea retain interest in the competition but must now beat Portugal and hold their breath.
The early tempo spoke of what would follow. It was set by South Korea, who flew forward and showed no hint of the tribulations they would soon face. They had won seven corners by the 18 minute mark: none brought a clear chance but Ghana were forced to defend scrappily as shots and headers rained in. Jeong Woo-yeong saw a drive deflected wide and Son Heung-min, warming to life in a mask, found clean air with an overhead kick. Son had already tricked to the line with one run down the left, outsmarting Tariq Lamptey on the Brighton player’s first World Cup start.
It made for a tide of red Ghana could not easily stem, although Daniel Amartey broke things up with an arm across Cho that earned a yellow card. Perhaps the act of slowing the game down proved crucial: Ghana had constructed nothing by the first half’s midway point but nonetheless turned the game on its head.
The opener was scrappy but no less crucial for that. It came after Jordan Ayew, another who had not against the Portuguese swung over a deep left-sided free-kick; Kim Min-jae leapt to head away but, in a crowd of bodies, the ball ricocheted inside the six-yard box. Salisu was sharpest to it, sweeping past Kim Seung-gyu for a goal that hardly seemed likely.
Now Ghana’s tails were up. Kudus, previously anonymous, burst into life before being hauled back by Jung Woo-young. South Korea’s fire had been doused but it was still a surprise to see them on the ropes again so quickly. They seemed to be flattened by a second goal, shortly after the half-hour, that was more aesthetically pleasing than the first but bore telling similarities.
It came from another cross by Jordan Ayew, sent in from an identical position but from open play after Gideon Mensah had fed him. Again it was not defended, Kudus making smart late run and converting with a flashed glancing header.
In their starkly different ways, these now looked like two teams transformed. When Son next had a run at Lamptey, he came off second best. There could hardly have been a more succinct precis of the change in tone and Thomas Partey could have accentuated it had he not headed over.
South Korea huddled in conference before the restart. Whatever was said made the most profound difference and Ghana could not say there was no warning before Cho thrust them back into the game so thrillingly. In the 53rd minute he had reached a left-wing cross only for Lawrence Ati-Zigi to push away; it was the first serious threat to their goal but the next two were carried out in clinical fashion.
First Cho took advantage of outstanding work from Lee Kang-in, who had only been introduced a minute previously and showed his eagerness when sliding in to win possession from Lamptey. He matched that with an excellent delivery and Cho, hanging in the air, made no mistake this time. A repeat performance arrived within three minutes, Kim Jin-su taking Son’s pass on the overlap and chipping across for Cho to outdo his earlier effort by throwing himself into a finish of stunning hunger and power.
Would South Korea now push on? It seemed likely although this game’s capacity to confound was now well established. So it was that Ghana flew straight back into the ascendancy, the left flank proving fertile ground for a fifth time in the game. On this occasion it was Mensah who centred towards Inaki Williams, the centre-forward miskicking. Kudus was on hand to greet the moving ball with a low first-time shot of exceptional quality.
There was no chance South Korea would go quietly. Ati-Zigi repelled Lee’s free-kick and Salisu cleared off the line from Kim Jun-su. The keeper denied Cho a hat-trick in added time and Ghana can now reckon with history.
Oh no, not another Cristiano Ronaldo column. Well, what else could it be? Who else could it be? How about André Ayew, whose goal made it 1-1 and made a wild match of a night that, until then, really hadn’t been? João Félix, who clipped in a lovely shot to put Portugal back into the lead? Rafael Leão, perhaps, guiding his first touch into the net. There was Osman Bukari, scoring with two minutes to go – well, 10 – and at the end Iñaki Williams, with a flash of cunning that caught out everyone; that almost saw Ghana catch a break, too.
Sneaking up behind the Portugal goalkeeper, Diogo Costa, Williams stole the ball from his feet in the last minute, the chance to end this 3-3 suddenly appearing, an entire stadium gasping, only to slip as he turned back towards goal.
Still unable to believe it long after the final whistle, that was the most extraordinary, most absurd moment of what almost turned out to be an unexpectedly extraordinary match. And yet the moment belonged to Ronaldo, not least because somehow it was always going to.
Perhaps because we make it so. But history had been made after all. And even if it hadn’t, well, it’s him. An hour had gone when Ronaldo ran into the left side of the area. He was beaten to the ball by Mohammed Salisu, or so it seemed. As they came together, though, Ronaldo tumbled and the referee blew for a penalty. And so there he was, in his place, his moment. It was one they had waited for, too. In front of him, phones were held up, cameras ready, capturing not just a piece of history but a piece of theatre.
Standing on the spot and in the spotlight again, as if he ever really left it, Ronaldo put the ball down. He looked up then down again, and closed his eyes for some time. He took big, deep breaths, blew out hard, then skipped to his left, ran up and struck the penalty high into the net, just above the keeper’s hand. He did say he was bulletproof. It was his 819th career goal – eight hundred and nineteenth, for goodness sake – and his 118th for Portugal.
It also made him the first man to score at five World Cups: one against Iran in 2006, one against North Korea in 2010, one against Ghana in 2014, three against Spain, one against Morocco in 2018, and now this. He ran and leapt into the air, that familiar routine. Altogether now. Arms outstretched, as he came down, 40,000 people joined him in saying it: Siuuu! This is what they had come for. Some of them had been practising too.
The buildup had been dominated by the fallout in Manchester, to the extent of the doors to Portugal’s training camp having to be closed. The exhaustion at fielding endless questions was palpable, the claims that none of it mattered barely credible. And none of that reduced the attention on him; it may even have enhanced it, increased the awareness that this, here, is a last chance. The walk to the stadium was lined with Portugal shirts, seven on the back. More than all the rest put together. En route, a dad was busy telling his sons how to siuuu.Turned out, that would come in useful.
“I believe Portugal is the best team at this World Cup,” Ronaldo said. Look at the team, and maybe you can see it through the quality of the clubs they represent. Look and you see something else too. Porto, Manchester City, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Dortmund, Manchester United, Wolves, Porto, Manchester City, Atlético Madrid, unemployed. Yet still it was him they had come for. His was the only name really cheered when the teams were read out, the only name chanted too.
As they lined up before the game, he shook hands with a small kid in the tunnel. The kid, turning to the child alongside, blurted out: “Oh my god!” They went out and Ronaldo stood for the national anthem, then stood for a long drink, a line of cameras looking at him – which may have been why. His back turned to them, you could already picture the photos being captured. Say my name. Oh, they would. They might have done sooner in fact: it is not that Ronaldo could have got three here, it is that maybe he should have.
One chance was blocked by the keeper, another header went wide from close range. But then the moment came and from the spot, something almost symbolic: perhaps this game, his game, being decided like this when little else had happened. There was not much football, but Ronaldo won it. Sound familiar? Only he hadn’t. Barney Ronay had warned us to fast-forward to the moment when he won it with a late penalty. It came early, but it wasn’t so far off. Until, out of nowhere, it was. Suddenly, somehow, there were three goals, a real game. By then Ronaldo had been withdrawn to applause and with the score at 3-1. From the bench he watched Bukari score to make it 3-2, run to the corner, leap into the air and, yes, perform a siuuu of his own.
A stodgy contest morphed into a thriller and, cutting through it all, Cristiano Ronaldo managed to own the story. At times it felt most of the stadium was willing him to score and they were ecstatic to see their wish granted when he converted a penalty midway through the second half, becoming the first player to score at five different World Cups. Against most expectations it opened the floodgates, André Ayew equalising for a decent Ghana side before João Félix and Rafael Leão responded quickly with clinical finishes. Osman Bukari’s late goal was not enough to capture the headlines for Ghana.
Record-breaker or not, the chances of Ronaldo facilitating a narrative that did not concern him were always going to be vanishingly small. Before kick-off he had stood directly in front of the throng of photographers present to aid analysis of his every spit and cough; he must surely have known what he was doing as he faced in the opposite direction, that number seven in full view of the lenses, while taking a drink.
Equally there was never much chance he would absent himself from the on-pitch action although he would probably have planned happier outcomes from two early chances that, at full tilt, he would surely have buried. He was played onside by Alidu Seidu for the first, which saw Otávio send him into yards of space. There was time as well as open grass but a heavy first touch allowed Lawrence Ati-Zigi to block his effort.
It was a good opportunity but had nothing on his second. When Raphaël Guerreiro crossed from the left, Ronaldo leapt with the awesome power and certainty that bring only one outcome. Ati-Zigi should have had no chance but was saved by a glitch in the matrix: from four yards, Ronaldo somehow headed wide of his left post.
Only 13 minutes had been played but Ghana did not look especially keen to deviate from their plan to sit deep, often with a flat back five, and seek rare opportunities on the break. It brought scant reward before the interval, partly because of Mohammed Kudus’s inability to exploit promising positions. Kudus could have sent Iñaki Williams, a high-profile newcomer to the cause, clear midway through the half but undercooked his attempted pass.
Ghana have the tournament’s youngest squad but began to discover some defensive savoir-faire. Portugal probed but ran aground against a back line marshalled by Leicester’s Daniel Amartey and Mohammed Salisu of Southampton. Ronaldo found the net shortly after the half-hour, to the short-lived delight of the thousands expecting a show, but was penalised for a push on Alexander Djiku.
Félix spooned over and João Cancelo sent a ball fizzing across but, when the teams went back in, Portugal could reflect that their performance had deteriorated since Ronaldo’s aberrations. Ghana had gained enough confidence to win a couple of corners, even if they did not manage an attempt on Diogo Costa’s goal.
Seidu sent over a dangerous cross in the 52nd minute and, moments later, Kudus broke through the middle before sending a daisy cutter wide. There was the sense a toe-to-toe contest had broken out. Ronaldo tried to correct that impression but, briefly offered room down the left, could not channel the pace that has long deserted him.
Portugal’s bench howled for a red card when Félix went down after a coming together with Seidu but the officials chose not to inflate the incident. They were soon worked more briskly. Ronaldo appeared to have been slow on his heels again but snicked a toe on the ball just before Salisu could make contact on the left side of the box. Ghana protested; his fall had been dramatic but a decision in his favour was just about correct. Ronaldo thrashed the spot-kick past Ati-Zigi, let the public lap up his trademark celebration and ensured a meandering Portugal were off the hook.
Or so it seemed. Ghana had been marginally the better side since the break and showed no ill effects. Kudus warmed Costa’s palms and then, found in space, arrowed across a centre that ricocheted through Danilo Pereira’s legs and gave Ayew a tap-in. Ronaldo waved his arms in the air.
He need not have worried. Within seven minutes Portugal had the game won, both times capitalising on loose Ghana possession and breaking at speed. Bruno Fernandes was the catalyst, first threading a ball through to Félix that Baba Rahman could not cut out. Félix is having a mediocre time with Atlético Madrid but here his clipped execution was exemplary. Within seconds Fernandes had driven through midfield and slipped in Leão, who announced himself on this stage with a bending low finish with his first significant touch after coming on.
Ronaldo was promptly withdrawn, affording him his latest ovation, but the substitute Bukari’s smart header postponed the victory lap. A frantic finish ensued, Williams robbing Costa before slipping, but Portugal held on.
“He’s not better than me. He’s just a higher profile player, that’s all,” comes the retort. He is Neymar, captain of Brazil and superstar. Me is Mohammed Kudus, the talented Ghanaian midfielder and burgeoning superstar.
In September, the two players had spicy exchanges when Brazil beat Ghana in friendly in Le Havre. “He was defending his country and I was defending mine. I wasn’t about to let him push me around. What makes him better, for now, is that he has achieved a lot,” he says. Then, with fire in those eyes, he gives a promise: “I’ll get there soon.”
The pair could, depending on how things finish in Group G and H, clash once more in the round of 16. “We could meet again, yeah?” he asks. “Me and Neymar, part two. I’m sure he would enjoy it.” The way he says it could easily be mistaken for arrogance but it is not, it is just showcasing the supreme confidence this 22-year-old has.
Ghana and Kudus first face another superstarin Cristiano Ronaldo as they play Portugal in their first game on Thursday, with South Korea and Uruguay to follow. Ghana’s form has been indifferent, it is fair to say but they were boosted by a 2-0 victory against Switzerland in Abu Dhabi last week. “We’ve not been great recently, but I know what I feel when I speak to the guys. The spirit is really great and this team will come good very soon,” he says. “Maybe not now, but very soon.”
Kudus wears the No 20 for his club and country. His style, however, is that of a classic No 10. In Ghana, like in many other places, wearing the No 10 shirt for the national team is serious business and there is always heated debate about who deserves it. The bearer must have kekye: skill, gravitas. Whenever a player emerges who seems capable of wearing it there are fears about the shirt being “too heavy” for the player in question. Can Kudus assume the famous number when the captain, André Ayew, bows out? “Heavy for me?” he says. “I’m heavier than the No 10 itself. No number scares me.”
He takes every question in stride. Unhurried. Calm. It’s a stark contrast to the player who has flitted between midfield and attack at Ajax this season. Have these been the best few months of his career? “Well,” he says, then pauses. “If you look at the goals, assists and stuff, probably. But if you think about some other things, not really.”
Two man-of-the-match awards and four goals in six Champions League games, including a scorcher at Anfield – “I loved the clanging sound of the ball hitting the bar before it went in” – plus five league goals is surely a good return for someone who is not even a striker. “That’s the point. I’m playing and scoring and I am helping my team and it’s great. But I am happiest when I am creating things for the team.” The slight tautness of his jaw suggests this is a touchy topic.
More than 10 players left Ajax in the summer, including last season’s top scorer, Sébastien Haller, as well as key members of the squad in Lisandro Martínez and Noussair Mazraoui, and desperately needed striking reinforcements. However, as the end of the transfer window drew closer, another important player departed: Antony joined Manchester United. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Kudus and teammate Edson Álvarez, who then also wanted to leave and refused to attend training in order to try to engineer a move. Then, at the start of the season, he was not in the team.
Kudus takes a deep breath and his jaw tightens again. “For me, it was a simple matter,” he says. “The only way you can develop is by getting minutes on the pitch. If I’m at a stage and I feel I’m not developing at that very moment then I have to try somewhere else.”
Ajax held firm and rebuffed any advances, including one from Everton with Frank Lampard making contact. “I thought [Everton] was a good project for me and why not?” he says. “It’s not like it’s my first season at Ajax, it’s my third. So, if I’m not seeing the progress I’m looking for then why not try something else?”
As the season progressed, and with Kenneth Taylor and Steven Berghuis playing well in central midfield, the coach, Alfred Schreuder, fielded Kudus up front as a false nine. He admits he has thrived in the role but is “the sort of player who wants to touch the ball, feel it, move it along.”
For the last few minutes, he’s been stroking the chain on his neck. It’s an engraving. “That’s Allah in Arabic and I always wear it. I carry Him with me.”
Kudus first made his name at Strong Tower FC in Nima – “it is one of Ghana’s toughest neighbourhoods and I still miss those innocent days” – before joining the Right to Dream Academy. From there he moved to FC Nordsjælland in Denmark for his first taste of European football. Two years later he arrived in the Netherlands. “I know exactly where I want to be and I’m not stopping until my dream is achieved,” he says.
The hashtag #KudusDream is ubiquitous across his social media pages because, he says, “every day it reminds me of what I’m pursuing”. He does not hide the fact that those dreams extend to the Ghana national team, too, for whom he made his debut – with a goal – in November 2019. “I watched the 2010 World Cup team [that reached the quarter-finals] as a kid and I’ve always wanted to be part of something like that,” he says.
The Black Stars have been rebuilding since the failure to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, a process that was made more difficult because of the lack of a conductor. That changed when Kudus came on to the scene. “When I play centrally, a lot of balls go through me and my job is to make sure we transition well,” he says. Ghanaians love what he brings to the team, but there has been one enduring criticism in his 15 apearances: he holds on to the ball too much.
“The intention is to create chances and help the team and as creative players you are allowed to lose balls and help the team,” he says. “I don’t see any player in the [national] team who plays the way I do, because we have different types of players.
“If I’m the one who has [to] try those tricks to create something and I lose the ball 10 times, but if that one time it is a goal, then so be it. My coach has never told me he doesn’t like my style of play or that I’m holding on to the ball too much. It always looks bad until it goes well, then you’re a genius.”
It is a new-look Ghana that enter the World Cup, including several players of dual nationality that have decided to join the team, such as Iñaki Williams (Spain), Tariq Lamptey (England) and Denis Odoi (Belgium). “They are quality additions and this is the World Cup,” says Kudus. “Every team needs its best players and these guys are Ghanaians, so why not?”
A bona fide star at Ajax, Kudus has to stop a few times during the interview to honour selfie requests. His rising profile suggests it is just a matter of time before he hits those heights for Ghana. Will it happen in Qatar? “Charlie,” he says, using the colloquial word for “friend” as he segues to Ghanaian pidgin. “Make you just watch us. We no go talk plenty. We dey go show working.”
Translation: “Just watch us. We will let our work speak for us.”
“I can play a lot of different styles,” said Morocco’s coach, Walid Regragui, this month. “I admire Guardiola, Simeone and Ancelotti, but I also have my own style which allows me to adapt the team according to the qualities of the players available.”
Regragui, a former defender born in France to parents from Fnideq in northern Morocco, spent three years playing in Spain and won 45 caps for Morocco but never appeared at a World Cup finals. Yet his appointment to replace the Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic at the end of August represented a significant moment in the history of African football.
His presence on the touchline in Qatar, along with that of his fellow former professionals Aliou Cissé of Senegal, Cameroon’s Rigobert Song and Ghana’s Otto Addo, and Tunisia’s ultra-experienced career coach Jalel Kadri, means that for the first time all of the continent’s representatives at the World Cup will have an African manager in the dugout. Fittingly, each is homegrown.
The 47-year-old Regragui deserves his opportunity having guided Wydad Casablanca to a surprise victory in the CAF Champions League final over the reigning champions Al Ahly in May after six successful years at FUS Rabat and having won the Qatari title with Al-Duhail in 2020. Regragui’s Champions League triumph saw him dubbed the “Moroccan Guardiola” by a Tunisian commentator but there is no doubting the former assistant to Rachid Taoussi is his own man after he recalled Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech from the international wilderness.
Whether he can follow in the footsteps of Nigeria’s Stephen Keshi, who became the first homegrown coach to lead an African side to the knockout stages in 2014, remains to be seen given their task in a difficult group containing Belgium, Croatia and Canada. Morocco will hope for a repeat of their breakthrough success under the Brazilian José Faria at the 1986 World Cup when they topped a group that included England before being eliminated in the last 16 by West Germany.
Until 2014, only 10 of 38 African teams at the World Cup were led by homegrown coaches, with the three sides who reached the quarter-finals – Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 – managed by Europeans.
The straight-talking Cissé, captain of Bruno Metsu’s team that shocked the reigning champions and Senegal’s former colonial masters France in the opening match in 2002, was one of two African home-grown coaches at the last World Cup in Russia and suffered the agony of seeing his team eliminated because of an inferior disciplinary record. Level on all other criteria with Japan, they went out.
Since then the Teranga Lions have developed a more ruthless streak and were crowned African champions for the first time in February, even if their chances of making a real impression in this tournament have been hit by Sadio Mané’s absence through injury.
“I represent a new generation that would like to have its place in African and world football,” said Cissé, a former Birmingham and Portsmouth midfielder, four years ago. “We need African coaches for our football to go ahead.”
Cissé has been in charge of Senegal since 2015 but has worked with many of the same players for almost a decade after starting as an assistant to the Under-23s. Song, who won 137 caps and played at four World Cups, also has some experience at the helm having served as Cameroon’s caretaker manager for an extended period in 2017 before returning in February after the Africa Cup of Nations.
The 46-year-old’s presence in Qatar is all the more remarkable given that six years ago he suffered a cerebral attack and was in a coma for two days. Emulating his 1994 mentor Léonard Nséké and becoming the second Cameroonian to qualify for the World Cup as a coach was a huge endorsement of his credentials.
For Addo the opportunity to manage Ghana after their group-stage exit at Afcon under Milovan Rajevac, their coaching hero of 2010, came as something of a surprise. Born in Germany, he played for Borussia Dortmund at the time he won most of his 15 Ghana caps and the 47-year-old’s day job is still as talent coach for the club’s rising stars – a role that has included working closely with England’s Jude Bellingham.
Having stepped up from being Rajevac’s assistant, Addo masterminded a famous victory over Nigeria to qualify and has his sights on a revenge mission against Luis Suárez’s Uruguay in Group H. Suárez’s goalline handball in 2010 denied Ghana likely passage to the semi-finals.
Of all the African managers heading to Qatar, Tunisia’s Kadri has the most experience. The 50-year-old began his coaching career in 2002 and spent time as assistant to Nabil Maâloul with the national team in 2013 before returning to the role under Mondher Kebaier last year. Kadri was promoted when Kebaier contracted Covid during Afcon and landed the job permanently after their victory over Nigeria.
Tunisia became the first African team to win a match at the World Cup in 1978, under their homegrown coach Abdelmajid Chetali, but have never reached the knockout stages and may find it tough to progress from a group with France, Denmark and Australia.
All five of Africa’s representatives failed to qualify from the group stages in Russia – the first time since 1982 that none had made it through. But as the Confederation of African Football said this month, the presence of five African coaches in Qatar “represents a giant step towards the development of African football”.
The 22-year-old arrived in Europe as a teenager after spending his youth in the Right to Dream academy in his homeland. Nordsjælland put him in the first team at 18, quickly proving himself too good for the Danish league in the following two seasons. Ajax spotted his talents and paid €9m to bring him to the Eredivisie. Erik ten Hag used him mainly as a central midfielder but he can play further forward and already has five goals from 18 appearances at international level. Kudus possesses great close control, can dumbfound defenders in tight spaces and can drive his team forward thanks to his dribbling. He reads the game well and even when running at speed seems to know where his teammates will be, helping him become a prolific assister for his club. WU
Rafael Leão (Portugal)
A product of the Sporting academy, the attacker has become one of the most feared forwards in Serie A, helping Milan to their first title in 11 years last season and gaining a place in the league’s team of the year. In addition to height, the 23-year-old possesses plenty of pace and is often utilised on the flanks by Stefano Pioli. Leão is as adept at creating as he is scoring, making him a threat whether out wide or down the middle. He is yet to score at international level but comes into the tournament as the joint-14th best player in the world, according to the Ballon d’Or. With Cristiano Ronaldo’s power waning and Diogo Jota absent, Leão will be expected to help fill the void and show why Europe’s top clubs are after him. WU
Gio Reyna (USA)
His 20th birthday comes only eight days before his team’s opener, against Wales, but there is considerable World Cup weight on Reyna’s shoulders. His father, Claudio, starred in the USA’s run to the 2002 quarter-finals while he is named after his dad’s pal, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who made his last ever playing appearance in the 2010 final. Pressure indeed, exacerbated by being at Borussia Dortmund, Europe’s prime finishing school. There have been injury frustrations; last season was shortened by muscle problems that he has worked hard to recover from but his talent is undoubted. His former teammate Erling Haaland calls him “the American dream”. Among fans back home, the excitement for Reyna is higher even than that for Christian Pulisic, particularly after he recently recovered his club form and starting place. JB
Enzo Fernández (Argentina)
Making a late and persuasive run for inclusion in Lionel Scaloni’s squad, Fernández had been at River Plate since he was five years old before taking the well-worn path among young South Americans to Benfica in August. He was even named after the Uruguayan River legend – and current sporting director – Enzo Francescoli. His performances as a deep-lying central midfield playmaker – also playing box to box – in Benfica’s excellent Champions League group stage showing this season are reported to have put him on the wanted lists of Barcelona and Real Madrid among others. The 21-year-old starred in Benfica’s home-and-away defeats of Juventus, dominating their midfield with his ball-winning, ball-carrying and distribution. He seems destined to be a big part of his national team’s post-Lionel Messi landscape. JB
Dusan Vlahovic (Serbia)
The prolific striker has already shown in Italy what he can do. His 44 goals in 98 Serie A games for Fiorentina made Juventus splash €70m upfront for his services to hopefully kickstart a new era in Turin. In addition to his impressive goal tally, Vlahovic can hold up the ball and bring others into play. He will probably start alongside Aleksandar Mitrovic, with Dusan Tadic behind, ensuring no defence that comes up against Serbia in Qatar will be allowed an easy time. Although he has impressed in domestic football, the 22-year-old is yet to show his capabilities in Europe, failing to help Juventus get out of their Champions League group, and will be keen to show the rest of the world that he truly is one of the best in the business. WU
Spain’s Euro 2020 breakout star was Pedri. From the same Barcelona stable comes a midfielder who only celebrated his 18th birthday in August. The latest, brightest flower from La Masia academy, in 2021 Gavi became his country’s youngest ever player at 17 years and 62 days, and Spain’s youngest ever scorer, against the Czech Republic this June. In October he succeeded Pedri in winning the Kopa Trophy for the world’s best player under the age of 21, his skill set bringing back memories of Barcelona predecessors such as Andrés Iniesta and Xavi, the current manager at the Camp Nou. Xavi has been as sparing as he can be with such a generational talent but Luis Enrique may not be able to resist such temptation. “We’re talking about a case that’s not normal,” said Spain’s manager. JB
Federico Valverde (Uruguay)
A key, widely unsung player in Real Madrid’s 2022 Champions League-winning team, Valverde served as the lungs for older midfield colleagues such as Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro. In Qatar, with energy levels that have had him compared to a younger Steven Gerrard, he may have to do likewise for his country’s veterans such as Luis Suárez, Diego Godín and Edinson Cavani. This season he has added goals to his repertoire, including in October’s 3-1 clásico win, making a typical surge to crash home. Signed as a teenager from Peñarol, Valverde made his way into the Madrid first team via the Castilla reserve side but at 24, with his development and authority ever increasing, he has become a vital performer for club and country. JB
Takefusa Kubo (Japan)
At 18 the winger already had Barcelona and Real Madrid on his CV, meaning his potential is undoubted. He did not make a first-team appearance for either but now has more than 100 appearances under his belt in La Liga, mainly out on loan at Mallorca, Villarreal and Getafe. Kubo finally has a permanent home in San Sebastián after joining Real Sociedad in the summer, scoring the winner on his debut against Cádiz. He has plenty of tournament experience; Kubo went to the Under-20 World Cup aged 15, travelled to the Copa América in 2019 and scored at the Olympics two years later. More than a million people follow the 21-year-old on Instagram, an indication of his prominence and popularity in Japan, although it also shows the pressure he is under to produce on the biggest stage this winter. WU