Ask any member of the Ghana squad for their thoughts on the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 so far and the response is always the same: a roll of the eyes before a bout of laughter takes over. Perhaps it should comes a no surprise given the way their tournament has panned out.
Having arrived in Turkey as one of the favourites following their title-winning exploits at the 2009 edition, the west Africans were given a rude awakening after suffering defeats in their first two games. The dam appeared to break with victory in the Black Satellites’ final group outing, which was enough to finish as the fourth best third-placed team and book a place in the last 16, where a nerve-jangling 3-2 triumph over a highly-fancied Portuguese side ensued.
Yet despite such drama, Kennedy Ashia appears at ease. His fate has mirrored that of coach Sellas Tetteh’s squad in Turkey, with the midfielder having started out as a substitute in his country’s early games, before scoring twice to force his way into the starting line-up. Within the Ghana camp, the 19-year-old is viewed as the revelation of the tournament so far and his new-found confidence appears to be catching.
“Kennedy is not the kind of player who will go on spectacular runs, but he can be deadly around the opposition penalty box,” Tetteh told FIFA.com. “He’s a strong-willed character and can surprise you at any time. That’s why I see him as one of the players who can decide a game.” Ashia, who is under contract at Liberty Professionals FC, demonstrated precisely those qualities against Portugal in the last 16 with a stunning long-range strike that flew into the top corner to give Ghana the lead. He is now one of the key figures both coach and team-mates alike will look to in Sunday’s quarter-final match against Chile.
Nevertheless, Ashia is refusing to let all the praise go to his head. “Of course it’s nice that things are going so well for me, but we need to keep our feet on the ground and continue to work hard,” said the No15. “It’s especially important to do that now, because we’re in high spirits and have good momentum. The fact is that all of us, myself included, still need to improve. If we can do that then there’s every chance we can win the title for a second time.”
Watching Ghana train in Istanbul, it is clear that the heavy burden they seemed to be carrying during what Tetteh described as their “bizarre” tournament start, has fallen away. The players pay close attention to their coach’s loud instructions as they continually repeat the required movements until they become second nature. Jokes and laughter abound during the subsequent penalty shootout, before the goalkeeper is lauded for his heroics. After some initial teething problems, it appears that Ghana are starting to believe in themselves once more.
It is exactly the kind of atmosphere Ashia thrives in. “At the moment the main thing we need to work on is keeping possession and putting our opponents under more pressure when we have the ball,” said the youngster, who names Xavi as a role model and has already showed glimpses of imitating the Spaniard’s style. “Our coach always tells us that in modern football you win games if you know how to keep hold of the ball.” It is a philosophy that resonates well with Ashia, who puts his rise to prominence down to his ability as “a good passer with a decent shot from distance”.
In Ghana the name given to such highly-promising talents who are yet to make a name for themselves is ‘local boys’. While a few of the country’s gifted youngsters are already on the books at big clubs, such as Yiadom Boakye at Juventus and Frank Acheampong at Anderlecht, many hope to attract attention by exploding onto the scene at major tournaments just as Ashia has. Given recent events in Turkey, the signs are that both he, and his country, are on the right track.