Though he has many miles to go before he fills the boots of his legendary father, Andre Ayew is poised to do something his dad never did: play in a FIFA World Cup™. Though Abedi Ayew, or Abedi Pele as he was popularly known, is among the most celebrated African footballers in history, having been named the continent's player of the year on three occasions and won an CAF African Cup of Nations and a UEFA European Champions League, he was never able to reach the sport's showpiece event with Ghana.
But Pele may achieve that vicariously through his 20-year-old son, who looks likely to continue his meteoric rise with the Black Stars at South Africa 2010. And though Andre admits that being the son of Ghana’s all-time leading scorer is “a hard act to follow,” his remarkable maturity and growth for the national team could see him match his father’s 16-year career with the Black Stars.
Two tournaments, one revelation
The midfielder, who is on the books of Marseille, for whom his father starred, has been on the international football radar for years despite his young age, signing a senior contract for the French giants in 2007. He made his senior debut for Ghana that year, aged just 17, and also ran out in Europe's Champions League before heading off on loan the last two seasons.
But it wasn’t until October of last year, at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt, that the world truly saw the immense potential of the versatile youngster known as ‘Dede’. Named captain by coach Sellas Tetteh, Ayew filled the roles of workhorse, creator and leader for the Black Satellites as they became the first African side to win the tournament after beating four-time champions Brazil on penalties. Playing through injury in the final, Ayew spurred his team on when they were reduced to ten men in the first half, and converted one of the penalties in the shootout.
He is my leader and commander on the pitch," Tetteh said of Ayew to FIFA.com. "He has a lot of experience and has the ability to conjure up something special when you need it most. He's inspirational. He pushes the team forward.
In the group stage of the tournament, he also showed his attacking prowess with one of the best goals of Egypt 2009: a spectacular 25-yard piledriver into the top-right corner against England, following a typically skilful run through midfield. At the time he said it was the best goal he had scored for Ghana, but he will have changed his mind after netting for the first time with the full national team at the recent Africa Cup of Nations in Angola. It may not have been as stunning as his strike in Egypt, but his well-taken header against Burkina Faso was the goal that took the Black Stars into the knockout phase.
Only in the first half of the first match, a 3-1 loss to Côte d'Ivoire, did the youngster failed to thrive. But he grew into the competition thereafter and played 90 minutes of every remaining game, forming a potent creative duo in midfield with 21-year-old Kwadwo Asamoah that was central to an injury-ravaged Ghana reaching the final, which they lost 1-0 to Egypt.
“I guess people didn’t expect us to reach the final, but we did,” Ayew told FIFA.com defiantly. “We lost a lot of players, and we needed to do something for them and to make ourselves proud. It was a great achievement for us and for Ghana. We are a young side but I think we did very well in the tournament.”
The same could be said for Ayew, who made the leap to full national team starter with aplomb, showing all of the slick dribbling skills for which his father was renowned. “I have had to work very hard on my game, and with time, I know I will get even better,” he said. “But what is important is to help Ghana. I don’t play for myself. Obviously, as a human being, I always strive to improve and be better.”
Usually setting up on the left side of midfield, but comfortable slotting in behind the forward, Ayew believes Ghana can build on their success in Angola when they perform on South African soil. “Reaching the final has given us a different insight into football," he said. "We only hope to get better and learn and improve on our performance.”
And though he was quick to “step up and take responsibility” at the Cup of Nations, he’s also ready to admit that the return of veterans like Michael Essien, Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari will change his potential role in the team. However, he is content to patiently play understudy for now.
“I have already learned a lot from being around the senior guys," Ayew explained. "They know what it’s like to be a top professional, so as a youngster it makes sense to learn as much as I can from them."
Though he signed a contract extension with Marseille until 2011, Ayew has been linked with a move to Germany and English team Arsenal.
Along with his iconic father and two brothers, Andre's uncles - Kwame Ayew and Sola Ayew - were also well-known footballers in the west African country.
Two of Andre’s brothers are also professional footballers: Jordan Ayew of Marseille and Zamalek's Abdul Rahim Ayew are 18 and 24 years old respectively.
Like his son, Abedi Pele also won his first Ghana cap at the age of 17, but he did not claim his first African Footballer of the Year award until the age of 27, leaving Andre with plenty of time to match him.