At any given moment there are names floating through the heads and across the desks of the managers of major European clubs; hot young prospects poised in their relative obscurity but on the cusp of a big breakthrough. The name of Ghanaian Anthony Annan is at the top of those lists.
Currently with Rosenborg, runaway leaders in Norway's Tippeligaen, Annan has played every minute of Ghana's ten qualifying games in the African Zone, culminating earlier this month in the Black Stars becoming the first African nation, aside from hosts Bafana Bafana, to qualify for next year's 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Not bad for the 23-year-old who only two years ago was lining up for Hearts of Oak, training on a dirt pitch beside a dumping area on the sun-scorched coast of Accra.
"I was an important part of the team, not just a member of the squad," the friendly Annan told African Football Media from his home near Trondheim. "It is a source of great pride for me to have had such a responsibility. We have big players in the Ghana team, guys like Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari, players who are known all over the world. Those guys always gave me total encouragement to play with confidence."
Over the course of a gruelling qualifying campaign, young Anthony, who grew up admiring Pablo Aimar and Argentine football in general, played a holding role in the centre of midfield, keeping things tight when Chelsea star Essien sought more freedom in attack."It helps a young guy like me a lot to look over and see Essien by my side. It can slow your breathing down," added Annan, who has been described as ‘the next Essien' because of the interest being shown in him from big-time clubs in England, Spain and Italy.
Annan is quick to defer to his team-mate however, saying: "Essien is a unique player, powerful and strong but elegant. When he goes forward, I stay behind and cover him. I let him go up and do his things because he is an amazing player when he moves toward goal. I'm happy to stay back and support the man."
The compact, muscular Annan can also play in the backline but prefers to line-up in midfield, where his eye for a piercing pass has made him a target for major European clubs. He first caught the eye of Ghana's then-coach Claude Le Roy - who publically compared Annan to French icon Claude Makelele - and picked him for last year's CAF African Cup of Nations on home soil in 2008.
Third place wasn't a dream result for the Black Stars, but Annan took a major step as a player. "It was my first international tournament," he says. "It was a tremendous honour that the coach put his faith in me. Every African wants to play in the CAN, and on home soil it was even more special. We did what we could do, but we lacked a little bit of luck and missed out on the trophy. Now we are a better team, and better for the experience of having lost."
Focused on claiming the Norwegian top flight, something domestic giants Rosenborg are only one win away from doing, Annan says that English football would suit him well and that he'd like to play there someday. But for now his focus is intently on next year's FIFA World Cup finals.
Ghana sealed their place in the event on 6 September, with two games to spare, after a 2-0 win over Sudan. "When the final whistle went [against Sudan] I was so excited that I froze," Annan said, joy clearly in his voice. "I just stood there not moving, trying to think about what had happened. I stared into the sky and thanked God. I thought: 'We did it! I am here!'
"With next year being the first World Cup in Africa, we were all desperate to make sure we'd be there," Annan added about what will be Ghana's second finals on the trot and the first ever on African soil. "We were always talking about it together as a team like a bunch of kids, and then we did it."
The world seems to spreading out at young Annan's feet. With a move to one of Europe's big leagues looking likely and a virtually guaranteed place in the FIFA World Cup-bound Ghana's first team, this is one young Black Star about to shoot through the sky.