“We all know how much Ghanaians love football and how they give their hearts to the Black Stars, but even so we were surprised about the extent of the support we got. They gave us so much strength to allow us play to our best and we know without them we wouldn't have been able to achieve such a result.”
Looking back on one of the high points of his career to date, Christian Atsu fondly recalls the atmosphere on 15 October as Ghana stunned Egypt in Kumasi to stride to within inches of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. The astonishing 6-1 play-off win stunned even the most optimistic of Black Stars fans and Atsu was able to put his name to this particular west African fable too.
Coming on with five already in the hosts' column, he put the icing on the cake by hitting a fine left-footed drive into the bottom corner amidst a carnival in the stands. “When I came on we were ahead and I was full of confidence, then I got my goal and the fans couldn't contain their happiness about the result.”
It was one of the stand-out moments in a big year for the newly-turned 22-year-old, which started with his first CAF Africa Cup of Nations and ended with World Cup qualification – with a move to Chelsea from FC Porto sandwiched in the middle.
Now on loan at Vitesse in the Netherlands, the speedy Ghanaian – who can operate on either wing or through the centre – is really hitting his stride. With self-belief growing, the hot prospect from Ada Foah is full of praise for the part Black Stars coach James Kwesi Appiah has played in helping him shine on the bigger stages.
“He really prioritises young players and played an important role in me playing for the national team,” the softly-spoken Atsu said. “When I joined up with them he told me that even good players who come into the national team can get nervous, but he encouraged me to play my normal game.”
Appiah handed the then-Porto man his debut against Lesotho in their opening Brazil 2014 qualifier and the coach's insistence on putting the youngster at ease was instantly rewarded with a goal. “If I was to lose the ball he would not complain, so with this he boosted my confidence and made me much more relaxed, which in turn saw my level rise. I'm very grateful for what he has done for me.”
It is this confidence that Atsu, joint youngest of ten siblings along with his twin sister, looks intent on trying to take to Brazil. It will be just over two years since he made his Black Stars debut come June, a day which the grinning attacking midfielder said made his family “so happy he can't even describe it”, but should he make the squad he will be initially presented with three fiendishly tough games.
“When I saw the group I realised how tough it would be, but I said to myself 'this will make us work extra hard' as Germany, Portugal and USA are all strong and have quality players,” he explained as he assessed Group G. “But now everyone is doing all they can to get into the squad and then from there we will all fight for positions in the team. But the more we fight together as a team, the stronger we will be.”
Experience is essential
The experience of getting to the quarter-finals at South Africa 2010 is something he believes will be invaluable in the dressing room, particularly for those at their first global finals. “We need the likes of [Michael] Essien, [Asamoah] Gyan, [Sulley] Muntari, [Kevin] Prince-Boateng, [Kwadwo] Asamoah, we need these experienced players in Brazil," he insisted. "They know what it is like in these kinds of tournaments so it will be very helpful if they are with us as they are able to help us young ones.”
What they managed at the last World Cup, where the Black Stars equalled the best-ever African performance at a World Cup – and were a missed penalty away from bettering it, is certainly something that still resonates with Atsu. “We Ghanaians are very proud of what was achieved in 2010,” he said.
“I was watching from Portugal when I was with Porto on the night we went out on penalties and missed out on the semi-finals, but it was a great performance. Now we are looking at 2014, and we know what we have to do, we are focussed on the present, rather than the past.”
He has a similar attitude when looking ahead to the restarting Dutch Eredivisie season, where Vitesse currently share top spot with Ajax after an impressive first-half of the campaign. Having been loaned out immediately by Chelsea after his move from Porto, Atsu has had get into gear quickly to find his place in the title-chasing side. “I've had to work hard but the most important thing for me was to adapt quickly and integrate into the team,” he said.
He has also had a new role to contend with, having been employed as a No10 by Peter Bosz rather than on the flanks where he caught the eye so impressively in Portugal. “It wasn't a position I had played in before,” Atsu admitted, “but things are working out well now. It means I have had to work very hard in the midfield to help out my team, which is something I am getting used to.”
Having first realised he had a real chance of achieving his dream at becoming a professional player while at Feyenoord's academy in Ghana, it is somewhat poignant that he is furthering his career in the Netherlands, albeit for one of their rivals.
His current side lead the fourth-placed Rotterdamers by four points and are three above nearest-chasers FC Twente, but Atsu is aware the journey towards success a long one. Vitesse came within a whisker of UEFA Champions League football last season, before dropping out of Europe entirely by August.
Despite fresh memories of going so close within the dressing room, the Ghanaian insists talk of glory in May is far from anyone's lips. “For now no one is thinking about playing Champions League football or winning the championship as there is a long way to go. We need to focus for the rest of the year to have any chance of achieving that.”
With the likes of his parent club and Appiah to impress on top of domestic success, there are plenty of prizes for the up-and-coming star to zero in on as he looks to create more memorable days like the one in Kumasi back in October.