Assifuah and Ghana endure the longest wait

It was a long two-day wait but it ended in relief for Ghana. After doing what they had to do last Thursday by beating USA 4-1 to secure third place in Group A of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013, the Black Satellites had to sit and wait for the other groups to reach their conclusions and hope they would squeeze through to the last 16 of the competition.

Finally, on Saturday evening they could breathe easy, with Egypt’s 2-0 defeat of England confirming they would go through as the last of the four best third-placed teams. It was a close-run thing, however, the Ghanaians ending the group phase with the same goal difference of zero as the Egyptians but having scored five goals to the north Africans’ four.

While there was frustration for both the Pharaohs and the English when the final whistle sounded in Bursa, there were celebrations nearly 800 kilometres away at the Hotel Hilton in Kayseri, where the Ghana team are staying.

Members of the coaching staff, medical team and the squad itself emerged from their rooms on the ninth floor to hug each other and celebrate the end of a long and tense wait.

“We were watching the game (between Egypt and England) and we were all very nervous. We only just got through,” the forward Ebenezer Assifuah told, recalling the dramatic final two minutes of the match in Bursa, when Egypt scored their second goal, leaving them needing just one more to go through. “We were worried but thanks to God everything worked out. The last couple of days have been very long and we are very happy now.”

To begin with at least, the singing and partying that echoed around the other floors of the hotel was triggered by nothing more than Ghana’s relief at squeezing through. Yet as time went by, you could have been excused for thinking the celebrations formed part of the African side’s tactical preparations for their Round of 16 match. Facing them in that game will be Portugal, who as it happens are staying just two floors below the Ghanaians and were no doubt asking themselves what all the fuss was about as they returned from their evening meal on Saturday.

Party animal Assifuah was the life and soul of Ghana’s qualification party at the Hilton and not without good reason, having scored two of the goals in the vital win over the Americans, which gave the African side renewed hope after their defeats to France and Spain. After grabbing the second of those goals he showed how much of a fun-lover he is by dancing a celebratory jig alongside his team-mates.

As he explained, he knew at the time just how important that goal was, even if it would be another two days before he and his colleagues would learn their fate.

“I think we just needed to let some steam off,” he said. “It was a spontaneous bit of fun and it was good for the team. We played well in our first two games and lost them both but we decided we weren’t going to give up.”

Their determination was rewarded, as was Assifuah’s own persistence around about year ago, when he was still playing for the unfashionable Sekondi Eleven Wise in Ghana’s second division. Though well out of the spotlight, he kept plugging away and received the call to join the national U-20 team for the African qualifiers, the goals he scored there earning him a contract with modest first-division outfit Liberty Professionals.

While not the career-defining move the 19-year-old Assifuah might have hoped for, it was with the Accra club that talents such as Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, Asamoah Gyan and Kwadwo Asamoah first emerged before finding fame and fortune in Europe.

Those precedents give Assifuah every reason to believe he has made the right move: “Liberty are a small club but I enjoy playing for them and it could be an important step in my career. The great players who have been here are an inspiration for me and I know that if I can keep going, then I’ll have every chance of following in their footsteps. We have an incredible opportunity now and I hope there are some European clubs watching our games and that lots of players from the team can make the move there.”

Assifuah had discussed his career and future dreams in a brief interview with following last Thursday’s match at the Kadir Has Stadium in Kayseri. Before stepping on the bus that would take the team back to the Hilton, he explained what the following few days would be like: “We’ll just sit in the hotel and wait to see what happens. We’ll watch the games and cheer the right teams on.”

As it turned out for Assifuah and his colleagues, the wait was definitely worthwhile.