After Ghana’s unconvincing World Cup qualifying campaign, and group stage exit from the Africa Cup of Nations, in-form Ajax Amsterdam forward Mohammed Kudus will shoulder plenty of pressure in Qatar.
Fortunately for the Black Stars, his upbringing at the prestigious Right to Dream Academy in Akosombo, Ghana, shaped the 22-year-old perfectly for facing the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Son Heung-min, and Darwin Nunez in group play.
From gaining the technical versatility to play as a box-to-box midfielder, to demonstrating the mental strength to play through pain, Kudus aced every test thrown at him at the Academy, say Ghana assistant coach Mas-Ud Didi Dramani — a crucial mentor for Kudus in his youth – and Right to Dream founder Tom Vernon.
“I met Kudus in 2014 [or] 2015,” Dramani, also the head of Right to Dream’s Ghana academy, told ESPN. “I remember very well, I think he broke his thumb and he was in a cast and still working with the group. I still recall those moments and how mentally stable and tough he was, playing with a cast on him.
“I think he was not a player that was scouted immediately from our normal scouting, even though he was noticed, and then they (Right to Dream’s scouts) kept monitoring him. We played against his team and in that situation, he stood out, and we needed no time to bring him in and he still stood out [after being signed].
“At that time, I remember, we saw him more as a box-to-box midfielder. What he’s doing today is things that he was doing in that period – where he [took] the ball right from a deep midfield role and wanted to go further up the pitch and find the possibility of finding goals and still having his own creativity of play.”
Right to Dream’s academy in Ghana was the organisation’s original home base, although they have since expanded. This year, they have ventured into Egypt after forming a partnership with the Mansour Group, which was announced in January 2021.
They also have ambitions of entering the US, but the original big move outside Ghana’s borders was in December 2015, when the not-for-dividend organisation acquired Denmark’s FC Nordsjælland (FCN).
Right to Dream’s Ghana academy is in a relatively isolated setting in Akosombo, over two hours by car from Accra. Kudus’ upbringing at the academy, which he joined aged 12, was thus relatively sheltered at first.
However, his world changed quickly in his late teens as he was integrated into Ghana’s U17 national team, and then subsequently signed by FCN at the age of 17 in 2018.
“Fortunately, he’s had the opportunity to play in the U17s and play in the U20 squad,” Dramani said. “He then joined FCN in 2018… I was the transitional coach and my role was to facilitate [players’] integration and adaptation in so many aspects on and off the pitch.
“On the pitch, I helped them with individual training and in tactical orientation in terms of what Kasper wanted – Kasper Hjulmand, the [current] Danish national team coach [and then FCN boss] – what he wanted at that time.
“If the boys were not getting it – not only Kudus – if the boys were not getting it in the right way, I was closer to them to facilitate [than Hjulmand was].”
Kudus starred for FCN, scoring 11 goals in the 2019/20 Superliga – his second full season – and earning a move to Ajax. However, he struggled to make an impression at the Dutch giants initially.
By then, he was an established Ghana international, so his patience was tested, but he toughed it out at Ajax and his perseverance has been rewarded.
Heading into the World Cup, he has 10 goals and two assists for his club in 982 minutes in all competitions this season, including a stunning strike against Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League.
In the battle with Brian Brobbey for a starting berth upfront, he has matched his teammate blow for blow.
“I remember when he started the league and things were not going well. I told him: ‘Don’t turn your back against training. In the Black Stars, we believe in you. We know what you can do,'” Dramani recalled.
“I know what to tell Kudus… and he knows what role I have played in his development from Right to Dream to FCN – and from FCN, even getting into the Black Stars and getting to play in the U20 [Africa Cup of Nations 2019] in Niger.
“When things were not going well, I said: ‘Just keep training. We have trust in you. When they give you five minutes, show them that you need 10 minutes. When they give you 10 minutes, show them that you need 20 minutes and you will grow with your minutes.
“Now, who would want to drop Kudus? I’m sure if they want to drop him in Ajax, his teammates will tell the coach: ‘Please let him play. He gives us what we need to play.’ I think that his development has come at the right time.”
Dramani referenced his standout performance in the 3-0 defeat to Brazil on September 23 as an example of Kudus reaching a peak: “Every Right to Dream product is training with the values of self-confidence, discipline, being proactive and being resourceful in terms of taking responsibility.
“Kudus, as we all know, decides things on his own. That’s the creativity [that makes him say]: ‘No, I can take them on. I can stop them from going.’
“Who would have expected that Kudus would have to meet a player like Neymar and not care? If he has to kick him, he kicks him. If he has to go past him, he goes past him.
“Playing against Brazil gives him something extra… Playing against Neymar, Casemiro and Vinicius, [he thinks]: ‘If they kick me, I am going to kick them without even thinking,’ because he has had the opportunity to play against Brazilians, Italians and English growing up.
“These are life experiences. You cannot buy it anywhere… Even though he’s a quiet person who doesn’t talk, he makes his talking happen on the pitch.”
Meanwhile, back home, Vernon hailed Kudus’ impact on residents at Right to Dream’s Ghana academy, which according to the organisation’s website has produced 144 graduates, saying that he was fast becoming a “legend” at the facility.
“I don’t know if you saw the video of, when he scored against Liverpool, the kids going crazy at the academy,” the academy’s founder told ESPN.
“Identifiable role models is something that throughout history has proved to be an important thing, so to see someone who sat at the same dining room tables and played on the same pitches going to that level of course has a tangible impact on the belief that young players have that they can go on and do the same thing.”
Ghana’s recent form is a long way off from the exploits of the golden generation that was consistently among the top teams at the Africa Cup of Nations, and reached the knockout rounds of successive World Cups in 2006 and 2010.
They will need a quick fix if they are to turn their fortunes around for their World Cup campaign, which kicks off against Portugal on November 24 before clashes with South Korea on November 28 and Uruguay on December 2.
Apart from being one of their best hopes of driving a surprise run in Qatar, Kudus looks set to be the man to drive Ghanaian football’s revolution in years to come, putting his Right to Dream education to practice at precisely the moment his country needs him most.