ONCE MORE, IT IS ASAMOAH GYAN

The man, despite being inactive on the pitch, is never far away from the news. On Wednesday, his countryfolk woke up to a surprise interview ‘suggesting that they should consider having him at the World Cup in Qatar.

A 36-year-old dreaming of a World Cup place is not the craziest thing to consider; the history of the competition is replete with examples. But this is Gyan, a person for whom things are usually not just black and white. What is incontrovertible is that for Ghana’s all-time top scorer to even think about this is a testament to his national team’s failure to properly replace him despite clear signs, from as early as late 2017, that injuries were hampering his prolific tendencies.

Asamoah’s last match for Ghana was in July 2019 in an Afcon round of 16 defeat against Tunisia. From that game to date, the Black Stars have played 26 games in all competitions. The team’s top scorer has been captain Andre Ayew (nine goals), followed by Thomas Partey, Kudus Mohammed and Jordan Ayew – all on four each.

In that time, Ghana have tried a plethora of strikers, but none have scored more than once for the team. Not Caleb Ekuban (1 goal), or Felix Afena-Gyan (1), or Richmond Boakye-Yiadom (1) or the many others.

The World Cup kicks off in exactly three months this week, on 20 November. Gyan’s last game of competitive club football was in April 2021 for Ghana Premier League (GPL) side, Legon Cities. Is it possible to see him gatecrash – I can’t find a more appropriate word – the final squad?

“I’ve been out for almost two years now due to injuries but I just need to get my body back in shape. It’s an eight-week programme and according to my physical instructor, I’m improving faster than he thought.”

In principle, then, Gyan can get his body back in shape in time for the tournament. But, of course, it’s not as simple as that.

SETTING THE SCENE

“I haven’t announced my retirement,” Gyan said in that BBC interview, which was broadcast on 16 August but was recorded a week prior.

That’s true. However, many an observer would not have been expecting the Ghana legend to make a comeback in this fashion, following his self-admitted struggles with weight issues – which has been clear for anyone following his constant stream of photos and videos on his Instagram account.

Returning to the GPL in November 2020 was supposed to be a gradual easing back from a few difficult years of football, largely due to injuries sustained while playing for NorthEast United in India (2017-2019) and, before then, Kayserispor in Turkey (2019-2020).

The player admits in his autobiography, released in April, that he simply lost the motivation to subject his body to the rigour required. However, after the book was launched, Gyan went to Wales in June for a Uefa coaching course, which is where he began putting his body to the test.

The question, therefore, remains: for a player who has featured in three consecutive World Cup tournaments from 2006 to 2014, seven consecutive Afcons from 2008 to 2019 (he watched this year’s edition at SuperSport studios, where he was a pundit), what is the motivation to have one last hurrah?

A BURNING DESIRE

In that BBC interview is a clue. “Anything can happen, you know? It’s happened before, talking about Cameroon in 1994, with Roger Milla coming back from retirement to play in a World Cup.”

1994 is a long time ago, but not long enough for us to recall how Milla made that Indomitable Lions squad, which was named shortly before he turned 42. Crucially, the great striker had been playing actively for Tonnerre Kalara Club of Yaoundé.

First, let’s go back to 1988.

Cameroon, coached by Claude Le Roy, had just won the Afcon, and Roger had bid an emotional farewell to the national team. In order to keep active while enjoying a well-earned retirement, Milla relocated to the quietude of the Réunion Islands, not far from Madagascar – where he played amateur football for a club called St. Pierre.

Meanwhile, life went on in Cameroon and the national team went on to qualify for the 1990 World Cup without him. As they got ready for pre-tournament camping in what was then Yugoslavia, imagine the shock to Cameroonian fans when it emerged that Milla had been added to the camp in eastern Europe.

“One of the players in the camp was my neighbour,” recalls Junior Binyam, a seasoned former Cameroonian broadcaster. “He was among the four players who did not make the final team that went to Italy, so when he came back home, we were all eager to hear his report on Milla’s fitness.”

According to Binyam, the player reported that before the camp, almost everyone in the team had been unhappy at Milla’s invitation – which, as was widely known, was an order from the country’s head of state, Paul Biya. Now, here’s the catch: the younger players had tried to heckle Milla, thinking his old muscles will force the technical team to drop the legend. Unfortunately for them, the striker proved again and again that he was on top of his game.

“With these reports, many of us believed that Milla will do something special at Italia ’90 if given the chance,” Binyam remembers. Milla was, indeed, given the chance, and would go on to dazzle the world. His call-up had been justified.

Right after that tournament, Roger went on to play professionally in Indonesia for two years until 1992. But, once again, he did not play in the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup, only to surface after the team had qualified.

Binyam says that this time, Milla was prepared for the public backlash, and smartly started preparing on time. “He joined his boyhood team, Tonnerre, and again he proved everybody wrong. His presence galvanized the league and he did not play like his age at all.”

Milla’s presence ensured that the game was the best-attended domestic match Cameroon had seen in years. Roger led Tonnerre to the final of the Coupe de Cameroon, where they lost. But by this time, all doubts about his match fitness were gone. His place in the team to USA ’94 was secured.

This brings us back to Ghana.

IS GYAN REALLY A MODERN DAY MILLA?

History is there to guide us. If Gyan really wants to convince Ghanaians – and at the moment, the overwhelming public opinion seems to be against his return – then he must find a club as quickly as possible and actually play football.

The new Ghana Premier League kicks off in exactly three weeks, on the weekend of 9-12 September. It is expected that the pre-tournament squad for Qatar will be named around the third week of October. That gives him a month to impress his countryfolk that a place on that plane will not be unfair to someone more deserving.

It is not Gyan’s age, 36, that bothers fans. After all, Messi is 35. Ronaldo is 37. They are both fit as can be. Egypt’s El Hadary, at 45, played 90 minutes against Saudi Arabia at the 2018 tournament to become the oldest player in history to do so.

Fans know what the Baby Jet can do, and are aware that a 70 per cent fit version of him is probably better than any striker currently available to the Black Stars.

Gyan says: “I just want to make sure I see how my body reacts first. I just need to get to some level and then I can say I’m ready. Everything looks positive, so we’ll see what happens. There might be a surprise.”

Ghana coach Otto Addo has not yet spoken to Gyan and it is not known if he is even considering the player. With 51 goals for Ghana, Asamoah has pedigree. What he does not have is form.

And, unlike Milla, who could count on a president to include him by executive fiat, Ghanaians are in no mood to countenance such an order, especially under the current political climate.

If Asamoah Gyan wants to surprise anybody, the first person he must surprise is himself.