When then Ghana coach Chris Hughton named his AFCON 2023 squad, two names were conspicuously missing; PAOK left-back Abdul Baba Rahman and Leicester City winger Abdul Fatawu Issahaku.

Baba Rahman who had endured a love-hate relationship with fans over inconsistent performances, announced he had opted out of the team. 

After years of error-strewn performances, it probably was the best course of action for all. 

For Abdul Fatawu Issahaku however, the story was different. 

Two weeks before the tournament, he reportedly told Hughton that he would not be available for the tournament. 

This was a kid who was still learning to cut his teeth two years after making his competitive debut for Ghana. 

The idea that he could pick and choose when to respond to national call-ups did not sit well with many.

Chris Hughton's explanation at the Alisa Hotel on New Year's Day did not help matters. 

Then Ghana coach, Chris Hughton

"We have a situation where from the players that we have picked, we potentially have seven players that can either play on the right or are playing on the right (side of attack). It is my responsibility as head coach to balance the squad and there are always decisions that I have to make.

Certainly, the individual that you have spoken about, Fatawu, yes it was a difficult decision but I have to make these difficult decisions for what I believe are good reasons’’

That last line. 

Referring to Fatawu as the "individual", before, after realizing the damage that single moment could cause, however innocent it may have been, mentioning his name.

He did not own the issue the way he often does. Most journalists at the Alisa Hotel, including myself, were not convinced by that answer. Outside and in many parts of the country, the reaction was the same.

People were pissed.

It was not all emotional rants and witch hunts. 

In the two years before this, Ghanaians have watched with disdain, as a bunch of passables have practically been begged to play for the country. 

They have seen how the national team has been monetized in the past decade.

Bit by bit, the integrity and pride associated with the national team had been chipped away right before their eyes. This is where they chose to draw the line. 

But the gods of football have always been cynical, with a wicked sense of humor.

On January 13, Fatawu Issahaku was sent off in a 3-1 loss at Coventry. The winger was subsequently suspended for two weeks, due to return on the day before the AFCON final. 

What followed was expected. 

Amid the vilification, logic got lost. And there was quite a bit to his decision.

What many did not understand was that Fatawu had spent the past two years shuttling through Ghana's national teams.

Between 2021 and December 2023, Fatawu participated in five tournaments for Ghana’s Black Satellites (Under 17), Black Satellites (Under 20), Black Meteors (Under 23) and the Black Stars. 

Fatawu Issahaku in Black Stars colours

Due to the frequency of these competitions, Fatawu often found himself in national team camps even at season's end. As well as he was doing at Leicester, Fatawu was still behind Osman Bukari, Jordan Ayew, Joseph Paintsil, and Ernest Nuamah. January 2024 was essentially the first time in his eighteen-month-old professional career that he would enjoy an uninterrupted season. 

And the results were starting to show. 

By mid-January, Fatawu was in the 91st percentile for goal involvements per 90 and in the 78th percentile for non-penalty expected goals for every ninety minutes he played. His cross-completion stood at 33.33% while his passing completion rate shot up to 80.97%. By the end of the month, he was making 2.01 key passes per game. Four months later, Fatawu has clocked 39 games. He has created 32 big chances, 10 more than the nearest player in the championships.

In terms of direct goal contributions, Fatawu has 20 in total; 13 assists, and seven goals. But it is not just an end product merchant. Fatawu's associative play has improved exponentially. And it is not just his willingness to combine with teammates, but also knowing which is the better option.

Fatawu is blessed with remarkable pace, dribbling ability, explosiveness, and incredible strength to go with. In his early years - particularly at Sporting Lisbon, he trusted those attributes a bit more than necessary.

In fact at Leicester, Maresca had cause to complain about his erratic shooting in February. However, that is not something that can be held against him now. He still trusts himself, but he has learned to be patient and trust the plan more. These days, Fatawu gets closer to the box and prefers to wrap his foot around the ball to bend it, as opposed to hitting it from a mile away and with the wrong technique. 

Instead of attempting to take on defenders at every turn, Fatawu has also learned to combine with his teammates and wait for the space to appear. 

Fatawu Issahaku wheels away in celebration after one of his seven goals for Leicester this season

Another noticeable change in his game is his willingness to go down the by-line and cross with his weaker foot. That certainly has made him less predictable.

Enzo Maresca is a good coach but he has by no means worked magic here. Where he - and Fatawu himself - take credit, is the player’s re-education. Like most Ghanaian players, Fatawu operates predominantly in 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 setups. That’s how he made his name, first at Tamale Steadfast, and later Dreams FC.

Yet, within months of joining Leicester, he has been able to take on new information to become possibly Leicester's best player in a 3-4-1-2 formation (when in possession).

It says quite a bit about the player's intelligence, his conceptualization skills, and his capacity to respond to real-time scenarios during matches. It was therefore not surprising that Leicester named him their young player of the year. Sources say Leicester are prepared to pay £17.5 million to Sporting Lisbon to make the deal permanent. 

Whether they choose to accept Leicester's offer or not, Lisbon now has a player who has shown that he is not at all a talented player without the "fundamentals". But a remarkable talent who has led Leicester's successful return to the Premier League.

The former Dreams FC winger has enjoyed a brilliant season, scoring seven goals and assisting on 13 occasions

When he comes down in June, Fatawu will return with a bit more authority. 

He has outperformed Joseph Paintsil - currently on four goals and four assists in 11 games for LA Galaxy, Ernest Nuamah - three goals and two assists in 26 matches at Olympique Lyon, and Kamaldeen Sulemana - three assists and no goals in 26 matches, Jordan Ayew - four goals seven assists in 33 matches at Crystal Palace. 

Among Ghana's forwards, only the mercurial Mohammed Kudus; with 13 goals and five assists in 43 appearances, compares with Fatawu's remarkable season. It goes without saying that he will return to the team as a significantly improved player.

Beyond Sporting Lisbon, Leicester City and the Black Stars, his former club Tamale Steadfast are perhaps the biggest winners in this. They will reportedly make a windfall of £9.5million from the transfer.

Looks like a win for all parties. 

Ghanaians did not like it then, but Abdul Fatawu Issahaku's positive defiance in January has worked out well.

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