Sports Features of 2014-06-23

Boy to Man: Ayew comes full circle

He might just be the one member of the Black Stars who gives every Ghanaian a cause to smile every time.

It hasn't always been so, though. Once, Ayew's popularity was so low it seemed he would never succeed in establishing himself as a Ghana regular.

When called up for the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations by Frenchman Claude Le Roy, many were those who raised the argument that the teenager hadn't earned his place on merit. It was, they claimed, only because his father, Abedi 'Pele' Ayew, was probably the best footballer Ghana had ever produced.

It also didn't help that, young as he was, there were apparent flaws in his game.

Ayew's chances at that tournament were sparse, the pressure great. He had a nation to convince, and a famous dad's boots to fill.

He seemed hardly capable of either at the time, yet he has now done both beyond all reasonable doubt.

Leading and inspiring the Black Satellites to unheralded glory at the 2009 Fifa Under-20 World Cup provided the spark and, when the stars of that victorious batch - the likes of Agyemang Badu, Rabiu Mohammed, Daniel Adjei, Dominic Adiyiah, Daniel Opare et al- were being promoted almost en masse to senior level, 'Dede' was at the fore.

Since then, it has been sheer bliss.

At his club Olympique Marseille, Ayew has become the player Les Phoceens hold dearest, while that kind of form has reflected heavily on his international career.

Ayew proved invaluable at the 2010 Nations Cup where, in the absence of several of the Stars' regular figures, he assumed a leading role, his winner in the final group game against Burkina Faso setting the team off on a path that culminated in a runners-up finish.

Later that year, he made the Fifa World Cup his own with some assured, vibrant performances that helped the Stars move within touching distance of an unprecedented semi-final ticket. On a personal level, he narrowly missed out on the competition's Best Young Player award for which he was shortlisted.

By the time the next Afcon adventure came along, Ayew was already a guaranteed starter for Ghana and scored perhaps his most memorable career goal: an extra-time clincher against Tunisia that took the Stars into the last-four.

There was a period in early 2013 when it appeared Dede - along with brother Jordan Ayew - had suffered a relapse of sorts. An incident with Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah (the details of which are yet unclear to many) just prior to the most recent Nations Cup edition prompted a premature decision to retire by the Ayew brothers, leading to Dede's temperament being questioned.

Before the year was out, however, the pair had returned - after some personal prodding by Ghana's president, such is the esteem with which Ayew has come to be regarded in his homeland - and been successfully re-installed to help push the nation's fruitful quest for 2014 World Cup qualification over the line.

This he did with aplomb, even to the extent of injuring himself in the final game of the series.

On commencement of the fiesta in Brazil itself, Ayew has stepped up a notch, breathing life into Ghana's first two group games at stages during which all seemed lost. Against the USA on June 16, he sliced a lovely left-footed finish just minutes from full-time to give his country hope of at least a point in a match that had seen the Stars trail almost from kickoff. Regrettably, there was still time for the Americans to fetch a late winner, forcing Ghana to bank their hopes on an improved outcome five days later against Germany. On that occasion as well, Ayew didn't disappoint.

With his clean-shaven pate, he delivered a peach of a header off Harrison Afful's sublime cross to restore parity after Mario Gotze had secured an early lead for the Germans.

And, with his characteristic on-pitch animated gesturing and vocalness, he was captured on camera marshalling his colleagues and revving the fans up. His quality ball-playing talents aside, Ayew is obviously a natural leader; your ultimate pick-up guy any day. It is a trait Ghanaians have noticed and love him for, as they do his grit and passion.

Talk is already rife that he be given the armband if ever current skipper Asamoah Gyan forfeits it for some reason, and this writer couldn't agree more. For a fact, Dede would be a great captain. In word and deed, he inspires and leads.

Aged just 24, this Mundial could yet be his crowning glory and if Ghana do make it into the knockout rounds - incredibly improbable as it now seems - Ayew would have had a lot to do with it.

Seven years after his international debut (he is on a half-century of caps already), Ayew has finally come swimmingly, convincingly good.

He has improved as a player and as a person, on top of the demanding mentoring role he is required to play for his talented yet often frustrating younger sibling.

Thanks, then, Abedi. You couldn't have scored a finer goal for your country.