On Friday, March 22, Callum Hudson-Odoi broke records and Ghanaian hearts in making his competitive debut as a substitute for the English senior national team; three days later, the Chelsea teen was handed his first start, against Montenegro in a second EURO 2020 qualifier, by Three Lions head coach Gareth Southgate.
Between those milestones for Hudson-Odoi, Caleb Ekuban — seven years older — also made his international bow, doing so for his parents’ homeland. He got a goal, the winner as Ghana beat Kenya in sealing top-spot qualification for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Another strike when Ghana thumped Mauritania 3-1 in a friendly on Tuesday had many — including Black Stars boss Kwesi Appiah, hopefully — convinced that the nation may have found the striker to carry its scoring burden at the summer showpiece amid a worrying dearth of credible options.
Ekuban has had the more impactful start, yes, but between him and Hudson-Odoi, many Ghanaians would rather have the latter. The 18-year-old is a highly-rated youth, a subject of relentless pursuit by some of Europe’s top clubs — never mind the fact that he already plays for one, Chelsea of London.
Ekuban, on the other hand, has less of a buzz around him. Already in his mid-twenties, he’d probably never be spoken of in the same light as Hudson-Odoi; the Italy-born currently plays on loan in Turkey and, before that, in England’s second-tier where Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa doesn’t seem to think much of him.
Hudson-Odoi and Ekuban, respectively, are only the latest additions to two distinct groups of players of Ghanaian extraction born and/or bred in the West: those who choose to represent Ghana and those who don’t. Hudson-Odoi joins the likes of Marcel Desailly, Jerome Boateng, Danny Welbeck and Mario Balotelli; for Ekuban, there is less celebrated company to be found in Otto Addo, Hans Adu Sarpei, Kwesi Appiah, Kevin-Prince Boateng, et al.
And almost as soon as Ghana loses one to the former category — as has happened after the fresh Hudson-Odoi instance – the local media and fans turn on our national team handlers, berating them for not giving enough in the chase. The truth, though, is that Ghana would always struggle to outmuscle these foreign superpowers, regardless of what the motherland throws at the coveted lads. A thousand phone calls won’t turn their heads, neither would all the rice in Aveyime — not when world champions like England, Italy, Spain and Germany are wooing same.
More success and upgrading the standards of Ghana’s national teams would certainly offer a competitive edge, but there’s only so much that could be done. In the end, it’s largely down to which country the player identifies with more and how alluring the prospects there are. Home, after all, is where the heart is — and thankfully, for Ekuban and others like him, Ghana is home: where the heart and the future is.
Yes, such experiments haven’t always gone swimmingly – for a case in point, see FC Barcelona’s Boateng, nearly a decade after switching from Germany — but, every now and then, a gem shines through.