By Ed Dove, Goal.com
“Would you have stepped up to take a penalty?” I asked Mitch Apau , towards the end of our interview earlier this week.
The Westerlo man smiled broadly, chuckled gently and pictured the scene, taking himself back to the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. The defender watched that match in Amsterdam with his friends and family, but what if he’d been there, in that crucial moment, at the Estadio de Bata, when Avram Grant asked him to choose…?
Speaking to him, it was clear that for the duration of the African showpiece in Equatorial Guinea, Apau was as much a Ghana fan as a Black Stars hopeful.
He admits that he shared the run-up to the final with his Ivorian teammate at Westerlo, Kevin Koffi, the pair of them joking about whom they fancied for the title and why their respective nations would win.
“Kevin and I spoke about the final a lot,” Mitch recalled, “he was obviously supporting the Ivory Coast, but he said that if Ghana won he wouldn’t be upset because Ghana’s team was young, and full of rising stars, whereas the Ivory Coast side was full of big names and established stars.
“But they won, so I think he was more happy for himself than upset for me!”
Beneath the Black Stars fan, however, and a fierce pride for the land of his parents, it’s clear that Apau isn’t merely content to watch his compatriots from afar and enjoy the positivity running through the veins of Ghanaian football.
He wants to be a part of it.
The former Ajax man wants to be a protagonist in the narrative, wants to play his own part in the showpiece occasions and, critically, believes he merits a place in Avram Grant’s Black Stars set-up.
It’s easy to see how the defender might fit into this new-look Ghana side.
“I watched the Africa Cup of Nations and I was struck by the fact that we looked like and felt like a completely new team,” he recalled.
“There were lots of youngsters. I liked the way they played football. They truly played football, it wasn’t just kick and rush, they played it to feet. It was something I noticed and I really liked that about the team that played at the Afcon.”
Apau had harboured some hope of being involved in the Nations Cup side before the tournament, particularly as Grant’s fresh start opened the door to several previously untested players.
FC Kobenhavn’s 20-year-old defender Daniel Amartey was brought into the squad and would start four of Grant’s first five matches, including every group-stage game in Equatorial Guinea.
Kwesi Appiah, the 24-year-old Crystal Palace forward, was also invited, and despite being lukewarmly received by the Black Stars fans and media before the tournament, proved himself to be international class with several key contributions.
Frank Acheampong had previously featured for the national side, but had rarely been trusted by previous coach Kwesi Appiah.
Grant appeared to have faith—Acheampong started the manager’s first match, the friendly against Olhanense and would go on to appear in every knockout match at the Afcon.
Mahatma Otoo and Ernest Sowah were also invited, while another young Europe-based player, midfielder Enoch Kofi Adu, was included in Grant’s preliminary squad.
Apau shares the same profile as many of these players. He is young (24), technically proficient and, not yet playing in one of Europe’s big five leagues, he is hungry to reach his level within the sport.
“There were lots of young guys in that squad,” the defender continued, surely picturing himself among their number, “a lot of guys from Europe.
“They weren’t the famous names, just talented young guys, that’s what I really like about the team.”
When I asked the player what he needed to do to take his place among the Black Stars elect, he was confident about his proximity to a maiden call-up.
“I know it’s not far away,” he went on, “you just have to be consistent every week, play as well as you can, get high grades.
“You never know when the selectors will come and take a look at you.”
Indeed, Apau confirmed that officials from the Black Stars have been to Belgium to watch him in action in the Jupiler League, suggesting that even if a call-up may not be forthcoming for Ghana’s friendlies at the end of March, he is at least on Grant’s radar.
It’s not just selectors from the national team that have come to take a look at Apau, one of the most talented defenders in Belgium.
While rumours of a move to Chelsea appeared far-fetched from the off—and were ultimately little more than the active imagination of some Ghanaian journalists—Apau has attracted interest from the rapidly improving Super Lig.
It’s a switch that the defender believes may well help him in his quest for that first Ghana cap.
“The number of Ghanaians in the Super Lig is something that makes it appealing to me,” he admitted.
“I think maybe it’s a sign that our style of play goes down pretty well in the Turkish league, so I think that they can see that they need the type of players as us.
“Maybe it would be easier to get a call-up from there than here!”
While it is clear to me that Apau is characteristically a motivated, ambitious and determined guy, the key thing that struck me from our conversation is how Grant’s meritocratic approach to squad selection has inspired young Ghanaians from across Europe.
In refusing to return to Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng—haggard bundles of complications that they are—in turning to Copenhagen and Crystal Palace, to Amartey and to Appiah, Grant hammered home the message that the Black Stars belong to anyone with the quality, the consistency and the drive.
They can belong to Acheampong, Accam, Adu—all faces of the new generation and, in time, one suspects, Apau too.
Just don’t expect him to take a penalty!
For more Ghana football news visit www.ghanasoccernet.com
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