Accra, Ghana – In Nima, Mohammed Kudus commands god-like status. In the dense neighbourhood of Accra that he calls home, there is pride in the locals’ voices when his name is mentioned.
Fans of his club Ajax know him for scoring goals, dribbling, creating chances and occasionally pulling off a cheeky piece of skill on the football pitch.
To the people of Nima though, he’ll always be that innocent-looking, scrawny kid who captivated them with his magical left foot at craggy Kawukudi Park for years.
One episode from his time there with his boyhood club Strong Tower FC is fondly etched in the minds of many of his hometown fans.
During a high-profile friendly against Powerlines FC at junior level, an 11-year-old Kudus carried the team on his shoulders, dominating the game and showing an innate precision rare in footballers his age. In the end, he netted all six goals as Strong Tower drew 6-6 with their opponents.
To date, the memory of the young star outclassing his opponents on that day in 2011 remains an anecdote held dear in these parts.
“I first saw Kudus play on the street, and I immediately saw a good player in him,” says Joshua ‘Ayoba’ Awuah, the manager of Strong Tower, who discovered Kudus and set him on a path to greatness.
“I invited him to my training ground, and he was fantastic from day one,” Awuah said. “I named him ‘world’s best’. He was only 10 years when I met him, but his quality was clear.”
Nima, a slum community in Accra, is typically associated with gangs, crime and drug abuse. Until recently, anyone born or raised there was stereotyped as bad company.
In recent years, a number of its residents have defied these stereotypes, including President Nana Akufo-Addo, and Kudus who has been using football to shine a light on the neighbourhood.
To King Osei Gyan, a director at Right to Dream Academy in Akosombo in eastern Ghana where Kudus eventually went, he “represents the next generation of top talent from Africa who really know their self-worth and they’ll fight for it and stand for it”.
The athlete’s willingness to combine football with education also helped in his breakthrough, those who know him said. Young Kudus was gifted on the pitch and brilliant in the classroom. Something that helped him do both was a football tournament organised in Nima by a nonprofit called Books and Boots.
The NGO specifically targets communities faced with poverty, crime, drug abuse and teenage pregnancy with the aim of using football to encourage children to adopt a culture of reading.
Nima ticked all the boxes.
“Kudus must have been around 12 years and he was very smallish,” recalled Yaw Ampofo-Ankrah, the CEO of Books and Boots. “He wasn’t necessarily a standout player, but he had the skills. Apparently, he crossed the road from Nima with his brothers and cousins and played.”
“Those who watched him closely were, however, very impressed, and after the event, a Right to Dream scout approached me and asked permission to talk to the boy’s representatives,” he said.
That was how Kudus ended up at the Right to Dream Academy. He was raw but fit seamlessly into his new surroundings, his coaches said.
“Kudus showed great potential the first day he walked in,” said Oman Abdul Rabi, Right to Dream’s skills development coach. “The way he was taking his touches, his movement and general play, you could see that he had potential.”
In his six years at the academy, Kudus gave it his all, playing across midfield and occasionally being moved up top due to his versatility. Beyond his talent, his strong character made him a popular figure among his teammates.
Gyan, one of the first batch of players who enrolled at the academy when it launched in 1999, went on to play for Fulham and was capped once by Ghana before eventually returning to the academy in an administrative role.
All that experience taught the 33-year-old to see that Kudus had the right mix of attitude, football ability, and hard work – traits that Gyan says have shaped him into the player he is today.
“From the very first day, Ayoba kept saying if Kudus would become the world’s best player,” Gyan said. “For me, the connection was his ability to try things, to flip the ball over people’s heads and to try to create things in the game and to make a difference.”
Of his many fond memories of Kudus’s time at Right to Dream, one, from a division two game, stands out.
“You know how lower division games are in Ghana with grown men,” Gyan said. “If you miss the ball, don’t miss the man. Kudus was around 16 then, but what made him special was his technical ability being so high against men and having that kind of grace to still compete physically and not necessarily get pulled into any fight or irritation, despite being constantly kicked, and still be the best. It said a lot about him as a teenager.”
Kudus was a key member of the academy team that went unbeaten during its European tour, winning four trophies, including the Nike World U15 Premier Cup.
“He was very tough to play against,” said Emmanuel Ogura, Kudus’s former teammate at Right to Dream. “He was very scary because he always wants to dribble and create something. I’m expecting to see him stand out more.”
By the time FC Nordsjaelland came calling in 2018, Kudus was ready to take on the world. A few days after his 18th birthday, he became Nordsjaelland’s ninth youngest debutant ever and ended up netting 11 goals in his only full season with the club
In the middle of 2020, 18 months into his stay in Denmark, he got a dream move to Ajax and has since grown in both status and mentality.
In 2020, he was nominated by Italy’s Tuttosport newspaper for its Golden Boy Award for being one of the most impressive youngsters playing in Europe that year.
Although niggling injuries blighted his first two seasons at Ajax, he has finally regained full fitness and is playing some of the best football of his career.
New manager Alfred Schreuder has deployed him as a false nine, rather than in his favoured playmaking role. Still, the 22-year-old has shone, netting 10 goals and two assists in all competitions this season, including four strikes in the UEFA Champions League.
Such has been Kudus’s rich vein of form that Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp described him as an “incredible” player. French legend Thierry Henry has also been impressed, saying: “He came from the academy Right to Dream from Ghana, and he is living the dream.”
For Ghana, Kudus has also developed into a key member of the Black Stars since scoring on his international debut against South Africa in a 2021 AFCON qualifier and seems set to be influential at the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
In Nima, his story continues to inspire many people, and he often visits his boyhood club, Strong Tower, to donate boots and other items.
“Kudus now doesn’t just belong to the family, he’s for everybody,” said his uncle Abdul Fatawu Alhassan. “When you enter Nima, they call him ‘The Pride of Nima’, and we’re happy he’ll be representing us at the World Cup.
“He’s a big inspiration to kids too – not just upcoming footballers. Many see him as a role model. A few years ago, he was with them here, so when they see him playing for the Black Stars, in the UEFA Champions League and scoring, it inspires them to know that they can also make it.”
Nine-year-old Ramadan Osman, who frequently trains at Kawukudi Park in Nima, echoed Alhassan’s sentiments. “I’m a number 10, and I want to be the next Mohammed Kudus,” he confidently declared.
Friends and family say he remains grounded in reality but on the pitch displays the type of arrogance and temperament that many top players have in their locker.
Gyan, who has closely monitored Kudus’s footballing odyssey, credits the youngster’s humble background for this.
“In terms of personality or character, I’ll say Kudus brought Nima with him,” he said. “The can-do spirit of Nima – they’re known to be stubborn people. It’s that stubbornness balanced with flexible, applicable methods of getting to success.”
More than 30 million Ghanaians will be cheering Kudus and the Black Stars on in Qatar, but the loudest hurrah will probably come from Nima. While the world sees Kudus as a talented playmaker, they see him as far more – a torchbearer, an idol.