The rise of Latif Blessing and Marcus Rashford has been as identical as it has been meteoric. This is a tale of two prodigious talents who have delivered top performances at club level for Manchester United and Liberty Professionals respectively.
Weekends without club football are normally considered by many as boring but, in truth, it comes with its own gleam and adrenaline. It is an occasion when countries recognise and reward hardworking - and deserving - players with call-ups. Earning a call-up to one's national side is no mean feat. It comes with a sense of pride to behold and, that is why every young, upcoming footballer dreams of a day when he dons that holy grail - the national jersey.
The FIFA international break actually sets the tone for football stars to bring the sparks of their club form to national level. And this weekend provided the perfect platform for all the various national teams to participate in either world cup qualifiers or friendly matches across the globe. But as Marcus Rashford dazzled the Wembley stadium crowd with an appearance off the bench, many Ghanaians would have murmured and soliloquied: where is Ghana's own version, Latif Blessing?
The rise of both youngsters has been as identical as it has been meteoric. This is a tale of two prodigious talents who have delivered top performances at club level for Manchester United and Liberty Professionals respectively. But while one is revered and adored, the other is simply ignored. As draconian as that may sound, while Rashford is enjoying a productive stint with his national side, Blessing is nowhere close to his. And as similar as their attributes may look, their paths to international greatness looks far too different. The constant snub of Latif Blessing by the technical handlers of the Black Stars is something that has got many people questioning the criteria being used in selecting players.
Under Avram Grant as Ghana coach, the doors of the national team have virtually been closed to local talents. For the few local players who earn a call-up to the Black Stars, the bench becomes their abode: they are sparingly used as they normally find themselves on the fringes and peripheries.
When the Israeli tactician was first outdoored as Ghana coach, he made it clear that he would not descriminate against local players in his team selection process. He sounded like a man who would give a fair chance to players irrespective of where they plied their trade. He wanted a Black Stars for all; a team built on pure talent and not just reputation. But has he kept to his word?
“If I can give them [local players] advice, sometimes it's better to stay in the league in Ghana for one or two more years to develop before going to Europe. Because in football, if you are good, it doesn’t matter where you play, everything will go on well with you," Grant said in 2015 with regards to the mass exodus of players in the Ghana Premier League.
Absolute cheap talk. As it stands, not only has Grant failed to give local players the chance, he has also completely shirked a key responsibility in promoting youth players to the Black Stars squad. Unfortunately, Blessing falls within both categories; he is young and also a local player. Grant's intransigence has seen him consistently rely on the old-guard even when they are not in form. The former Chelsea boss is a coach from the pragmatic school. His ideology about football is dogma; he relies on the same XI, same tactics and same preferences. In his 22-months in charge of the Black Stars he has shown that he meant every bit of his words when he said "I will stay outside Ghana 365 days if it means that our best players play outside the country."
There is no doubt that both Rashford and Blessing have huge potentials. But the enormity of the contradiction in their national career paths cannot be understated. Rashford is only 18-years-old and has played just eight months of professional football, yet he is already an international player. Blessing on the other hand is 20, has played in the top-flight for over two years, and is still waiting for his first cap for Ghana.
“I was asked in the build-up if he was up to playing at international level. And we got a resounding yes from him and I’m very pleased for him. Let’s wait and see..... But on that performance [against Australia] he wouldn’t be out of place in anybody’s 23 [man squad]," former England coach Roy Hodgson said having watched Rashford impress on his debut against Australia.
That is the progression that Grant is expected initiate in the Black Stars squad. If a player is good, he must play irrespective of his age. After all, Grant is benefiting from the works of Milovan Rajevac and Kwesi Appiah who both ensured that the current core of the Black Stars team were given a shot to develop even at younger ages. More than half of the current Black Stars XI were promoted by the two erstwhile coaches. With the current squad ageing, it remains to be seen which players will take up the mantle when the old-guard finally go extinct.
Asamoah Gyan, Andre Ayew, Cristian Atsu, Jordan Ayew, Baba Rahman, Jonathan Mensah and Agyeman Badu, just to mention a few, were all promoted to the Black Stars when they were under the age of 23. Today they are the anchormen of the team. That is not to say that any young player at all should be in the Black Stars squad. A call-up must be earned through determination, hard work and consistent performances.
Surprisingly, Latif Blessing ticks all these brackets yet he is still chasing a first appearance for the Black Stars. Rashford has scored 12 goals in 2016 and the technical handlers of the Three Lions are helping in his uprise by giving him the platform on the international stage. Blessing has scored over 25 goals - and has been the go-to man for Liberty Professionals - in the last two years. Surely consistency cannot be the reason for his Black Stars snub.
Like Rashford, Blessing has taken the Ghana Premier League by storm: He has mesmerised and terrorised opposition defences with his pace and trickery and he is - without contention - the best player from the just ended 2015/16 season with a total of 17 league goals playing from midfield. Any player with such stats irrespective of whether 30 years or 18 years should be playing for his national side.
On a day when Nigeria decided to pick the young talented duo of Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho as a strike partnership in their world cup qualifier against Zambia, Ghana huffed and puffed for a competent replacement for the injured Andre Ayew. Both Iwobi and Iheanacho delivered on the day - never mind both of them scoring - and they looked solid throughout the game to secure victory for the Super Eagles. Rashford on the other hand graced the Wembley pitch as a 68th minute substitute to a raucous cheer from the England fans. He is the newly found jewel of the English public and they were just happy to see such a young native showcasing his talent on the international stage. And Rashford didn't disappoint at all. He delivered a masterclass: a performance that caught the eye of many.
Perhaps Latif Blessing could have been Ghana's own version of Marcus Rashford when the Black Stars needed some inspiration in the dull goalless draw against Uganda in Tamale. His direct style would have been a hidden cannon for Grant to unleash when his team were being out-fought and out-thought.
But as things stand, it's a lose-lose situation: no succession plan and no recognition for Ghana's brightest prospect at the moment. And while the likes of Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Joshua Kimmich and Marcos Rashford thrive for their respective nations, Ghana is still blighted by who to call our equivalent, even when there is one who is ready and waiting to occupy that spot in Latif Blessing. So once again the 'million dollar' question surfaces: where is Ghana's Rashford and when are we going to recognize him? Until then, the wait continues.