COMMENT: It is the dream of every player to feature for their respective national team. If you give any player the option of winning a trophy with their club side or national team, the answer will most likely be the latter.
There is an immeasurable amount of pride attached to national team success that makes it the Holy Grail for footballers. Fatawu Issahaku (19) will probably be the first player to admit this looking at how passionate he is about representing Ghana.
This passion has been built over the years through his days with Ghana's U-17, U-20 and U-23 sides. With the U-20 team, Issahaku was instrumental in leading Ghana to continental success, as Black Satellites won the 2021 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations, whilst picking up the Player of the Tournament award.
However, Issahaku will also be the first to admit that underperformance with the national team comes with a deep form of disappointment. This is why there needs to be a middle ground and with just over a month to go to the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), the player will need some introspection to either opt for short-term satisfaction or something more lasting.
The past two years have been rough for the teenager and I argue why he should consider letting this AFCON slide in favour of his personal development.
A damaged reputation undergoing reconstruction
If you looked at the commentary surrounding Fatawu Issahaku last year, you would have struggled to believe it was the same player who was being chased by Liverpool and Bayer Leverkusen when he was just 17.
Although he had been through the youth ranks, his inclusion in the Ghanaian national team came across as fast-tracked. Right after his exploits with the U-20 team, he received his first senior call-up by CK Akonnor for the AFCON qualifiers against South Africa and Sao Tome and Principe.
Issahaku had to wait till September 2021 to make his debut for Ghana in a 3-1 win over Zimbabwe in a World Cup qualifier. He was included in Milovan Rajevac's 28-man squad for the 2021 AFCON, which took place in early 2022, and became the youngest player in the Ghanaian team and the fourth youngest at the tournament. He managed just 65 minutes in three games as Ghana crashed out of the group stages.
The Leicester City winger's woes started when he was included in Ghana's 2022 World Cup squad. Many felt Joseph Paintsil, who at the time was in form, was more deserving of a slot. To make matters worse he only managed a single minute throughout the whole tournament.
His lack of minutes for Sporting CP didn't help as he was rather enjoying more game time with the B team. The talk around Issahaku moved from “the next big thing" to “he is not ready". Unsurprisingly, his lack of high-level minutes saw him dropped from the national team for nine months.
He was only recalled after injuries to players in the initial squad for the September international break and despite making the trip didn't play against Liberia. The only reason he was considered was his club form; admittedly he had enjoyed an electric start to the season with Leicester City and was starting to look like his old self.
It currently looks like he's back within the national team picture, or at least he is close considering he only played a total of nine minutes in the two games against Madagascar and Comoros.
Still not in the first team picture
Issahaku is still yet to start a game under Chris Hughton with his last Ghana start coming 14 months ago. The two times the winger has been called by the 64-year-old coach, he was moved from the standby list to the main squad due to injuries. Technically, he isn't really part of Hughton's plans just yet.
You can't really blame the head coach because the winger position is arguably the most competitive. There are more experienced heads in Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Paintsil and Osman Bukari. Then there are young and explosive players like Ernest Nuamah, Kamaldeen Sulemana, and sometimes Mohammed Kudus who have been deployed on the flanks. Recently, we've seen Hughton try out Inaki Williams in the wide areas as well.
The pecking order seems to be a bit too long for Issahaku at the moment and will most likely be limited to paltry minutes if he goes to the AFCON. For a young player, there is nothing embarrassing about that but Issahaku's case is different.
He is currently on loan at Leicester City, a club that have helped revive his career and every game counts. Per the current trajectory, the 2016 Premier League champions are expected to make a return to the top flight. If Issahaku impresses and the Foxes choose to buy him at the end of the season, he could potentially be a Premier League player.
It is the fine margins that define careers and getting a long-term contract at Leicester City must be his priority at the moment. He's had a new lease on life since joining the Championship side and has already played four times the amount of football this season than he did last season.
He's a work in progress and only has two goals and an assist to his name, though the assists number should have been higher considering he's created 15 chances so far - the joint fifth-highest in the Leicester City team.
It's evident Enzo Maresca enjoys working with the Ghanaian and probably wouldn't want to lose him for the tournament considering he joined the team late in the transfer window.
Leicester City need him more
Unlike the Ghanaian, these two players are on longer-term deals and have that luxury. In fact, staying back to play with Leicester City during the AFCON should give Issahaku more opportunities with the imminent gap in the squad.
There is a chance Issahaku could honour the call and play for Ghana at the AFCON and come back and have a good season and be signed. However, Maresca could explore other options which could be going into the market or even giving an academy player a chance in those 5-6 games. What if the short-term solution impresses? How long will Issahaku get to play his way back into the starting XI? Will his overall contribution be enough? These are questions Issahaku should consider.
We've often seen promoted teams end up using their inflated budget to buy newer players instead of sticking with the ones that helped the team gain promotion. For that reason, Issahaku will need to play well and consistently because he needs to prove that he's not just good in the Championship but he can potentially compete in England's top flight.
At 19, Issahaku will have the chance to play in a lot more AFCONs after this one. What's important is that he will be ready and be playing consistently at a high level when those tournaments come because that's how he will get into the squad.
He won't be considered for the team because he was in the 2023 AFCON squad, it'll purely be based on club form. So if he has the chance to make sure his medium term is in good standing, then I say he should stay this January and fight for his Leicester City future.
- images from Profimedia