It was a sign of Mohammed Kudus’ confidence when, before the World Cup, he had declared that Neymar was not better than him, just a higher-profile player. It may not make the Ghanaian superior but while the Brazilian is injured, he is outscoring the world’s most expensive player at the World Cup. His profile is rising fast with every performance like this. So, too, are the chances of the lowest-ranked team in the tournament.
Ghana had waited a dozen years for this. Their previous victory at a World Cup had come in 2010, setting up a quarter-final against Uruguay. Now they head to a rematch seeking revenge and in the knowledge a win will take them into the knockout stages. They have shown a capacity to respond to setbacks, whether the cruel defeat to Portugal or the loss of a two-goal lead to South Korea. Kudus, whose season already included four Champions League goals for Ajax and an assist against the Portuguese, delivered a brace to determine a flawed, frenetic classic.
The winner felt fitting for the match, blending error and excellence. When Gideon Mensah crossed, Inaki Williams mustered an air shot but Kudus made a cleaner connection, guiding his attempt in. For the second time in swift succession, there were jubilant scenes, with substitutes involved in celebrations by one corner flag and then another; first, as South Korea levelled, then as Ghana retook the lead. This had one of the most vibrant atmospheres of the tournament to date, with the South Korean excitement very evident and the Ghanaian drums adding rhythm to the soundtrack. Part of the fabric of World Cups should involve meetings of teams from different continents who each believe they have a realistic chance of winning.
Defeat left South Korea manager Paulo Bento so enraged he was red-carded for his complaints to referee Anthony Taylor, for not extending injury time for a corner, and Heung-Min Son so emotional he was in tears. It means the Koreans are facing a third successive group-stage exit, 2018’s famous win over Germany camouflaging a mediocre record of just two victories in their last 13 attempts. It felt especially harsh for Cho Gue-sung, who announced his arrival on the major stage. He arrived in Qatar with four international goals to his name; in the space of 168 seconds, he had two more. A fightback added to the drama but Ghana hung on.
Theirs is a remarkable renaissance. Embarrassed at the African Cup of Nations at the start of 2022, they are impressing at the World Cup at the year’s end. It points to the terrific job Otto Addo has done. His persuasive powers have contributed, coaxing players to commit to the Ghanaian cause. One of them, Mohammed Salisu, opened the scoring but it was also a victory for the old guard, with Jordan Ayew’s wonderful crossing instrumental in the first two goals and Andre Ayew playing a more contentious part in the opener. In the clash of the five Kims against the two Ayews, the Ghanaian brothers emerged triumphant against a Korean defence of unrelated namesakes.
Kim Jun-su went on to exert an influence in attack and, before Cho almost completed his hat-trick, the left-back had a shot cleared off the line by Salisu as South Korea sought to make it 3-3. A game that began with little drama on the pitch ended with a surfeit. Ghana had barely threatened before Salisu hooked in a shot after Jordan Ayew’s free-kick was met by Kim Min-jae, but his attempted clearance was deflected by Andre Ayew to the scorer. There was a lengthy VAR check to establish if it hit the Ghana captain’s hand; Addo’s side felt aggrieved by the officiating against Portugal, but this time they could have no complaints.
It was belated justice for Salisu, perhaps: Ghana were adamant he did not foul Cristiano Ronaldo when conceding a penalty in their opener and he scored in the second game. The Southampton defender’s international career is barely two months old but it has been eventful. Jordan Ayew’s delivery from the left flank was integral again when Ghana doubled their lead. He curled in the most enticing of crosses. It might have sneaked in anyway, but Kudus applied a fine touch to a glancing header. Slight as the connection was, he was a worthy scorer.
Ghana had shown their ability to engineer a comeback against Portugal. They could not prevent South Korea from doing likewise against them as Bento reaped an immediate reward for introducing Lee Kang-in. After Tariq Lamptey lost the ball, the substitute crossed and Cho stooped to head in. A couple of minutes later, there was an action replay of sorts, with Ghana again opened up on their left flank, Kim Jin-su crossing and Cho rising highest at the far post. It amounted to a chastening few minutes for Lamptey, with Ghana beaten twice out wide, but neither was the first illustration of the striker’s aerial menace: a few minutes before his first goal, keeper Lawrence Ati-Zigi had parried his close-range header.
Yet his defiance was in vain. Kudus is showing an ability to stamp his authority on ever bigger occasions and he provided a cool finish to decide a heated occasion. At 22, he ranks behind only Asamoah Gyan and Andre Ayew for World Cup goals for the Black Stars. There may yet be a few more to come.