As you're well aware, Sunderlnad are developing strong links with Ghana. The additions of John Mensah, Sulley Muntari and perhaps most of all, Asamoah Gyan have gone a large way to doing that. Not to mention the recent discussions between SAFC and top Ghanaian side Asanti Kotoko with a view to a friendly being played in Kumasi, and perhaps a commercial link-up.
To get more information on how Sunderland are being viewed over in Ghana, Roker Report had the pleasure of speaking to Michael Oti Adjei. Michael is one of the best journalists in all of Africa, working for KickOff.com, Kick Off Magazine, TV 3 and the BBC World Service.
We talked about the influence our three Ghanaians have had on the football supporters of Ghana, whether any are following SAFC now, and perhaps most crucially of all, what is Asamoah Gyan on about when he sings "African Girls 'Dem Be Sexy Like Cheese"...
It started with John Mensah, followed shortly by Asamoah Gyan, with Sulley Muntari the latest addition to the gang. You must be delighted to see them all in/back in the Premier League?
Michael: Yes I am, and so are many of my countrymen. The Premier League represents for most of here in Ghana - the highest point in club football. The intensity of the games, the quality and the passion of the fans all go in making the Premier League special. and from growing up in the 1980's, it has always been widely available on television, which means a lot of Ghanaians get access to see the games. Without Ghanaians we watched with a lot of interest, with Ghanaians involved we follow it even more intensely because most people here reckon to sign for a Premier League club indicates a certain measure of respect for Ghanaian football.
Mensah & Gyan have been around the longest, and have really been taken to heart by our fans. Were you always confident they could star in the Premier League?
Michael: Mensah's quality has never been in doubt. I have watched him since the 2001 World Youth Championships and he was outstanding. He made the jump up to the Black Stars to the 2002 Nations Cup and has been a regular fixture of the team, so I always knew he has what it takes to do well in the Premier League. He is strong, may not have great pace but his anticipation is world class, and while he is prone to the occasional over-confidence, he normally is very reliable.
Gyan joined Sunderland at just the right time. He had come off his best goal scoring season in Europe after scoring thirteen goals for Stade Rennes at club level and crucially had put a string of injuries behind him. In two major tournaments in 2010, at the Nations Cup and World Cup he scored six goals. He has always had great quality and his international goal scoring rate of almost a goal every two games is proof of that. Having watched him progress year after year and bounce back from a poor Nations Cup in 2008, when he because public enemy number one, I knew he had the mental strength and confidence but most importantly the skill to thrive in the Premier League.
How popular is the Premier League in Ghana, and with Sunderland’s additions of Mensah, Gyan and Muntari, has the popularity of Sunderland in particular increased?
Michael: To give you an idea, shirts of Premier League clubs are vastly more popular than even local clubs. On Saturdays when you log into social networking sites you will discover the banter on Saturday's is dominated by on-going Premier League games. It is hugely popular, it has been for a long time also because it us vastly available on TV. There are video houses who even show Premier League games for a fee, and has become a regular part of people's weekend. Whenever a Ghanaian, and a top international, has joined a Premier League club, their popularity has shot up. Many of us became more aware and more interested in Leeds United because of Tony Yeboah in the mid 1990's. When Michael Essien joined Chelsea, there was a swell in the number of Ghanaians proclaiming to support them. Sunderland still lags behind in popularity to the traditional big boys of English football like Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, but Gyan, Mensah and Muntari have ensured that people are much more aware of them than ever before, that they get more more prominence in newspapers and in Ghanaian football websites than previously. So yes, Sunderland's popularity has increased immensely since those three joined.
Do the people of Ghana realise just how much impact the three have had at Sunderland? I was hard pushed to find anyone in the area supporting England the other night!
Michael: I don't think so. We never really appreciate ourselves that much you know. But the folks from Kotoko who came over for the meeting at Sunderland the other day were telling me that from what they saw at first hand Gyan especially is huge in Sunderland. It's nice to hear from a Ghanaian perspective.
Asamoah Gyan has had everyone dancing this season, and seems a very lively character. From your experiences as a journalist, what is your favourite story about Asamoah that we might not have heard?
Michael: There are many! I remember one at a hotel in Nelspruit South Africa when we were preparing to leave the hotel for a bus journey to Swaziland for a friendly against Malawi. I always knew he loves his music but he stepped out into reception of the hotel with music blasting out from a hand held speaker while he sang along. In a world where footballers barely wear a smile he is always a refreshing presence in the Ghana camp.
The one thing I admire about him most is the manner he has recovered from his problems at the 2008 Nations Cup. It was a bit like how David Beckham was criticized after the 1998 World Cup. He was criticized, he was insulted and called the worst player in the world but he has bounced back in fantastic style.
I’ve got one other question about Asamoah, and I promise I’ll leave it there. I’m sure you must have heard his song with Castro "African Girls" What exactly is meant by the line "African Girls them be sexy like cheese" as I can’t say I’ve ever found myself turned on by a lump of Cheddar!
Michael: We can't even figure out what it means by that! The song has done really well in the Ghanaian charts, partly because it rode on the back of his immense popularity after the World Cup and also because he collaborated with a famous Ghanaian musician. The "sexy like cheese" line is also in-line with the lyrics in many local songs... many meaningless lines!
Back to the football – African football is in a huge growth period, and several teams are becoming a true force in world football. To what do you think this resurgence is down to in particular?
Michael: I think it is down to their manner, many players from the continent have found their way into high level clubs in Europe. In the past it was just a few players but these days they are all over the place. It means in addition to the undeniable talent that players from this side have, they also benefit from superior technical training that they get from Europe. You also have to understand that for players from this side of the world, football really does mean the world. Many of them come from really poor backgrounds and football in many cases is all they have. It drives them really, really well.
Which other Ghanaians do you think are capable of making a name for themselves in the Premier League, and who from the Black Satellites should we be keeping an eye on for the future?
Michael: The obvious one is Andre Ayew who plays for Marseille now, and was captain of the Satellites team. He has shrugged off the tag of being the son of the most famous, and best Ghanaian footballer, Abedi Pele, too carve a good niche for himself. He can take on opponents, has got good skills and his confidence is top notch. There is Jonathan Mensah too who plays in the second division in Spain. He came on in the second half against England and played alongside John Mensah in central defence. We here are convinced he will become another great central defender from this country because we have a tradition of producing many good ones. Kwadwo Asamoah who plays in midfield for Udinese but was not a member of the U20 side is also cut for the Premier League. He is strong, has good energy and an ability to create openings with his close ball control.
It's strongly suggested now that Sunderland will travel to Ghana to take on Asanti Kotoko in a pre-season friendly, along with further discussions of a link-up between the two clubs. How would any link-up - be it commercial and/or used for attracting talent to SAFC be viewed in Ghana?
Michael: To start with, the link will strengthen Sunderland's popularity in Ghana. Kotoko is huge, have won the Ghana league many many times and are two time African champions. If Sunderland came to Kumasi they will easily play in front of a full stadium. In Ghana, people understand that they best players are bound to head out of the country. The clubs like the idea because it makes good financial sense, and the players welcome it too because it provides opportunities for sporting and financial growth that is almost non-existent if they continued to play their football here. If the link up happened, it will be seen in eyes of many people as a forward thinking step by Asante Kotoko. I am certain about that.
Thank you to Michael for providing some fantastic insight on Ghanaian football, and you never know Michael, we might see you in Kumasi soon!
I'd suggest that everyone follow Michael on Twitter too - @OtiAdjei