Greg Lalas
Monday February 4th, 2008

ACCRA, Ghana -- Manuel "Junior" Agogo is making a name for himself. A career journeyman who has made stops in England's lower leagues, and even Major League Soccer, Agogo has become a national hero in Ghana with his inspired performances here at the African Cup of Nations.

His two goals in the tournament were both match-winners, including a late strike that capped off a remarkable 2-1 comeback victory for 10-man Ghana over Nigeria on Sunday night. The win earned the Black Stars a spot in the semifinals, and by Monday morning, Agogo had been re-christened "Ago-goal."

"My role is always the same: to score as often as I can," Agogo told me during the group stage. At that point, he had not scored a goal in the tournament, but he was already bristling with confidence and faith. "I want to score all the time, for my club and my country," he said. "I just really want to help the team."

And he's done that. Built like a freight train, Agogo is a feisty handful for opposing defenses. He's also fun to watch, buzzing all around, challenging every header and wreaking havoc like a rookie hockey player trying to make the team. He can play with his back to the goal, and has enough speed -- though he is in no way a burner -- to reach through-balls put into space.

His best skill is his charisma, which has enabled him to win over fans. Over the course of a 90-minute game, he smiles, grimaces, laughs, complains, encourages and screams. The fanatics at the Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra eat it up.

They also love how he mixes it up in front of goal. His match-winner in Ghana's labored 1-0 win over Namibia was a close-range tap in. He was surrounded by three defenders, and held them all off with his body to get the vital touch.

In Sunday's massive quarterfinal showdown, he did it again. Ghana and Nigeria were tied 1-1 in the 84th minute. The Black Stars were down to 10 men after captain and center back John Mensah was shown a red card. The team needed a miracle.

Only a miracle could allow a man the size of a Ghanaian taxi cab to be left alone on the back post. Sulley Muntari did the hard work, tricking his way past the defense. His shot whistled wide of the target. And there was Agogo, loitering at the far post like an instinctive striker should, waiting to smash the errant ball home and seal his place in the hearts of Ghanaians every. Ago-goal!

This is not the Junior Agogo I remember from MLS. But he was effective back then, too. He scored 21 goals in 47 appearances with Chicago, Colorado and San Jose. Before leaving in 2001, he helped the Earthquakes win the MLS Cup.

"I had great fun in America," he said. "And we won the championship in San Jose. It was nice to leave on a high note."

Agogo is currently slogging it out at Nottingham Forest in England's League One, two levels below the Premier League where his more illustrious teammates like Muntari and Michael Essien are starring every week.

But he has 10 goals in 22 appearances this year. When he left to join Ghana in preparation for the Cup, the storied club -- a two-time European Cup winner -- sat in second place, positioned well for possible promotion to the more prestigious Coca-Cola Championship. But Forest has slumped lately, winning only once in its last five and slipping to fourth place.

"Of course, I'd like to play at a higher level," Agogo admitted. "I think if I keep playing well for my country, that might be possible. But it's just speculation now."

Speculation that could become reality soon enough if he keeps playing like Ago-goal. In the meantime, he can feel good with the knowledge that Ghana is rolling toward the trophy and that he is everyone's favorite Black Star for the moment.

"I want to marry Junior!" one giddy fan was overheard saying after his triumphal performance against Nigeria.

This prompted my friend Kobe to bestow Agogo with another nickname: "Ladies Love," Kobe said. "You know, as in LL Cool Junior."

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