African players have been among some of the most spectacular in modern football.
With the Africa Cup of Nations right around the corner, where Mohamed Salah’s Egypt will vie with several other sides, including Sadio Mané’s Senegal, in an effort to win the continent’s most prestigious trophy; we’ve decided to look back at the modern era of football (starting with the creation of the Champions League in 1992) and identify the most influential African footballers in the world during that time, including the time they were at their peak.
Abedi Ayew was so god damn good at football they named him Abedi Pele after the great Brazilian. He was already a two-time title winner with Marseille and an Africa Cup of Nations champion (in 1982) when the modern era began. Fittingly, he crowned the first season by helping Marseille to win the inaugural Champions League trophy and then went on to win his third successive African Player of the Year award. Such a legend both of his sons (André Ayew and Jordan Ayew) became international level footballers.
If you grew up in the ’90s, you knew who George Weah was. In a time before the internet and social media made a goal going viral an easy thing, Weah became an instant legend with a superhuman goal against Verona where he ran past what seemed like at least six players (and you usually increased this number with each successive re-telling of it to friends at school). Later that year he won the Ballon d’Or, the first African to do so. He was a player so beloved by his people that they wished he would run for political office. Something that he later did, quite successfully too, as he is currently President of Liberia.
Nwankwo Kanu’s story is absolute box office from beginning to end. He was a key part of Ajax’s immortal Champions League winners in 1995, then he led from the front as Nigeria clinched a historic gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games. After that he survived surgery for a heart defect to help Inter win the UEFA Cup in 1998. Then at Arsenal he won two Premier League titles (one unbeaten) and bamboozled defenders on the regular.
Even in the twilight of his career at Portsmouth, when he was focused on the Kanu Heart Foundation (oh yeah, he’s also a fantastic humanitarian) he still managed to drag Portsmouth kicking and screaming to a phenomenal FA Cup win, scoring their only goals in the semi-final and final. Kanu’s glittering success and beaming smile make him one of the most incredible and influential figures in modern football.
A team-mate of Kanu’s when Nigeria won Olympic gold in 1996, Jay-Jay Okocha’s influence was always impressive. In 1994 he won the Africa Cup of Nations and also completed more dribbles than any player ever has at the World Cup when he blew by an astonishing 14 opponents against Italy.
Then he joined PSG in 1998 (for £14m, making him the most expensive African ever at the time) and subtly shaped the modern game as we know it by mentoring a young Ronaldinho, teaching him how to perform at the top level and yet maintain the joyous style he had always played with. Given the influence Ronaldinho then had on Barcelona and Leo Messi, who in turn shaped the modern game under Pep Guardiola, it’s not a stretch to say that without Okocha’s joyous love of bamboozling opponents with mesmeric dribbling, modern football in its entirety quite literally wouldn’t be the same.
Okocha was so good that even Sam Allardyce gave him leeway to roam as an attacking player and not dig in defensively when he played for Bolton. Oh, yeah, Okocha played for Bolton – captained them in the UEFA Cup, too! There was no limit to his brilliance and he remains a beloved and iconic figure a decade after his retirement.
It’s hard for defenders to become truly iconic but the image of Sammy Kuffour beating the turf in frustration after Manchester United won the 1999 Champions League final made him an instant hero to Bayern fans. Kuffour’s relentless defensive excellence played a big role in Bayern avenging that defeat and winning the 2001 Champions League probably helped, too. Kuffour was a rugged example to everyone that African players could do more than just be fancy attacking players, that they had the discipline to be workers too (it is obviously absurd that anyone needed that explained to them, but prejudice is sadly a part of life and football) and one need only look at the explosion of African players in defensive roles since Kuffour’s dominance to understand the effect he had.
Sure, no one likes El-Hadji Diouf now and his time at Liverpool was a bit of a disaster, but for a few years Diouf was the hottest striker from Africa. The Senegalese striker won the African Footballer of the Year twice and led his country to their first ever World Cup in 2002. There, on opening night, Diouf and Senegal shocked the world by beating defending Champions France 1-0. Even if Diouf did nothing else (and he didn’t, really) that summer in South Korea and Japan, getting Senegal to the round of 16, was enough to put him in the history books.
Samuel Eto’o has been winning all his life. He won Olympic Gold in 2000, as well as consecutive Africa Cup of Nations in 2000 and 2002. At club level he helped Mallorca win the Copa del Rey. Mallorca. A year later he joined Barcelona and truly unleashed hell upon Europe. 130 goals, three La Ligas and two Champions Leagues later, Eto’o was probably the greatest striker in the club’s history. This was despite Guardiola trying to force him out in 2008, because Eto’o stayed and was one of the driving goalscorers behind Barcelona’s Treble in 2009. He then joined Inter that summer and helped lead them to their own Treble in 2010. He is the only footballer in history to win consecutive Trebles as well as Trebles with different clubs, the only one, and also the only footballer to truly take on Guardiola and win.
Ivory Coast, 2003-2008
It’s not agreed upon what position Arsene Wenger signed Kolo Touré to play – but he ended up at centre-back and Arsenal were blessed as a result. A superhuman athlete, Touré’s defensive excellence alongside Sol Campbell was almost unmatched in the league. The pair were crucial to Arsenal winning the league unbeaten in 2004 and he also scored the last ever European goal at Highbury with a strike that sent Arsenal through to the 2006 Champions League final (which they lost). Touré had a wandering career after Arsenal but what he did for the Gunners will echo through history.
Ivory Coast, 2004-2012
One season with Marseille, where he dragged the French side to the UEFA Cup final, was enough to convince Chelsea to sign Didier Drogba. The target man was rarely the most prolific goalscorer (only twice topping 30 goals in a season) but he was one of the most imposing and influential players in the world. His very presence shaped how opponents dealt with Chelsea and some, like Barcelona and Arsenal, never really got the hang of dealing with him. Even more impressive than that, and even better than him winning Chelsea the Champions League in 2012, was how he managed to stop a civil war in his home country simply by asking the warring factions to lay down their arms. The power of Drogba extends far beyond football, but his influence in football is colossal.
The Egyptian forward is a rare example of a player who reached iconic status despite never playing in Europe. Mohamed Aboutrika was an absolute legend of Egyptian football, helping Al Ahly win seven consecutive league titles as well as five, yes five, CAF Champions Leagues (over a span of eight years, including one stoppage-time winner in the final). There’s also Egypt’s two Africa Cup of Nations, the countless hours of magical, mesmeric football as well as the fact that he is a prolific humanitarian and one of the few athletes to have ever openly displayed solidarity with the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, which he did in 2008.
It’s hard to describe what it was like to watch Michael Essien when the Ghanaian played during his peak, but it must have been terrifying if you were an opponent. Here was a midfielder who could defend, attack, dribble and shoot. There was no limit to his audacity (just check out his amazing goals against Liverpool, Valencia and Barcelona) and no stopping him on the pitch. He was stronger, faster and more skilled than basically everyone. It was quite fitting that the only thing which ultimately slowed him down was injuries. He had too much awesome for his human body to contain. Still, he will go down a hero.
An impossibly elegant striker, Fredi Kanouté struggled in the Premier League but a move to La Liga with Sevilla saw him take off. The Malian forward was just a perfect with with Juande Ramos’ style of play and with him at the helm the Andalucian side won two consecutive UEFA Cups as well as two Copas del Rey (with Kanouté scoring in three of the four finals) and were desperately close to winning La Liga in 2007 when they were, arguably, the best side in the world. Beyond the football skills, Kanouté was truly a great human as well. He refused to wear a Sevilla shirt with a sponsor due to his religious beliefs and he brought a Mosque out of his own money to stop it from closing down. He also displayed his sympathy withe plight of Gaza, even though he was booked and subsequently fined for the gesture. A true gentleman.
Ivory Coast, 2009-2014
Yaya Touré is perhaps a bit more of a shameless egoist than many players on this list but when you watch him play, you can understand why. A masterful footballer capable of literally anything. Need someone to sit deep and control your game? Yaya can do that. How about a rampaging box-to-box presence? Yup. Set-pieces? Sure. Goals? He once scored 24 in a season and his goal in the 2009 Copa del Rey final remains one of the most absurdly impossible strikes ever. Defending? He started at centre-back in the 2009 Champions League final. When Manchester City signed Touré he almost single-handedly dragged them to their first trophy the new era, the 2011 FA Cup, and was a centre-piece as they went on to become one of the most dominant sides in England.
Just make sure you always buy him a birthday cake!
The Algerian winger didn’t peak for long but when he did, well, he did the impossible. Riyad Mahrez’s 17 goals and 11 assists in 37 games made him a key part of Leicester City doing the impossible and winning the 2015/16 Premier League title. Mahrez wasn’t a huge commodity before that and has been underwhelming since, but the consistency of his genius en route to Leicester performing the miracle of miracles cannot be overstated. A truly iconic year.
Salah has been around for a while, obviously, but he only took off when Jurgen Klopp added him to Liverpool’s attack. Before then he had been a talented but frustrating forward. Since then? He’s borderline unstoppable. By the end of his first season he had scored more goals in a 38 game Premier League season than anyone ever had, winning Player of the Year, and by the end of his second he was a Champions League winner with a goal in the final. 71 strikes in 104 games is an absurd return, and Salah has done it all with a smile on his face (well, mostly) and has endured horrific injury luck and an absurd level of criticism too. A superb footballer and an honest human being, Salah is now one of the most recognisable and dominant faces in football with enormous power to shape the game as he pleases.
Mané often goes unheralded, but he has been an incredible driving force for Liverpool alongside Salah. His movement and finishing have undone several elite sides who haven’t realised just how good he is. What’s more, no African has scored more goals in Champions League knockout football than he has, and he’s only played two seasons of the stuff! Mané is also an excellent human being, with videos emerging of him cleaning toilets in his local Mosque. Such incredible humility from a player who has no reason to be humble is truly remarkable and sets Mané apart from many others elite Africans on the world stage right now.