After almost nine months of occasional yet entertaining and high-level football, Africa has upon itself the 16 nations that will be compete for the prestigious African Cup of Nations trophy in January 2013.
A total of 47 teams and more than a thousand players participated in the qualifying rounds of the most underrated international tournament in the world, yet only few of those players and countries could actually leave their marks on the football pitch with impressive and standout displays.
However, with the media vultures placing the limelight on the coveted European football and the plays and records of the big, even these ‘standout’ performers and countries have gone unnoticed and underappreciated.
Hence, in this article Sandals For Goalposts presents a list of five players who have been instrumental in their respective nation’s journey towards to 2013 African Cup of Nations.
1. Gervinho, Ivory Coast
Gervinho was one of the biggest flops of the 2012 African Cup of Nations, and the 25-year-old had an equally lacklustre club campaign for Arsenal last season.
However, during the 2012-13 season, fans have witnessed the return of the ‘Gervinho of the old’, a player notorious for tormenting defenders down the wings with his blazing skills and beautiful dribbles and possessing a unique eye for goal.
Against Senegal, Gervinho’s was arguably Ivory Coast’s best player over the two legs, acting as a vital cog in the team’s attack by producing numerous plays for the team and also scoring the all-important equaliser in the first leg.
Moreover, had the second leg of the game not been abandoned due to the riots caused by the Senegal fans, Gervinho could have well ended up doubling his goal tally for the qualifying round by the end of the game.
Nonetheless, the Gunners star will still have a great opportunity to get his name printed on the scoresheet for his nation and also make amends for failures of the past term by producing similar displays in January.
2. Islam Slimani, Algeria
For a long time, Algeria have lacked a striker with the remorselessness in front of goal that is befitting for a country of its footballing grandeur. Whilst Rafik Djebbour, prolific in the Greek Super League with Olympiacos, has been an ever-present for Algeria in recent years, he has had the misfortune of not having adequate service behind him, has probably lacked the all-round ability to lead the line on his own, and the team being coached by the risk-averse Rabah Saadane didn’t help his cause.
Current coach Vahid Halihodzic has introduced the likes of Foued Kadir and Sofiane Feghouli, both creative in their own right, to play more of a key role in the set up. The chief beneficiary of the service of the aforementioned duo has been Steven Fletcher-lookalike Islam Slimani, who now has 6 goals in 7 caps.
Like Steven Fletcher, the CR Belouizad striker doesn’t get by on service alone – he has done his fair share of hopeful running that is vital when one leads the line, and does his best to bring in the more illustrious names behind him into the fold. Indeed, it was the case in the two legs against Libya as he gave the Libyan defence a terrible time with his boundless energy, which he used to optimum effect to press the Libyan centre-backs, and his aerial prowess to power Algeria back into Africa’s summit.
3. Alain Traore, Burkina Faso
Perhaps the only reason why Alain Traore is a famous personality in the European continent is that the 23-year-old once had a successful trial with Manchester United but couldn’t complete the subsequent transfer deal due to work permit issues.
However, Traore is a phenomenal talent and was the backbone of Burkina Faso’s successful qualification round.
With a one goal deficit to cover up in the second leg, Traore scored a remarkable brace to ensure that Burkina Faso qualified for their third successive AON competition on the basis of the away-goal rule.
Added to that, the decisive second goal came in the dyeing seconds of the game, cruelly and dramatically killing off Central African Republic’s hopes of qualifying for the Cup of Nations.
4. Saladin Said, Ethiopia
There was barely any football pundit who predicted Ethiopia to overcome a two goals deficit against a solid team like Sudan to qualify for the African Cup of Nations.
The nation was seen as one of the weakest remaining countries in qualifying phase and after a 5-3 defeat in the first leg, people felt that only a slight miracle could help the Ethiopians advance to the elite stage of the competition.
However, Ethiopia did achieve this ‘slight miracle’ as they ran out 2-0 winner in the decider leg to qualify for the Cup of Nations.
The star performer for the joyous team was Saladin Said as the latter scored the goal that secured Ethiopia’s vital win.
Said, who is also the top scorer of the 2014 World Cup qualifying in Africa, had a great game overall, adding valuable attacking prowess and impetus to the team and thoroughly troubling the opposition with his pace, trickery and trait to easily get behind the defensive wall.
Even though he might be the most unknown player on this list, if Saladin Said is able to cap off his historic goal with an equally promising tournament, the 23-year-old could turn into one of the hottest up-and-coming players from Africa.
5. Houssine Kharja, Morocco
New Morocco coach Rachid Taoussi hasn’t been reticent in implementing the changes since taking over – out have gone mainstays of the Morocco squad such as Marouane Chamakh, Mbark Boussoufa and Adel Taarabt – but one of the variables which has remained constant is Houssine Kharja’s position in the team, and, far more significantly, his ownership of the captain’s armband.
In truth, Kharja was arguably the best performer during Eric Gerets, Taoussi’s predecessor, reign. He was the only Moroccan player who could held his head high after Morocco’s group stage exit in the previous Cup of Nations, glittering the tournament with some brilliant all-action displays and scoring 3 goals in the 3 games; indeed, he was the player that every Cup of Nations connoisseur felt sorry for when Morocco exited.
In a match where Morocco needed to score 3 unanswered goals to progress, after losing the first leg 2-0, the Al Arabi midfielder produced a virtuoso display as he rallied his troops in midfield, winning all the 50-50 duels, and driving forward with malevolent intent.
It was he who was the protagonist as Morocco pinned Mozambique deep in their own half in an outrageous 15 minutes of second half pressure, and then he crucially had to score a 64th minute penalty to double Morocco’s lead and take the game at least to penalties. It was a penalty kick that required enormous sang-froid – if he had missed it, who knows what could have happened?
This article was written by Salim Masoud Said and Surya Solanki.