60 Greatest African Players: 60-51

François Omam-Biyik's header against Argentina at the 1990 World Cup - one of the most iconic moments in African football

60. Jomo Sono
Career Span: 1972-1982
Nationality: South African
International Caps: Unavailable (South Africa internationally isolated due to Apartheid regime)
Position: Midfielder
 
If you've heard of Jomo Sono you're probably most likely to identity with him as the coach of  the  South Africa national team in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Nicknamed “Jomo” by a fan who saw similarities in his leadership skills with those of the then Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta, Matsilela Ephraim “Jomo” Sono  is also one of the great South African footballers of the past who was a sporting victim of the Apartheid regime, unable to showcase his ability on the continental and international stage due to his country’s intentional isolation from the rest of the world.

An astute and intuitive player, he controlled the pace of games, playing deep and splitting opposition defences wide open with the pinpoint accuracy of his long-range passing, as well as driving at heart of defences with real endeavour. There are several myths surrounding Sono, but the most enduring is this one: hearing his team Orlando Pirates were a goal down on his wedding day, he rushed from church to their stadium, changed from the tuxedo he was wearing to the all-black strip of the Pirates and came on as half time substitute. The Pirates went on to win the game.

It’s difficult to determine how good Jomo would have been on a bigger stage, but he was good enough to later be on the same team as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer in the glorified mixture of world football and showbiz of New York Cosmos in the Nation American Soccer League. He had even been invited to join Juventus but visa obstacles stopped him from signing for the Italian giants.

59. Ndaye Mulamba
Career Span: Unavailable
Nationality: Congolese (formerly Zairian)
International Caps: Unavailable
Position: Striker
 

The 1974 World Cup Zaire team are seen as the epitome of footballing naiveté, forever clown-like for their emphatic 9-0 defeat to the Former Yugoslavia, not to mention the hilarity of their defender, Mwepu Ilunga,  kicking the ball away at a free-kick against Brazil – as an act of protest.

Then there was the famous sending off Ndaye Mulamba, which the Zaire striker furiously protested against. Tragically, it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. ‘You can tell from the referee’s behaviour that they can’t tell us apart,’ Mulamba lamented. ‘And they don’t try to either. I cried terribly when I was sent off. I told the referee that it wasn’t me, and Mwepu [Ilunga] said “I did it, not he.” But the referee wasn’t interested. All the referees here are against the black race, and not only the referees.’

Ndaye also had other complaints. ‘Scotland’s Number 4, the captain [Billy Bremner] shouted at me a couple of times during the match, “Nigger, hey nigger!” He spat at me too, and he spat in Man’s face. Scotland’s number 4 is a wild animal.’

For all the giggles and conspiracy theories surrounding Zaire’s 9-0 hammering, though, prior to that 1974 World Cup, Zaire became the African champions for the second time in their history.

And it was Mulamba who was undoubtedly the hero, scoring 9 goals during the tournament – a record which stands to this day. Known as “Mutumbula” (assassin in the Lulua language) for his earth-shattering shots and “Volvo” because of his rapid execution, his two goals to seal 1974 Cup of Nations glory symbolised the latter.  For his first, with his back towards goal and one-on-one with a sweeper who was marking him tightly, he quickly spun the defender before finishing aplomb with his left foot. For his second, he exchanged passes just outside the box and made a run into the box, the return pass finding him in the box and he finished sharply into the bottom right corner.

58. Mustapha Hadji
Career Span: 1991-2010
Nationality: Moroccan
International Caps: 63 caps (12 goals)
Position: Winger
 

The only non-West African to win the CAF African Player of the Year title in the last 21 years, Hadji’s scintillating performance at 1998 World Cup against Norway is arguably the finest individual performance by an African player in the history of the World Cup. He assaulted the Scandinavians centrally, vertically and with a plethora of zip-zap runs in tight situations which left them frozen on their backsides, unable to handle the sheer explosiveness of his unconventional, volcanic-like dribbling.

In 1999 Gordon Strachan, the then Coventry City boss, would sign the exciting North African from Deportivo La Coruna. Hadji would go on to show his class in a fluid, menacing attack also involving the industrious Craig Bellamy and Robbie Keane, with compatriot Youssef Chippo for company in midfield. His exciting fusion of trickery and eye for goal captivated the Highfield Road crowd, gifting imagination to a team which lacked it. Indeed, Hadji would score 13 goals in his first season, notably including a fantastic placed shot that bamboozled David Seaman in a 3-2 win over Arsenal.

The following season Coventry City would be relegated on the final day unless they recorded a win against rivals Aston Villa. But Hadji had other ideas. He would conduct a one-man escape mission, scoring 2 goals in the opening 25 minutes as the Sky Blues raced into a 2-0 lead, only for the Aston Villa to hit back and seal the fall of Coventry to the second tier. Ironically, Hadji would join Aston Villa that summer but he would be plagued with injuries for much of his next three years before offering his services in more obscure stages.

57. Patrick Mboma
Career Span: 1990-2005
Nationality: Cameroonian
International Caps: 57 (33 goals)
Position: Striker
 

Although he played for ten different clubs in five different continents with varying degrees of success – in fact, varying degrees of failure a lot of the time – Patrick Mboma was remarkably consistent when representing Cameroon. With 33 goals in 57 caps for the Indomitable Lions, only Francois Omam Biyik and Samuel Eto’o have more goals than him, and both of them – and the ageless Roger Milla – have inferior goal-scoring rate per game for the national team.

A late-bloomer, Mboma only emerged as one of Africa’s great strikers of the last 20 years after a soul-destroying start to his career. Starting his career at Paris Saint-German in 1990, at the age of 20, he would play second-fiddle to the great George Weah. Realising his career was wasting away after a few loan spells, he decided to move to Japan – a country that, at the time, was typically associated with players in the twilight of their career, such as Gary Lineker and Zico. In Japan, Mboma would finish top of the goalscoring charts and work his way back to Europe with Serie A side Cagliari, signalling the rise of his stardom. In his first season he would score 16 goals in and alert the services of Parma, a side that included household names such as Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram  and Gianluigi Buffon.

But his form at Cagliari was as good as it got on the European stage. In a sense, with his first-class technique and tremendous power, Mboma should have been more, he gave the impression of the frustrating striker who dispatched the first-rate opportunities to score a goal rather the ordinary.

Indeed, no goal proves that statement better than the technique for his memorable overhead kick in 2000 in a friendly against France, the World and European champions at the time. Mboma was one of the key components of the Indomitable Lions’ dominance of the early 2000s in African football and, whatever his state of form at club level, wearing the Cameroon jersey always brought out the best in him.

56. Abdelmajid Dolmy
Career Span: 1970-1991
Nationality: Moroccan
International Caps: 140 caps
Position: Libero, Midfielder
 

Dolmy was one of the most elegant ‘registas’ of the 1980s. Short and skilful, you could have criticised him for being ‘too slow’ – a common criticism of registas throughout the history of football. Interestingly, Dolmy had begun his career as a defender before progressing to a defensive midfielder in the latter parts of his career. Understandably, then, he played as if he was an intelligent pundit in the studio analysing the game as it unfolded – showing prescient awareness of the dangers the opposition were on the brink of causing and intervening with some timely interceptions.

To compliment those qualities of a water carrier, he had a wonderful range of passing and a sublime appreciation of space, every movement he made on the field with a logical reason behind it. His positional nous provided much-needed structural balance for Morocco at the 1986 World Cup, in team that included the mesmerising Mohamed Timoumi and the direct flair of Aziz Bouderbala. Often, Dolmy would drop deep and distribute the ball short to the midfielders or long-range to willing runners such as Bouderbala or striker Abdelkrim Merry. With the structural balance he provided, he was one of the unsung heroes of the Morocco team that was the first African team to reach the knockout stages.

Amassing a record 140 caps for Morocco, the modest midfielder spent the majority of his career with his hometown club Raja Casablanca, with 3 Moroccan Cups to his name, but for his longevity, performances at the 1986 World Cup and the 1988 Cup of Nations and being a member of the playing staff in Morocco’s 1976 Cup of Nations trumph, he deserves a place on the list.

55. Geremi Njitap
Career Span: 1995-
Nationality: Cameroonian
International Caps: 112 (12 caps)
Position: Right-back, Midfielder
 

Signed by John Toshack for Real Madrid in 1999 after winning Turkey’s Foreign Player of the Year award – whilst playing for modest Genclerbirligi – the Cameroonian first shot to prominence as a humble right-back in a star-studded Galacticos era team of the early 2000s, winning the Champions League and a La Liga title.

Comfortable as a right-back and in midfield, if there were any doubts about the quality of Geremi during his spell at Real Madrid then he proved the naysayers wrong in his season-long loan at Middlesbrough in 2002-2003, scoring 7 goals as a midfielder and finishing with 8 assists – only Thierry Henry, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham finished with more in that season. Subsequently, Chelsea called and he proved to be a useful, versatile acquisition on the periphery of Jose Mourinho’s all-conquering teams.

On the international stage, Geremi has been a permanent fixture in the Indomitable Lions Cup of Nations triumphs in 2000 and 2002, as well as the Olympic Gold in 2000 and Confederations Cup runners up in 2003 and being nominated in the 2008 Cup of Nations team of the tournament.

Despite fading into obscurity at club level, there is no doubt that, at his peak, Geremi  was one of the deadliest strikers of the ball to come out of Africa, his delivery from crosses and set-pieces incomparable, the likes of Michael Owen and Patrick Mboma thriving from his service at club level and international level, respectively.

54. Karim Abdul Razak
Career Span: 1972-1990
Nationality: Ghanaian
International Caps: 75 (25 goals)
Position: Midfielder
 

Dubbed ‘Golden Boy’ for his game-winning moments, Razak would be named the 1978 Africa Footballer of the Year for his accomplishments. His game-winning moments would prove decisive in the 1978 Cup of Nations semi-final  – his goal against Tunisia known as the ‘Golden Goal’. Iwedi Ojinmah wrote on the Supersport  website that Abdul Razak had ‘absolute ball control and the ever rare gift to make average teammates unquestionably superior if not borderline great’.

After impressive performances at club level for Asante Kotonto in the CAF Champions League, his ability would see him join the showbiz of New York Cosmos in the National America Soccer League where he would play alongside World Cup winners Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto.

After two years at the  New York Cosmos, Razak would continue his career in a more competitive environment by joining the Arab Contractors in the Egyptian League. There, he proved his flexibility by being named the Egyptian Player of the Year in 1983 and 1985 in a league that was at the time one of the strongest in Africa.

53. François Omam-Biyik
Career Span: 1986-2000
Nationality: Cameroonian
International Caps: 75 (45 goals)
Position: Striker
 

He couldn’t believe it. Claude Le Roy, the Frenchman who took over the Cameroon national team in the early 1980s, was awestruck by the fantastic jumping qualities of the players in the Cameroon squad from the Bassa regions – namely the goalkeepers Thomas Nkono and Joseph Antoine Bell, but especially by the gangly striker François Omam-Biyik.

‘I had a curiosity about this,’ recalls Le Roy in Feet of the Charmeleon, ‘and one day I went to the village of Francois Omam-Biyik…near a place called Pouma…I had noticed the balance and co-ordination of many of the players from that region and I thought: “Hey, it wasn’t coaching that gave them that.” When I went to the village I found people were playing a special game. It uses a small ball, and it is a bit like head tennis, and the court was the space between the two houses: If I head the ball and it hits your house, I win. If you save the ball that I have headed, I win. And so on. And I was told they start doing this from very, very young. That’s why you get so many players with such great co-ordination especially from the Bassa regions, and you get this fantastic jumping quality.’

The evidence for this, of course, is the header Omam-Biyik scored in Cameroon’s memorable 1-0 win against Argentina in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup, one of the most iconic moments in African football. While the marking was shoddy, Omam-Biyik hanged in the Stadio Olimpico air for extra fractions of a second, elevating himself to an impressive height before directing the header towards goal. A large proportion of the headed goals include this amazing ability to propel himself into the air, his head always a metre above the sorry defenders marking him. Jumping ability aside, Omam-Biyik was also blessed with a terrific technique which was complemented with elegance in the movement of his long strides.

52. Youssouf Fofana
Career Span: 1981-1996
Nationality: Ivorian
International Caps: Unavailable
Position: Left-winger
 

Youssouf Fofana rose to stardom when, at the age of 16, he played for the biggest club in Ivorian football, ASEC Mimosas, against their arch rivals, Africa Sports. ASEC lost the game 3-2 but the young left-winger had a fantastic game and had made his name. In the 1984 Cup of Nations, the Ivory Coast would reach the semi-final on home soil where they were defeated 2-0 by Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions. Fofana, though, had had a splendid game and Cannes of Ligue 1 in France would soon offer him a path to European riches.

By the end of the first season at Cannes several clubs were after his signature. In the end, he chose to go to Monaco and three years later, under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger, Fofana would win Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France.

As Anver Versi wrote at the time of his transfer to Monaco, ‘Fofana’s technique is brilliant, particularly his dribbling – there are times when it seems as though the ball is attached to his foot. He easily outmanoeuvres his opponents with his left foot…his reading of the game is remarkably mature.’

Indeed, known as “black diamond” and “the dribbler”, Fofana, whilst being equally fantastic and frustrating, is one of the finest African talents to play in Ligue 1 and had some spectacular games for Monaco – notably the 1988-1989 Champions League second round second-leg  6-1 demolition of Club Brugge where he would score a hat-trick. In 1992, he would also add a Cup of Nations title to his honours.

51. Tarak Dhiab
Career Span: 1971-1991
Nationality: Tunisian
International Caps: 101 (17 goals)
Position: Attacking-midfielder
 

After Morocco’s intentionally stifled flair at the 1970 World Cup and Zaire’s embarrassing humiliation at the 1974 World Cup, Africa needed a representative to show the world what it could do at the next World Cup.

It found one in the 1977 African Footballer of the Year: Tarak Dhiab. The playmaker, who mostly played in the red and gold of Esperance, had won the award through his efforts to single-handedly lead the Maghrebians to the 1978 World Cup and his ability inspire those around him in the process.

He didn’t disappoint at the tournament. Tearing teams apart in his trademark number-10 shirt, Dhiab possessed the unprepossessing frame of many great players in the sense that you would not notice him in a crowd. Like all the great playmakers, he seemed to be playing in a different time capsule, a tablet of supernal, remarkable sense of space of the pitch. In an admirable Tunisian side, all the likes of  Temine Lahzami and Hammadi Agrebi had to do was run before they would be found by the precision and incisiveness of Dhiab’s two-footed passing.

Tarak’s whole career was dedicated to entertaining, thrilling and stimulating appreciative audiences. Although there was little continental success, domestic success was aplenty and his performances at the World Cup won around worldwide plaudits. As Brian Glanville wrote when covering the 1978 World Cup: “the left-footed Dhiab, slight but adroit, looked better than any of the West German midfielders, Floe and Bonhof included.”

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2 Comments on 60 Greatest African Players: 60-51

  1. i did love this ,it was the most wonderful moment of excitment that i never ever have in soccer.

  2. Taofeek owoeye // July 21, 2012 at 8:44 pm // Reply

    I like what I read so far on this page, I expect nigeria footballers on this page.

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