60 Greatest African Players: 40-31

Rigobert Song - The Indomitable Lion

40. Lauren Etame Mayer
Career Span: 1995-2010
Nationality: Cameroonian
International Caps:  24 (1 goal)
Position: Right-back, Right-midfielder
In an era of football where the full-back positions have become increasingly important, few sides have had the full-backs to utilise the position to the full effect. But in the form of Lauren Etame Mayeer and Ashley Cole, Arsenal were certainly productive in that respect.

A great athlete; Lauren was an important player in Arsenal’s invincible season, supremely comfortable when joining with the attacking play, often swiftly moving the ball forward with his marauding runs in an Arsenal side which played scintillating football, attacking from all angles with pace and precision.

Lauren was equally important for the Indomitable Lions. Deployed as a right-midfielder at international level, the Cameroonian was named the 2000 Cup of Nations Player of the Tournament as Cameroon triumphed and he would score in the penalty shoot-out two years later as they retained their title. There was a period in the early 2000s where Lauren Etame Mayer was certainly good enough to be considered the best full-back in the English game alongside Gary Neville.

39. Fredi Kanoute
Career Span: 1998-
Nationality: Malian
International Caps: 39 (23 goals)
Position: Striker

The first non-African-born player to win the African Footballer of the Year award, Fredi Kanoute is the African player has made the biggest impact in La Liga after Samuel Eto’o. Widely criticised during his time in England for his lackadaisical style of play, despite impressing with his mesmerising calmness on the ball, the humble striker has thrived in the more technical Spanish La Liga with Sevilla, where demands aren’t placed on players to cover every blade of grass.

His major impact would come in the years 2006 and 2007 as he scored in 5 of the 6 finals he played for Sevilla in which they triumphed; a goal against Middlesbrough in the 2006 UEFA Cup final; a goal in the 3-0 thrashing of Barcelona in the 2006 UEFA Super  Cup; a goal against Espanyol in the 2007 UEFA Cup final; the winner in the 2007 Spanish Cup win over Getafe; and a hat-trick at the Bernabeu as Sevilla won their first Spanish Super Cup  –  a 6-3 aggregate win over Real Madrid. Although the service wasn’t always forthcoming for a rigid Mali national team, Kanoute scored 23 goals in 39 appearances, including being the joint-top scorer with 4 goals at the 2004 Cup of Nations.

38. Aziz Bouderbala
Career Span: 1978-1997
Nationality: Moroccan
International Caps: Unavailable
Position: Attacking-midfielder, Winger

Whilst Mohamed Timoumi was the trickster of the Morocco team at World Cup 1986, Aziz Bouderbala was the dribbler, attacking the teams in a direct manner – with sudden acceleration and clinical finishing. Whilst Timoumi had the tendency to disappear from games, Bouderbala had a strong-willed eagerness to be in the thick of the action for the entirety of games, even if it meant coming deeper than his usual position to get on the ball. Like many of the great dribblers of the ball, he treated the ball as a jealous lover would treat their spouse.

His masterpiece would come in the 3-1 historic defeat of Portugal at the 1986 World Cup. Playing throughout the tournament with a heavily-strapped knee, Bouderbala oozed supreme confidence as he held onto the ball for as long possible, willing to take the knocks and taking spatial advantage as the game became stretched due to Morocco’s lead.

37. Hany Ramzy
Career Span: 1987-2006
Nationality: Egyptian
International Caps: 124 (6 goals)
Position: Centre-back

Hany Ramzy initially hit the headlines as an 18-year-old sensation for Al Ahly in 1987 and just 3 years later when he was named in the Egypt squad for the 1990 World Cup. He would go on to have an illustrious career, becoming the first Christian captain of the Egypt national team and helping The Pharaohs lift the 1998 Cup of Nations in Burkina Faso. Following the 1990 World Cup finals, he moved to Swiss club Neuchatel Xamax for an Egyptian record of US$1 million. There, he would enjoy a successful time, including beging tagged with the nickname ‘The Rock’ for his non-porous defending.

Otto Rehhagel doesn’t come calling twice if you don’t possess an ounce of tactical solidity and reliability. But come calling for the services of Ramzy twice he did, firstly for Werder Bremen, to pluck him from Switzerland,  and then at Kaiserslautern, who had just won the Bundesliga the previous season. The Pharaoh became so popular amongst the Bremen fans, partly for his good looks, that Rehhagel said: “He brings more teens and girls to the stadium.” A superb interpreter of the game, Ramzy was entrusted with the responsibility of perhaps the most important position in Rehhagel’s favoured system during his Bremen, Kaiserslautern and Greece reigns – the libero. For much of his career, Ramzy was one of the most consistent African players in Europe.

36. Finidi George
Career Span: 1989-2004
Nationality: Nigerian
International Caps: 62 (6 goals)
Position: Winger

Unlike his compatriot, Nwankwo Kanu, Finidi George was a regular starter for the youthful exuberance-filled Ajax side of the mid-1990s which won the Champions League in 1995 and then finished as runners-up a year later. Regarded as the best winger in the world at the time, Finidi moved to La Liga with Real Betis (he claims he had a pre-contract deal with Real Madrid but they couldn’t agree a fee with Ajax) where he would play the most enjoyable football of his career, showing remarkable composure in front of goal for a winger as he scored 38 goals in 130 games – scoring into double digits in all but one season at the club. George would also prove his versatility as he played on the other wing as well as in central positions.

Throughout his club career, Finidi inspired the Super Eagles to three successive World Cup finals and was part of the team which won the Cup of Nations in 1994. Finidi is, of course, also one of the Premiership’s biggest flops after his spell at Ipswich Town, but his sublime lob in a 5-0 rout of Sunderland showed the intelligence and composure that made him one of the best wingers in the world.

35. Rashidi Yekini
Career Span: 1981-2005
Nationality: Nigerian
International Caps: 58 (37 goals)
Position: Striker

Between 1990 and 1994, Rashidi Yekini was undoubtedly one of the most feared strikers in the world. Nicknamed “The Bull of Kaduna” for his massive physique and the way he bulldozed through opposition defences, a fearsome, mean look was planted on Yekini’s face for the entirety of his career. It was a look of a man who had an insatiable appetite for goals and when the opportunities were presented he finished with frightening aplomb.

His lack of remorse in front of goal saw him score an incredible 90 goals in 108 games for Vitoria Setubal in the Portuguese Liga – an incredible feat, for Setubal aren’t one of the traditional Portuguese powerhouses (Benfica, Porto and Sporting) – becoming the top scorer in 1993-1994 with 32 goals in 34 games. For the Super Eagles, Yekini is the all-time goalscorer by quite some distance with 38 goals in 57 games. His celebration after scoring the first goal in the 3-0 demolision of Bulgaria at the 1994 World Cup would prove to be a defining moment in his career and it would become one of the most published photographs of the tournament. He followed the trail of the ball into the goal and pushed his arms through the goal net, he closed his eyes and screamed to high heavens in a moment where – it seemed – he released a lifetime’s worth of bottled-up frustration, the type of frustration he often scored his goals with.

‘Rashidi Yekini is the greatest Nigerian striker I ever played with,’ enthused Sunday Oliseh in Feet of the Charmeleon. ‘His strike was unbelievable. He was always asking for the ball and he was always easy to find. All you had to do was drop the ball between the lines of defence and he didn’t pause. He just struck. And usually high quality strikes.’

34. Kolo Toure
Career Span: 1999-
Nationality: Ivorian
International Caps: 95 (5 goals)
Position: Centre-back

Part of Ivory Coast’s ‘Golden Generation’ who have consistently failed to deliver, Kolo Toure has arguably been the most consistent African defender to grace the European game at the very highest level. At ASEC Mimosas, he was part of a young team that signalled the rise of a promising group of Ivorian footballers, beating the experience of the blood and gold of Esperance to win the African Super Cup. (ASEC had no choice but to field a team mostly consisting of 17 and 18 year olds as most of the team that had won the Confederations Cup the previous year had moved to the riches of Europe or North Africa.)

After brief but successful early career with ASEC, Arsenal signed the Ivorian for a fee of just £150,000 in 2002. At Arsenal, Toure was at first used as a utility player, but he went on to form a terrific defensive partnership with Sol Campbell in their Invincibles season and was one of the backbones of Arsenal’s run to the final of the Champions League n 2006.The centre-back was an ever-present throughout the 2012 Cup of Nations for the Ivorians, a tournament which, despite failing to deliver the Cup of Nations for them again, saw them failing to concede a single goal in their 7 matches. Partnered by Sol Bamba throughout, Toure showed he was a level above his opponents with his all-round defending, particularly his superb reading of the game.

33. Rachid Mekhloufi
Career Span: 1954-1970
Nationality: Algerian
International Caps: Unavailable
Position: Striker

One of the first African players to play for the France national team, Rachid Mekhloufi played for Les Bleus eleven times between 1956 and 1957, shining for St Etienne as a youngster. Then his career took a spectacular detour. He deserted the French national team just before the 1958 World Cup, joining the team of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN)- a team consisting mainly of professional  Algerian footballers that were fighting for Algerian independence from the French colonialists.

Although the FLN team wasn’t recognised by FIFA, they managed to embark on a world tour and this was the platform where Mekhloufi would shine. An imaginative provider and the spearhead of the FLN attack in their 4-2-4 Brazil-influenced system, Mekhloufi particularly shone on their tour of Eastern Europe in 1961. In Belgrade, he destructed the Yugoslavia Olympic team, scoring four goals in a 6-1 thrashing. In Bulgaria, he scored a hat-trick in a 7-0 win over Targoviste. In Hungary, he would be named man of the match against the national XI in Budapest as the FLN destructed the successors of the legendary Mighty Magyars 5-2.

After Algeria was granted independence in 1962, Mekhloufi resumed his career in France. With Mekhloufi back in their forward line, St Etienne won the French championship again in 1964. With Algeria granted independence, Mekhloufi starred in Algeria’s stunning 2-0 victory over West Germanyin Algiers in 1964. He was later named club captain for St Etienne and he signed off his career in 1968 by lifting the French Cup. Not merely a footballer, but also an Algerian national symbol.

32. Rigobert Song
Career Span: 1993-2010
Nationality: Cameroonian
International Caps: 138 (16 goals)
Position: Centre-back

Based on defensive ability alone, Rigobert Song isn’t anywhere near one of the greatest African players of all-time. Widely mocked during his time in England, he was always an erratic defender and stands alongside Zinedine Zidane in the record books as the only players to have been sent off in two different World Cups.

Combative and courageous, he was, but disaster lurked in every breath of his 138 caps and his performances at the 2008 Cup of Nations and 2010 Cup of Nations ultimately defined the type of player he was. In the 2008 final, he miscontrolled a pass and with pressure from Mohamed Zidan, he was out-muscled and dispossed, Zidan made a simple pass inside and Mohamed Aboutrika slotted in the winner. In the 2010 Cup of Nations, his appearances contained a series of errors. As Paul Doyle of The Guardian commented during a group match against Tunisia which was level heading into the final minutes, the stage was set for him to score the winner;  you just don’t know at which end.

Yet, paradoxically, without him Cameroon wouldn’t have had the period of success in the 2000s. If there is one thing that Song can do then it is to talk and in turn inspires those around him. Song was an outstanding captain and the potent symbol of the Indomitable Lions. He was  – and still is – a patriotic, passionate man as exemplified by his recent mission statement where he outlined the creed for Cameroon players and officials. Few African players rival him when it comes to longevity, Song made a record of eight Cup of Nations appearances.

31. Sunday Oliseh
Career Span: 1989-2006
Nationality: Nigerian
International Caps: 63 (4 goals)
Position: Defensive midfielder

The 2000s saw the rise of powerfully built African midfielders, or those of African origin, plying their trade for top clubs in Europe in a water-carrier role or a box-to-box capacity. A key component of Nigeria’s 1994 Cup of Nations gong, Sunday Oliseh was the archetype for the  21st Century African defensive midfielder. Whilst the likes of Yaya Toure and Michael Essien dismantle opponents with their sheer crane-like strength, the Nigerian combined strength with poise and elegance on the ball to escape those snapping away at his ankles.

Oliseh began his European odyssey at RC Liege under the guidance of Eric Gerets and after impressing in his four years in Belgium, a move to FC Koln beckoned. In Germany, he would be voted the best defensive midfielder in the Bundesliga before he would join Dutch giants Ajax in 1998 and help them secure a league and cup double. An unsuccessful spell at Juventus was followed by a good period of success at Borussia Dortmund where he won the Bundesliga and the UEFA Cup.

Ultimately, Sunday Oliseh will always be remembered for his thunderbolt, game-winning goal that completed a memorable comeback against Spain at World Cup 1998. However, there was more to the man than just cannon-ball shots.

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