60 Greatest African Players: 30-21

The heartache of sport crystalised in an image: Samuel Kuffour after losing the 1999 Champions League final.

30. Anthony Yeboah
Career Span: 1981-2003
Nationality: Ghanaian
International Caps: 59 (29 goals)
Position: Striker
The fact that Anthony Yeboah is the only player in the history of Match Of The Day to win back-to-back Goal of the Month competitions highlights his penchant for the spectacular. In many ways, it explains why he is a cult hero to Leeds United fans to this day and why he is so memorable when Premiership fans wear the sandals for nostalgia and reminisce about the thick-fogged, obscurity-filled Premiership of the 1990s.

Whilst he had a penchant to dent crossbars with earth-shaking shots, Yeboah’s ability to put the ball in the net by any means necessary for his clubs and country should not be underestimated, though. Certainly, he had the all-round ability to drop slightly deeper and drive through defences. At a time when the German Bundesliga was one of the strongest leagues in the world, Yeboah finished as joint-top scorer in the 1992-1993 and 1993-1994 seasons when playing for Entraicht Frankfurt. On the international stage, he’d make the 1992 and 1996 Cup of Nations teams of the tournament and with an impressive 29 goals for the Black Stars, only the great Abedi Pele has scored more.

29. Laurent Pokou
Career Span: 1965-1980
Nationality: Ivorian
International Caps: Unavailable
Position: Striker

For thirty-eight years, until Samuel Eto’o broke the record in the 2008 edition, the record number of goals scored in the Cup of Nations by an individual was held by Laurent Pokou. When Pokou congratulated Eto’o, he mentioned that records are there to be broken and then remarked that none of his fourteen goals came from penalties.  Indeed, Pokou would finish as top scorer in the 1968 and 1970 editions of the Cup of Nations, scoring 5 goals and 8 goals (5 of the goals – a record by an individual player in a single game – would come in single game against Ethiopia and would earn him the nickname ‘The Man of Asmara[the location of his feat]’).

Known for his straight-talking manner, Pokou has become a symbol of reference in Ivorian football. In one match against the1970s-dominant Hafia FC of Guinea, he stated that he would score a hat-trick in the first 15 minutes of the match.

And score a hat-trick within fifteen minutes he did. A crafty dribbler and an opportunistic finisher, Pokou would become the first Ivorian to play in Europe and he would impress, scoring 44 goals in 63 appearances in during his two years with Stade Rennais in France. Thereafter, it was only a series of knee injuries which curtailed his playing career and he was never the same player.

28. Mahamadou Diarra
Career Span: 1998-
Nationality: Malian
International Caps: Unavailable
Position: Defensive Midfielder

Renowned for his tough-tackling, Mahamadou Diarra made his name in tandem with Michael Essien at Lyon but with his performances not quite as eye-catching as his midfield partner, he was inevitably overshadowed despite winning 4 Le Championnat titles in a row.

Claude Makelele’s exploits at Real Madrid in the formative years of the Galacticos era saw him protect the back four so well that the prescient, destroyer-of-play role has become known as ‘The Makelele Role’ ever since. It’s fair to say that after his departure to Chelsea, Real Madrid struggled to achieve the structural balance than they had with him in the team.

And they didn’t readdress that structural balance until in the summer of 2006 when Fabio Capello took over the reigns and bought two water carriers in the shape of Brazilian World Cup-winner Emerson on a free transfer and Diarra for a fee of around £22m. He understood the limits of his game. “I have to be honest, it was easy to play with them[Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Raul, etc],” Diarra told This Is London earlier this year. “You pass them a shit ball, but they could bring it down, control it, and turn it into a good ball.”

In a pragmatic set-up, Diarra and Emerson shielded the back four that had previously been so fragile, denying the opposition time and space and simply distributing the ball to the more talented players. Needless to say, it was a drab style for a club of Real Madrid’s magnitude, but with the structural balance came the first La Liga title since Makelele’s departure.

It was only a career-threatening injury that stopped his remarkable winning record – 6 league titles in a row with Lyon and Real Madrid. At the height of his career, his importance to winning teams was perhaps undervalued and in the role he played he faced an uphill task to shine, but one of the most decorated African players of the 2000s.

27. Patrick ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe
Career Span: 1970-1984
Nationality: South African
International Caps: Unavailable
Position: Midfielder/Striker

The isolationist policies of the South Africa under apartheid rule deprived a generation of sportsmen the chance to showcase their talents on a world stage. And, by all accounts, few players from that generation were better than Patrick ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe.

Ntsoelengoe spent his playing career hopping between Kaizer Chiefs in South Africa and the North American Soccer League, where he spent more than a decade playing for a variety teams, notably Minnesota Kicks and Toronto Blizzard. The scheduling of the leagues allowed him to play in the NASL in the summer before returning to the Kaizer Chiefs for the closing season.

A glance at Kaizer Chiefs roll of honour shows they won a trophy every single season but one, and Ntsoelengoe was often the difference. ‘He used to come back to Soweto when the American season was over and he would always take the team and the fans out of any doldrums,’ recalled a Kaizer Chiefs fan to BBC Sport in 2010, ‘Ace was gifted but he was a grafter – when you wanted him to come to the party he wouldn’t disappoint.’

So, how good was he? ‘He was as good as many of the big names who were over there in the States – and I mean the George Bests, the Beckenbauers and the Cruyffs,” Alan Merrick, a team-mate of Ace at Minnesota Kicks, told BBC Sport in 2010. ‘He did things with the ball that others just didn’t do.’

David Fairclough, who was part of Liverpool’s great teams in the 1970s and 1980s, had a spell with the Toronto Blizzard and he was also impressed by Ace’s ability when talking to BBC Sport in 2010. “Ace was probably the first player I saw juggle a ball – these days all the academy players can do it, but back then he was the most gifted player I’d ever seen.

“Sometimes the coach would pull him out at training, get him to do a trick and say to the rest of us ‘try and do this’,” he recalled. “Not a soul could do it but Ace would stand there, cool as you like, with a big smile on his face, looking like he could do it in his sleep.”

26. Mohamed Aboutrika
Career Span: 1997-
Nationality: Egyptian
International Caps: 79 (27 goals)
Position: Attacking Midfielder

Undoubtedly the most elegant playmaker to come out of Africa in the 2000s, Mohamed Aboutrika, at his very peak, combined elegance with vision, grace and a killer eye for goal. Named BBC African Footballer of the Year in 2008, Aboutrika was the talisman in Egypt’s dominance of the Cup of Nations and certainly Al Ahly’s triumphs in the CAF Champions League.

Aboutrika’s rarity doesn’t just stem from him being a holder of a degree in Philosophy but also his reluctance to leave Egypt for the lucrative pastures of Europe. For a certain period in the 2000s, Aboutrika was the best footballer on the planet not plying his trade in Europe or South America. And, to a degree, a combination of that reluctance and failure to steer Egypt towards World Cup qualification explains his ranking on this list.

Nevertheless, if there were, or are, any doubts about his ability to perform against the best in the world then his performance at the 2009 Confederations Cup in a 4-3 defeat to Brazil showed his quality, a match where he was the standout performer. It was one of series of good performances at the tournament saw him named in the team of the tournament.

25. Yaya Toure
Career Span: 2001-
Nationality: Ivorian
International Caps: 67 (10 goals)
Position: Midfielder

Playmakers come in different shapes and sizes but, generally-speaking, they usually lack the stength to drive through defences with unstoppable power. Well, unless they’re Yaya Toure. In an age where diminutive, tiki-taka-esque playmakers reign supreme, the Ivorian is a threat to the status quo: in his role as playmaker he simply drives with the entitlement of a military tank. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have poise or elegance, he’s equally adept at posing questions with his passing which is, at times, very inquisitive – thanks to the footballing education he received at Barcelona.

Although he was frustrated by the lack of first-team opportunities in his favoured position at Barcelona, Toure proved his versatility for the Catalans as he played as a makeshift centre-back in their run to the Champions League triumph in 2009.

But it was at Man City where we have seen Toure unleashed, given the freedom to become more expressive and in his favoured position of an attacking central midfielder. Only in his second season, he has gone some way to proving his £28m fee already, scoring the winner against Man Utd in the FA Cup semi-final in 2011 and then scoring the winner in the final against Stoke.

24. Petit Sory
Career Span: Unavailable
Nationality: Guinean
International Caps: Unavailable
Position: Winger/Forward

When Laurent Pokou stated his intention to score three goals in the first 15 minutes against Hafia FC, Petit Sory’s response was swift: “A football game lasts 90 minutes, we’ll see at the end.”

Hafia FC were the all-conquering African football powerhouse of the 1970s, winning 3 CAF Champions League titles and finishing as runners-up twice. The Guinean giants possessed a swift attacking triumvirate of Sory, Maxime Camara and Alioune Keita which was supplied by the creative intelligence of Cherif Souleymane.

Sory and company failed to transfer club success into international success due to a defence that was often exposed at international level. The closest they’d come to tasting glory internationally with Guinea was at the 1976 Cup of Nations, only a penalty by Ahmed Faras denying them glory. However, Sory was named the best player at the tournament.

Despite their substantial success at club level, compehensive information on Sory’s team-mates – and Hafia FC – was frustratingly difficult to find so this entry is dedicated to the whole of Hafia FC team. Whichever way you look at it, five finals in the space of a decade is an incredible achievement.

23. Samuel Kuffour
Career Span: 1993-2009
Nationality: Ghanaian
International Caps:  59 (3 goals)
Position: Centre-back

And Solskjaer had won it. In the soap opera that is football, Samuel Kuffour showed the contrast in emotions. The joy and sorrow of sport embodied in an image – Kuffour on his hands and knees, beating the ground with exasperation, pain etched across his face as Manchester United players celebrated deliriously around him. Two years later, Kuffour would use it as a fuel in the hunt for glory, enjoying success in Europe’s premier competition after victory over Valencia and then scoring the winner in the World Club Championship final as Bayern beat Boca Juniors 1-0.

Lightning quick across the ground and resolute, Kuffour enjoyed a run of success that few African players can boast for much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, winning six Bundesliga titles during his time with Bayern Munich and everything there was to win in Germany. He amassed 72 Champions League appearances (the most by any African player until Didier Drogba eclipsed him recently), proving to be particular useful when the Bavarians opted for three at the back on the European stage.

22. Noureddine Naybet
Career Span: 1989-2006
Nationality: Moroccan
International Caps: 115 (4 goals)
Position: Centre-back

Arguably the greatest and most consistent defender Africa has ever seen who has plied his trade in Europe. Elegant, confident on the ball and tactically superb, Naybet was capable of moments of technical skill which dumbfounded attackers as well as uncompromising, kamikaze defending when the scenario called for it.

His career would start with Wydad Casablanca where he would win the CAF Champions League in 1992. The success would win gain him move to FC Nantes and, after a solitary season in France, he would taste his first European silverware with Sporting Lisbon in the form of a Portuguese Cup.

It was for his eight-year spell at Deportivo La Coruna, though, that Naybet would be best remembered as he was part of the team that won La Liga in the 1999/2000 and the Copa del  Rey and two Spanish Super Cups to complement them. In his brief stint at Tottenham, Naybet would also leave a good impression, proving to be a masterful defender before the reigns were handed to Michael Dawson.

Only an injury derailed a move to Manchester United in the late 1990s but throughout his career Naybet was ability-wise the best African centre-back.

21. Théophile Abega
Career Span: 1974-1987
Nationality: Cameroonian
International Caps: Unavailable
Position: Midfielder

With the cautiousness that comes in important games of football, particularly in latter stages of tournaments, there comes a time when a player has to take their own initiative and conjure a moment of brilliance to decide a game. These types of moments become rooted in our football memories, whether it’s Jean Tigana’s forceful and determined run for Michel Platini’s winner in extra time in the semi-final of Euro 1984 or Ryan Giggs’ magnificent solo effort in the FA Cup semi-final in 1999 in extra-time against Arsenal.

Africa’s version is arguably Theophile Abega’s 79th minute goal in the 1984 Cup of Nations final against Nigeria. With the score at 1-1 heading into the final 10 minutes, he picked up the ball in midfield, leaving the defender for dead with the ease that Johan Cruyff, one of his heroes, would have been proud of. He drove at the Nigerian defence with purpose, exchanging passes on the edge of the box before collecting the ball and calmly slotting the ball low past the keeper.

Abega admired Cruyff and Tigana, who, like him, also wore the number 14  shirt and, understandably, he was a combination of the two. As Anver Versi wrote, ‘he seemed to dominate and control the game even when he was nowhere near the ball. He also possessed two of the greatest gifts any midfielder player can hope for – a cool intelligence and the ability to inspire those around him.’

Nicknamed ‘The Doctor’ for his intelligence, Abega was the flagbearer for the golden era of Cameroonian football in the 1980s, leading Canon Yaounde to two African Champions League titles in 1978 and 1988, halting the domination of Hafia FC in Africa’s premier competition.

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