20. Seydou KeitaCareer Span: 1999-Nationality: MalianInternational Caps: 70 caps (19 goals)Position: Midfielder In a Barcelona side that is considered one of the greatest teams to have ever graced the game, Seydou Keita has proven to be an able understudy to Xavi and Andres Iniesta or Sergio Busquets. You want the prized ingredients of dependability, humility and versatility; the qualities of the ultimate squad player? Send for Seydou. “There are many players who, when they lose the confidence of a coach, are offended. They feel that they are the centre of the universe and do not understand that the coach does it for the good of the team,” Pep Guardiola commented earlier this year. “But one of the most wonderful things in these four years is to have met a guy like him.”
Despite lacking the stardust of the aforementioned trio, his talent has never been in doubt. At the 1999 World Youth Cup, he would be named the best player, pipping Xavi Hernandez, his future Barca team-mate, to the gong. But it was at the 2002 Cup of Nations where he was one of the undoubted stars of the tournament. With Mali hosting the Cup of Nations, Keita scored a long-range winner in the opening game and was a standout performer as Mali finished third.
At the 2012 Cup of Nations, in a gritty Mali side that was one of the most youthful at the tournament, Keita performed calmly and intelligently as one of the experienced heads, scoring the goal that assured their path to the knockout stages against Botswana. The Barca DNA was apparent for all to see in his passing principles, rarely giving the ball away as Mali once again finished third.
19. Bruce GrobbelaarCareer Span: 1973-2002 Nationality: Zimbabwean International Caps: 32 caps Position: Goalkeeper
The pressure on Liverpool was relentless. They were facing Roma in the 1984 European Cup final in Rome, although it was a final with neutral ticket allocation it was still essentially an away match. With the game level after extra-time, it was time for penalties to decide the outcome. Both sides missed their first spot-kicks and this is where Bruce Grobbelaar would show a unique brand of penalty mind-games which has become one of the most enduring moments in football folklore.
As Roma striker Francesco Graziani stepped up, Grobbelaar executed what would become now as the “Spaghetti legs” jig – a move where he deliberately indulged in wobbling his legs to put off the penalty takers. As a result, Graziani clipped the ball over and Alan Kennedy scored the winning spot-kick. “People said I was being disrespectful to their players,” said Grobbelaar, “but I was just testing their concentration under pressure. I guess they failed that test.”
The South African-born Zimbabwean’s combination of showmanship, athleticism and unflusterable demeanour ensured he was one of the cornerstones of Liverpool’s success in the 1980s as they won six First Division titles, three FA Cups, three League cups and the European Cup. He regularly ensured the standards were high in his 602 outings, famously exploding with a vicious tirade on team-mate Jim Beglin in the 1986 Cup final against Everton.
18. Michael EssienCareer Span: 2000- Nationality: Ghanaian International Caps: 52 caps (9 goals) Position: Midfielder
From a physical perspective, Michael Essien was surely the most impressive footballer to have graced the game in the 2000s. At his peak, Essien had an astonishingly resolute body – he himself remarked that he had yet to meet anyone who could knock him over.
As Simon Kuper wrote in The Football Men about the Ghanaian in the summer where he moved to Chelsea:
An economist would note his multifactor productivity. The trend in sport is to measure more and more, and, whichever variable Lyon chose, Essien was the best in the team. He touched the ball more times than anyone else, had the most tackles, most completed passes, most interceptions of opponents’ passes and sometimes the most shots on goal, but despite his penchant for sawing opponents in half he was rarely caught fouling. Reading the stats was enough. He was voted France’s best footballer of last season.
Naturally, then, when Mourinho craved a versatile member to add to the Chelsea squad Essien was his man. Essien would become an indispensible member of the Chelsea team from there on in, playing in several positions whether it was anywhere across midfield, as a centre-back or as a right-back (in the 2008 Champions League final).
17. Badou ‘Zaki’ EzzakiCareer Span: 1976-1993 Nationality: Moroccan International Caps: Unavailable Position: Goalkeeper
With his ocean-like goalkeeper jersey and Arabic Crown Prince aura, Badou Zaki had an ethereal image that was instantly recognisable and almost belied his bravery. African keepers are widely ridiculed for their lack of command in the penalty area but Zaki commanded it with unmatched confidence which transmitted to the whole of the Moroccan defence in the 1980s. His completeness saw him become one of the first African goalkeepers to be courted by Europe’s premier clubs.
Possessing stunning reflexes and utmost reliability, he would skipper Morocco to the second round of the 1986 World Cup, the first African side to reach the knockout stages, bowing out 1-0 to eventual runners-up West Germany. His performances at that World Cup would see him named the African Footballer of the Year in 1986. He would also skipper Mallorca for three of his six seasons for the Islanders. Impressively, he was voted the best keeper in La Liga for three successive seasons and would become the first goalkeeper to save a penalty by Ronald Koeman.
The reason Zaki is such an icon in Mallorca, though, is his decision to remain with them despite the lucrative offers from Barcelona, even after they were relegated.
16. Joseph-Antoine BellCareer Span: 1975-1994 Nationality: Cameroonian International Caps: 50 caps Position: Goalkeeper
For the large part of his playing career, Joseph Antoine-Bell was involved in a battle for the goalkeeping gloves with the equally talented Thomas Nkono. Bell boasted lightning-quick reflexes complemented with a razor-sharp mind. Bell also had better distribution with his feet than Nkono, symbolised by the fact that he took penalties as well as saving them.
Despite being arguably the most talented of the two overall, his confrontational nature didn’t see him reach the global heights of his direct competitor, who was a stark contrast in personality. As much as the confrontational nature was detrimental, it also made him a major component of winning teams in terms of the high standards he set for his peers. Bell was the first choice goalkeeper in Cameroon’s 1984 and 1988 Cup of Nations triumphs, one of the principal reasons why they won the former tournament. With Union Douala, he would win almost everything there is to win at African club level; the Cameroonian League, the Cameroonian Cup, the CAF Champions League and the Cup Winners’ Cup. In his career with the Arab Contractors in Egypt he’d win a Egyptian League and the CAF Cup Winners’ Cup double in 1983. He would then go on to captain Olympique Marseilles in France, inspiring them to two French League cup finals.
15. Kalusha BwalyaCareer Span: 1979-2000 Nationality: Zambian International Caps: 100 caps (50 goals) Position: Winger/Striker
In Italy, they called it a shock to rival the Azzuri’s defeat to North Korea at the 1966 World Cup. Zambia had demolished Italy 4-0 at the 1988 Olympics. This wasn’t in the day and age where there were age restrictions in the Olympics: this was a strong Italy team. Three of those four goals came from the magical foot of Kalusha Bwalya; the first was a left-footed finish of raw power; the second was a curled free-kick around the Italians wall; and a calm finish completed his hat-trick.
Simply known as “Kalusha” due to the commonality of Bwalya as a surname in Zambia, Kalusha is the most successful Zambia footballer ever. Because he was a European-based, Kalusha was not on the disastrous flight in 1993 that killed Zambian international players and officials while flying to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal. A technically-gifted and explosive striker, Kalusha was the centrepiece of the newly assembled team that he would incredibly captain to final berth only a year after the tragedy at the 1994 Cup of Nations. At club level, he’d enjoy successful spells with Cercle Brugge and PSV Eindhoven, who signed him after they had won the European Cup in 1988.
14. Hossam HassanCareer Span: 1985-2007 Nationality: Egyptian International Caps: 169 caps (69 goals) Position: Striker
The archetypical poacher: durable devotion, perpetual persistence and right-place-right-time determination. Hossam Hassan wasn’t the most technically gifted of players but a combination of the aforementioned qualities, opportunism in front of goal and sense of where the net was saw him notch up goals with laughable ease.
The Hossam Hassan story would start in 1985 at Al Ahly and his steely resolve from a young age soon saw him earn a call up to the national team. He would win the Cup of Nations a year later, coming on as a substitute to replace the great Mahmoud El Khatib in the final and 3 years later he would score the goal that sent Egypt to the 1990 World Cup.
An unsuccessful four-year stint in Greece due to homesickness saw him return to Egypt where he led Al Ahly to successfully revive their fortunes, just as he had aimed, and he would finish as the top scorer at the 1998 Cup of Nations with 7 goals as the Pharaohs triumphed.
At the age of 35, the Hossam Hassan story seemed to be over – Al Ahly thought that, at least, and released him. It proved to be a costly error as Hassan ended up moving to their bitter rivals Zamalek and led them to several titles, including CAF Champions League glory.
The Hossam Hassan story was to enjoy a Hollywood happy-ending when, at the age of 40, he was part of the Egypt team that won the Cup of Nations on home soil in 2006.
13. Lakhdar BelloumiCareer Span: 1976-1999 Nationality: Algerian International Caps: 147 caps (34 goals) Position: Midfielder
The Algerian town of Mascara was famous for its potatoes until in 1984 when Mascara won the Algerian league championship. The homegrown, mesmeric Lakhdar Belloumi was undoubtedly the star and went on to become Mascara’s most famous export.
His introduction came at the 1982 World Cup as he scored the winner for Algeria that deflated the egos of West Germany. Belloumi was very much the talisman of a golden generation of players. The player who was once talked about as another Rachid Mekhloufi was compared to his contemporaries – Michel Platini and Diego Maradona – after that world cup.
Indeed, Belloumi played with the same delicious subtleness of touch as Pablo Picasso applied paint; the ball was caressed, never brutalised. Like the mannerisms of the elite playmakers, time proved to be an illusionary beast when the ball was under his control. Whichever stage he would play at – whether it was the World Cup, the Olympics or the Cup of Nations – he would consistently impress. He was a creator, a ballplayer and surely one of the great playmakers to come out of Africa.
12. Ahmed HassanCareer Span: 1996- Nationality: Egyptian International Caps: 181 caps (32 goals) Position: Midfielder
With 181 caps, Ahmed Hassan is the newly crowned most-capped player in the history of the beautiful game. Although not as gifted as Mohamed Aboutrika, Hassan was the key intelligence in Egypt’s unprecedented three straight Cup of Nations triumphs. Unlike Aboutrika, he was present in all three of the Cup of Nations victories and with 4 Cup of Nations victories to his name – adding the one in 1998 – no player has won as many. He was also twice nominated as the Most Valuable Player in the 2006 and 2010 editions.
The wit and precision of his passing game is unrivalled in Africa, having the pace to play on the wing but also possessing the creative intelligence to play through the centre as the pace naturally declined with age. Without diminishing his technical quality, his sheer determination also means he has absolutely maximised every inch of his ability. At the 1996 Cup of Nations, he was part of the squad but he wouldn’t make it off the bench. Two years later, he would score the winner in the final against South Africa – a moment he considers as career-defining as it transformed him from being an unknown young player to a renowned one.
With his successful spells in Turkey for various clubs and Belgian club Anderlecht, Hassan is also one of the few Egyptian players to succeed in Europe. Hassan maintains that he wouldn’t exchange his recent three Cup of Nations medals for an appearance in the World Cup, but it’s the only serious caveat against him.
11. Jay-Jay OkochaCareer Span: 1990- Nationality: Nigerian International Caps: 73 caps (14 goals) Position: Midfielder
He was so good that they named him twice. A world-class, dazzling trickster who made the near-impossible appear workaday, Jay-Jay Okocha is a monument to the aesthetic possibilities of the art of football.
For all his skillset, however, Okocha’s trophy cabinet is surprisingly lacking. A large part of that may be because he was a showman, a player who wouldn’t have been compatible at an elite European team. Okocha was akin to the South American number 10s that are ubiquitous in the Copa Libertadores: he had a quixotic vision of the game, the aim was to entertain and whatever else that followed was a bonus, it seemed. Football, in Europe at least, has moved on for these types of players, but Okocha didn’t move with the times and that is part of the reason why he ended up at Bolton.
But his inability to truly apply his ability doesn’t detract from how aesthetically pleasing he was and the impact he made to those who watched him. Football fans want to be entertained and there has been few players who have glittered Cup of Nations tournaments or the English Premier League as well as Okocha has. With his blend of pizzazz and razzmatazz, there hasn’t been a better African footballer to watch in the modern era in terms of pure aesthetics.