60 Greatest African Players: 10-1

Salif Keita in action for Saint-Etienne. Photo Credit: Corbis Images/Universal

10. Nwankwo Kanu
Career Span:  1991-
Nationality: Nigerian
International Caps: 87 caps (13 goals)
Position: Striker
 
At the peak of his career, a routine medical in Milan revealed a life-threatening defective heart valve and Kanu was advised never to play football again. After a successful operation, Kanu played only eleven matches in three seasons at Inter. It was a gamble when Arsenal acquired him in 1999, then, but soon enough he showed he was fit enough - and in emphatic fashion.

“ARGHHHHH, KAN-U BELIEVE IT!?” Roared Martin Tyler after the Nigerian completed a scintillating 15-minute second half hat-trick from the bench against Chelsea to overturn a 2-goal deficit. The goal involved that nanosecond moment of bravura that is typically associated with football geniuses; dummying Chelsea goalkeeper Ed de Goey before whipping in an accurate shot from what, it seemed, was an impossible angle. It was a devastating cameo from the bench that showcased the gregarious Nigerian’s unpredictability and superb technical ability – “long, stingy striker who does amazing things with the ball,” as his first junior coach described him.

Although Kanu wasn’t on the stratosphere of Thierry Henry and Denis Bergkamp, he was a more than adequate part of the supporting cast of Arsenal’s teams in the early 2000s. During his time in the English top flight, he has notched a record 17 goals from the substitutes’ bench, a record he shares with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

A Champions League medal, a UEFA Cup medal, two English Premier League medals, two FA Cup medals and an Olympic medal. Amidst all that there have been relegations – with West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth – but there have also been relegation-saving goals. His joie de vivre when playing the beautiful game has made him one of the most loved players in the modern era and, despite his unpredictability, he has given football fans some moments of sheer genius to cherish.

9. Mahmoud El Khatib
Career Span:  1972-1988
Nationality: Egyptian
International Caps: 170 caps (83 goals)
Position: Striker
 

Africa’s ultimate one-club hero. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, Mahmoud El Khatib was the poster boy for Egyptian heavyweights – and Africa’s biggest club – Al Ahly, his gentlemanly conduct and his marksmanship in front of goal making him the ideal man to symbolise the ethos of the club. Naturally, all the kids growing up in Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s aspired to be ‘Bibo’, as he was affectionately known.

Comfortable with both feet and in the air and blessed with terrific technique, his outstanding all-round ability saw him win almost everything that was realistically possible to win with Al Ahly – eleven Egyptian League titles, six Egyptian Cups, three Africa Cup Winners’ Cups and two African Champions League titles. And he would bow out in style on the international stage, fulfilling his dream of skippering The Pharaohs to Cup of Nations glory on home soil in 1986.

8. Thomas N’kono
Career Span:  1974-1997
Nationality: Cameroonian
International Caps: 112 caps
Position: Goalkeeper
 

According to Gianluigi Buffon, it was watching Thomas Nkono at the 1990 World Cup that made him want to become a goalkeeper. “With N’kono I liked the way in which he interpreted a match, his eccentricity,” explained Buffon in the Green Soccer Journal. “He would do a somersault on the pitch during a game or make a save with his fists and knock the ball 100 metres away. There were things about him that were a bit special, unusual for Europeans.”

In simple terms, N’kono was different; he showed that a goalkeeper could have fun. Certainly, in accordance with Buffon’s assessments, N’kono ‘s style of goalkeeping was based on instinct and a sniff of showmanship.  As previously stated, for much of his career N’kono was in a two-way duel for the Cameroon goalkeeper’s jersey with Joseph Antoine Bell. Whilst N’kono didn’t have the ability of his compatriot, he was still a top class keeper and his diligence and sobriety sometimes made coaches pick him over the enigmatic Bell for some major tournaments. Fortuitously, two of these tournaments happened to be World Cups -1982 and 1990 – allowing him to shine on the world stage with some brilliant performances.

After the success of Cameroon at the 1982 World Cup where they bowed out undefeated (with only 1 goal in 3 matches conceded) and a glittering continental conquest with Canon Yaounde, a move to Europe with Espanyol beckoned. There, N’kono would spend nearly a decade being a rousing rebuttal to a prejudice that not only African, but also black players in general, didn’t have the ability to be custodians in goal.

7. Salif Keita
Career Span:  1963-1980
Nationality: Malian
International Caps: 13 caps (11 goals)
Position: Striker
 

Africa’s first worldly football superstar. At the age of just 15, Salif Keita had already made his debut for the Mali national team in 1963. After a series of disappointments including losing two African club finals and the 1965 All African games with Mali, word of his ability soon reached Europe. Fearing Malian officials would stop a lucrative move to French club Saint Etienne, Keita planned his own escape to France in secret in search of the dream.

With a glittering attacking African triumvirate comprising of Rachid Mekhloufi , Frederic N’Doumbe and Keita, St Etienne won three consecutive league titles and two French Cups between 1968 and 1970. Subsequently, Keita was named the first African Footballer of the Year in 1970. The following season, Keita would score 42 goals in 38 matches, finishing as runner up in the European Golden Boot stakes, 2 goals behind Olympique Marseille’s Josip Skoblar. After scoring 135 goals in 167 matches for Les Verts, Keita and Skoblar joined forces at Marseilles but with the club forcing him to take up French nationality to make room for another foreigner, the Malian refused and moved to Spain with Valencia.

Blessed with an obscene ability to work the ball as absent-mindedly as a Nigerian does a plate of jollof rice, Keita was rightfully nicknamed The Black Pearl. In his encomium to the Malian, his St Etienne manager Albert Batteux said that he was capable of “doing absolutely anything, just like the top Brazilian players can. I’ve seen him try things that were ‘supernatural.’” His impact at St Etienne was so astonishing that the French club emblazoned a black panther as their emblem to honour their striker, a design that remains on their badge to this very day.

6. Rabah Madjer
Career Span:  1975-1992
Nationality: Algeria
International Caps: 87 caps (29 goals)
Position: Striker/Winger
 

FC Porto were 13 minutes away from defeat. They were facing Bayern Munich in the 1987 Cup final, the Bavarians with the swagger of a team who had won Europe’s most prized treasure three times. With 13 minutes left on the clock, Jean-Marie-Pfaff, the Bayern goalkeeper, palmed a slippery shot into the path of Madjer who was hovering near the 5-yard box with his back to goal. The intrepid Algerian threw a curveball which few would have envisaged, and the masses would have lambasted him if it didn’t result in a goal: he executed an outrageous backheeled leveller low into the net. Three minutes later, he whipped in a cross from the left, which was converted by Juary to give Porto their first ever European Cup.

The following season AC Milan had a £4m bid turned down for Madjer – had it gone through Madjer would have been one of the most expensive players in the world (Diego Maradona was the most expensive player at £6.9m), eclipsing big names at the time such as Marco van Basten and Gary Lineker.

The astronomical bid wasn’t merely based on a solitary moment of razzmatazz in the European Cup final. Before his transfer to Porto, Madjer was widely regarded as the best number 10 in the French league, despite playing for a Racing Club Paris side that largely stifled his creative bravura. With Lakhdar Belloumi, the duo were protagonists of a glittering Algerian golden generation which played catwalk football, Madjer scoring their historic goal in their humbling of West Gemany in a swift team move.

Ultimately, the outrageous backheel is what Madjer will be remembered for, though. It was apt of the modus operandi Madjer enjoyed and this made him one of the most exciting African players to watch during his era.

5. Didier Drogba
Career Span:  1998-
Nationality: Ivorian
International Caps: 85 caps (55 goals)
Position: Striker
 

His histrionics may have been frustrating but Didier Drogba was Mr Wembley Stadium, the man for the big occasion; in the 2007 FA Cup final, Didier Drogba scored the winner against Manchester United; in the 2009 FA Cup final, Drogba scored the equaliser against Everton (before Lampard went on to score the winner); in 2010, it was his free-kick which finished off Portsmouth; and in the 2012 FA Cup final, he struck a fine winner against Liverpool. Drogba then beat the significance of all those goals, by arguably scoring the most important goal in Chelsea’s history, a blindingly powerful header to equalise late on against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final and, fittingly, the winning penalty.

The Ivorian’s rise has been nothing short of remarkable. Aged 23 and in his first season at Guingamp (2000/2001), he states in his autobiography that he was a ‘a sub for a sub’. Then he started scoring, with the goals came the swagger to victory, transforming into one of the ultimate 21st century forwards almost overnight as he bullied respectable defenders with his immense strength – it seems almost pointless for a centre-back to try and out-muscle him.

In an era where single-striker systems have been king, Drogba – with his combination of power, pace, technique, protection of the ball, ability to bring others into play, supreme aerial ability, exceptional stamina and impressive work-rate – has been the definitive striker in the system.

It’s strange to think that he didn’t want to move from Olympique Marseille to Chelsea at first, inasmuch as hoping he would fail his medical for the West Londoners. Fast forward eight years and, if anything, there was reluctance on his part to end his time at Stamford Bridge after their Champions League glory: “To play for Chelsea was the best thing that could happen to me in my life,” he said when announcing his exit from the club, “as a player and a person.”

4. Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew
Career Span:  1985-2003
Nationality: Ghanaian
International Caps: 67 caps (33 goals)
Position: Striker
 

After the beginnings of what seemed like a path towards a peripatetic career, Abedi Pele would eventually hit the jackpot at Olympique Marseille. His game-breaking plays and darting runs made him an integral component of the Marseille machine, the only French side to win the European Cup. In 1991, he had enthralled Europe’s premier competition with scintillating displays against AC Milan and Spartak Moscow, but the French champions would lose to an impregnable Red Star Belgrade side on penalties in a mind-numbingly frustrating final. Two years later, part of a formidable triumvirate in midfield that included Chris Waddle and Basile Boli, the Ghanaian was instrumental in their triumph as he was named man of the match, his left-footed corner teeing up the only goal for Boli.

After Marseille were enforced relegation due to match-fixing and financial irregularities, the Ghanaian added to his cosmopolitan appeal and staggering consistency; there were two good seasons with Olympique Lyonnais; with Torino, he was named the Best Foreign Player in Serie A (not an easy feat due to the phalanx of foreign talent that was floating in those parts); and he went on to have distinguished careers with 1860 Munich and Al Ain.

During the early 1990s, no African player came close. At the 1992 Cup of Nations he seemed on a one-man mission to inspire his nation to the title with a conveyor belt of magnum opuses. A yellow in the semi-final was one yellow too many, forcing him to miss the final which left a bitter taste of what-could-have-been. Had he avoided a ban for the final, which the Ivory Coast won on penalties, he may have just have been the difference between the two sides.

3. George Weah
Career Span:  1985-2003
Nationality: Liberian
International Caps: 60 caps (22 goals)
Position: Striker
 

The only African to have won the FIFA World Player of the Year award. Talk about impact. In 1988, Arsene Wenger plucked the Liberian from Tonerre Yaounde to bring him to Monaco, and to this day he still classifies him as his finest piece of business. “Weah was a real surprise,” Wenger would later say. “For me it was like a child discovering a chocolate bunny in his garden at Easter. I have never seen any player explode on to the scene like he did.” Indeed, Weah scored 47 goals in 103 games for Monaco. A subsequent move to Paris Saint German would also see him finally win a Ligue 1 title and shine in the Champions League, scoring 16 times in 25 outings for the Parisians as they reached three consecutive semi-finals in the competition.

He would continue to turn heads at AC Milan, twice winning the Scudetto with the Rossoneri in what was, at the time, the best league in the world. In a league where goals came at a premium, none of the goals would be better that his chef d’oeuvre versus Chievo which saw him waltz through seven opposing players with the ease of an uncle playing against their 5-year-old nephew on FIFA, before tucking the ball home. It’s ultimately been the goal that has defined him, that has showcased the zenith of his physical conditioning that few players in the history of the game can rival; the stunning natural athleticism and the icy-veined finishes.

2. Roger Milla
Career Span:  1965-1999
Nationality: Cameroonian
International Caps: 102 caps (28 goals)
Position: Striker
 

“To have Milla in your team was to have a diamond,” eulogised Claude Le Roy, who managed the Cameroon national team in the 1980s, in Feet of the Charmeleon.”You could spend a week training with him and he would not make a single technical mistake.”

Nicknamed ‘Gaddafi’ for his volcanic temper, this diamond was extracted in the Africa Champions league first-leg tie against the all-conquering Guinean giants Hafia FC of the 1970s. At half-time, his club Leopard de Douala were 2-0 down. In the second half, Milla scored a hat-trick as the game finished 4-2 to the Cameroonians.

In terms of longevity, success on the continental stage – not merely with Cameroon, but also at club level – and pre-eminence on the world stratosphere, few African players can rival him. Here, after all, was a man who played at the highest level until in his footballing dotage and made an impact – becoming the oldest goalscorer of the World Cup at the age of 42.

A cursory examination on Milla’s goalscoring record at club level shows that he was barely above a workaday, peripatetic player. Yet, what that decent goal-scoring record conceals is the importance of his goals and his qualitative contribution to the team. His irascibility could, at times, be used as a weapon if channelled in the right way. “He spent a long time in France and if you look at the clubs – Saint Etienne, Bastia, Montpellier and Monaco – they may not always have been the very top clubs there,” says Le Roy, “but when he was with them, they usually won something, a trophy or promotion; because they had Milla in the team.”

1. Samuel Eto’o
Career Span:  1997-
Nationality: Cameroonian
International Caps: 109 caps (54 goals)
Position: Striker
 

Away from the field, Samuel Eto’o has always been somewhat of a controversial figure; his dossier of peccadilloes ranging from spats with managers to spats with team-mates to, allegedly, issuing a reporter with a death threat.

For all his peccadilloes off the field, though, Eto’o has paradoxically been the miniscule asset that differentiates between winners and losers. If we dismiss his Real Madrid career, as he rarely featured, Eto’o has been the difference. His man of the match performance in the final of the Copa del Rey in 2003, where he scored a late brace, gave Mallorca their only trophy. For Barcelona, he scored the equaliser to break Arsenal hearts in 2006 and then, two years later, he scored the opening goal for Barca’s demolition of Manchester United. And although he didn’t score a pivotal goal in Inter Milan’s triumph, that was largely because of his willingness to play as a right-winger – a gesture which not only displayed his dynamism but also his selflessness; a quality many disputed he possessed.

If James Bond has a License to Kill, then Samuel Eto’o has a License to Thrill in the immediate vicinity of goal; his textbook of finishing has no blank pages. When it comes the grandiose nature of his records, Samuel Eto’o being the greatest African footballer ever is an incontrovertible truth; the only man in the history of European football to win back-to-back trebles; the first player to score in seven different competitions in one calendar year; the big-game cojones to score pivotal goals in two Champions League finals; running amok in La Liga with goal pick-pocketing (no other player scored more goals in the 2000s in the Spanish top flight); and, fittingly (if you add the talent with the charity work done), the Cameroonian phenomenon is the all-time African Cup of Nations record scorer with 18 goals. None of his near predecessors in this list came even close to dismantling him. And to think he is a mere 31 years of age shows the incessantness of his success.

Yet the fact that he has achieved so much at a relatively young age conceals the hurdles he has had to overcome – from being rejected by Real Madrid to troubles with management to racism. Here is a man who drinks adversity by the gallon, exudes resistance with every stride and emits defiance with every goal.

So, there we have it. Samuel Eto: the greatest African player of all-time.

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2 Comments on 60 Greatest African Players: 10-1

  1. I think Weah could be higher – certainly than Milla and possibly even Eto’o. The man was a football god and not many Africans can claim to have been undisputed best players in the world at any given time which I think he definitely was. For me, Jay Jay Okocha should also be way higher than he currently is. The man was an absolute genius even if he didn’t get to produce in the best leagues at his peak.

    • Thanks for the comment, Barry. Ability-wise Weah was better than Milla and Eto’o, but in terms of achievements I don’t think so. Eto’o has had the misfortune of playing in an era of Messi, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, had he shown his form during, say the mid-1990s he would have been the undisputed best player in the world. Okocha had great ability too but won very little with it, even whe playing in the smaller leagues.

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