25 years old/Centre-back, right-back, holding midfielder
Although the Rennes defender seemingly has insatiable appetite for yellow cards, his position in the Ghana back four is the only unquestionable one. Isaac Vorsah, his brother in arms at centre-back, is fine for now but he still has a lot of convincing to do, and the full-back positions are worrisome. In a period where there has been so much commotion in defence, Boye has been as timely with his performances in unison with his right-time-right-place crucial interceptions that still make Ghana’s defence tighter than a Zimbabwean banker’s fist.
27 years old/Left-back
Solid defensively and with penchant for a dash into opposition territory, the left-back supplied the width in a plucky Mali side which finished in 3rd in the 2012 Cup of Nations. A year later and a materialisation of a move from Metz to Randers, and the left-back has only grown in stature; his shoulders look sturdier than ever, radiating an aura of a man you should not stop on his journey down the left flank unless you have a very good reason. He was in devastating form in the first leg play-off tie against Botswana as Mali destroyed the Zebras 4-0; constantly overlapping Modibo Maiga, producing noxious deliveries to satisfy the aerial prowess of Modibo Maiga and Cheick Diabate, and having sojourns into the penalty area that would have made Carlos Alberto proud.
Abdelhamid El Kaoutari
Morocco/ Montpellier HSC
22 years old/ Centre-back
A recent coup for the Atlas Lions, El Kaoutari only joined the North African outfit in their 4-0 routing of Algeria in June 2011. El Kaoutari – a former French U21s international – is a considered, intellectual defender. Blessed with the left foot of a regista, he’s more comfortable in possession than haring after pacy strikers on the break. Coupled with Mehdi Benatia, the duo will constitute a resolute shield at the foot of the Moroccan side.
Algeria/ AC Ajaccio
26 years old/ Centre-back
At 18 years of age, Carl Medjani had the world at his feet. Medjani’s name was at the zenith of elite clubs’ wish-list. Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool offered lucrative terms and the young prospect accordingly made his way to Anfield. Like most of Houllier’s imports (among them Alou Diarra, Sinama-Pongolle, and Anthony Le Tallec), Carl Medjani struggled to impose himself. At Ajaccio, Medjani came into his own. Six years and 160 appearances later, the former French prospect, once more, finds himself on club wish-lists. He joined Les Fennecs shortly before the World Cup in South Africa. After playing understudy for veterans Madjid Bougherra and Antar Yahia, Medjani is now the cornerstone of the Algerian defence. The future, once more, looks bright for Carl Medjani.
Kilitcho ‘Jean’ Kasusula
DR Congo/TP Mazembe
26 years old/Full-back
When TP Mazembe officially announced their player of the year in December, Kasusula came 5th with 60 votes. Considering that Stoppila Sunzu won with 340 votes, you’re entitled to say we need to redo our calculations. But when you’re a full-back, perhaps the least celebrated position in the history of football, and, unlike Sunzu, didn’t score the Cup of Nations-winning penalty, it’s quite a significant amount. Genuinely two-footed, Kasusula does not have the razzmatazz of Tresor Mputu but he is potent and unpredictable going forward – happy to loft crosses, happy to overload the flanks or cut inside – whilst maintaining defensive dignity. Sometimes even entrusted to take free-kicks, watch out for the fraternal understanding between him, Kanda and Mputu down the left.
22 years old/ Centre-back, right-back.
It’s tough to tell which is slicker: Bilel Ifa’s play or Bilel Ifa’s hair. The halfback-cum-fullback is but another domestic jewel produced in Tunisia. With veteran Karim Haggui rejecting the national call of duty, Sami Trabelsi scoured his inventory for a replacement. In Ifa he found a player physical enough to cope with the prototype big-bodied African striker, but also one technical enough distribute quickly and effectively. Ifa will look to his partner, Aymen Abdennour, to guide him through his third Cup of Nations. The two could form a partnership tough enough to survive the infamous Group of Death.
26 years-old/ Goalkeeper
A few eyebrows arched when manager Rabah Saadane drafted Rais M’Bolhi in his provisional World Cup squad. The keeper, then plying his trade at CSKA Sofia, was largely unknown in contrast to the host of domestic keepers in the Algerian league. M’Bolhi kept his head down and stayed true to his introspective persona. In Polokwane, Algeria’s played an early kick off against Slovenia. The Desert Foxes were the better side until Faouzi Chaouchi, M’Bolhi’s superior, flapped at a tame Robert Koren shot. The fiasco hit hard in the motherland and when Algeria took the field to play England in Cape Town, Rais M’Bolhi was guarding the cage. M’Bolhi’s bashfulness immediately evaporated as he transformed into an on-field general, barking orders at his defenders. M’Bolhi conceded just the single goal in the two matches against England and USA and he now had the full confidence of the Algerian public. He’s missed but one game since, and though his club form has fluctuated, Rais M’Bolhi remains stellar under national colours.
Burkina Faso/Olympique Lyonnais
24 years old/ Centre-back
Bakary Kone’s career has come a long way. Kone joined Ouagadougou’s biggest club, Etoile Filante, at the age of 16. Step by step, the youngster built a reputation for himself, earning a move to l’Hexagone. Guingamp were the club to exploit his services, even if he was initially merely handed a role in the reserves. His five years at Guingamp were outlined with extreme highs and lows which include winning la Coupe de France, being relegated to the third division, then climbing right back up. But the most important factor about his time at Guingamp is that he stayed five years. He was afforded the opportunity of developing at his own pace. In August of 2012, Bakary Kone realized the apotheosis of his journey – the Champions League with Lyon. His work, however, is not done as returns to the grassroots of where he began… back with Burkina Faso and on the world’s stage at the Cup of Nations this January.
DR Congo/TP Mazembe
36 years old/Goalkeeper
One of the poignant sights in 2012 came in the latter stages of the African Champions League semi-final 2nd leg between TP Mazembe and Esperance. As the game headed into the final stretch, Mohamed Ben Mansour scored the solitary goal and bundled into Kidiaba in the process, dislocating the goalkeeper’s shoulder. When Kidiaba had to come off, he was utterly inconsolable. It may have been the pain, but it also seemed that that pain had been embroiled with the so-near-yet-so-far pain of defeat. The moving pictures were enough to make SFG members, whose lips remain stiff at funerals, shed a few tears of their own. That aside, Kidiaba is an obscene shot-stopper with an eccentricity that would instantly want to make you befriend him, although perhaps not introduce him to your family. There’s also the small matter of his trademark celebration when his team scores a goal: