GK: Kennedy Mweene (Zambia) – I always had a feeling I’d like this guy. I’ve no idea, but it was from the moment I saw his name. Maybe it was familiar from some other context – I don’t know, but I did have a warm feeling.
He proved me right by being Zambia’s penalty shootout hero in the most heart-warming triumph in football since I started following, both saving and scoring penalties. And then to top it all off, he scored a penalty in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, becoming the first goalkeeper I saw to score in a match. What a hero.
DR: Lauren (Cameroon) – I remember when Arsenal signed this guy – it was the summer of 2000, approaching one of my first seasons following the Premier League. He went on to hang around Highbury for longer than you might think – six years in fact. He is perhaps one of the less-heralded members of the Invincibles team but he played an important role in that season, as well as being part of the Double-winning team of 2001-02.
He would win the FA Cup four times, the final triumph coming at Portsmouth in 2007-08. He also won an Olympic gold medal two Africa Cup of Nations, as well as the Player of the Tournament award in 2000, with Cameroon. All in all, an impressive array of honours, and yet he remains largely forgotten.
DC: Geremi (Cameroon) – The good thing about including Geremi is that while he may start at centre-back, he’s also there as right-back and midfield cover. Jose Mourinho, who managed him at Chelsea, loved him for that reason – in a team full of plenty of big names and big egos, he was a lower profile player who could perform adeptly in a variety of positions with minimal fuss.
The first time I remember seeing Geremi play was in a friendly against England just before the 2002 World Cup, back when Cameroon were still sporting their sleeveless shirts and he was playing his club football for Real Madrid, another team full of more glamorous stars. He scored a cracking free-kick, and ended up out on loan at Middlesbrough the following season. His impressive season there led to his Chelsea move, before heading to Newcastle in 2007. A must for any all-African squad of the last 15 years.
DC: Lucas Radebe (South Africa) – Radebe = Leeds. Specifically, the late 1990s/early 2000s Leeds. Radebe was captain during this period as they briefly became one of England’s leading teams, finishing 4th in 1998-99 and 3rd the following season. It is a shame that shortly after that, he suffered a series of serious injuries which would keep him out of Leeds’ run to the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2000-01, and eventually lead to his premature retirement in 2005.
He was also captain for South Africa’s first two appearances at the World Cup, the latter of which he scored against Spain in, and was a member of the squad that won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996. Perhaps even more importantly, he was also a member of the team that helped bring the World Cup to the Rainbow Nation in 2010. I struggle to think of a more influential footballer from the country – as far as I’m concerned, he is South African football.
DL: Celestine Babayaro (Nigeria) – Babayaro may not be the greatest African left-back ever but he was there when I first got into the Premier League in the late 1990s. At that time, he was competing for the starting spot at left-back at Chelsea with plain boring old Graeme Le Saux. In contrast, Babayaro was very exciting – young and pacy, he was also noted for his backflip celebrations.
Amazingly he managed to hang around Stamford Bridge into the Mourinho Era, before eventually heading for Tyneside in 2005. His stint there was less successful, during which time he picked up a three-match ban for punching Dirk Kuyt in the face. Unfortunately, after leaving Newcastle in January 2008 at the age of 29, he never played in another competitive match – he had an ill-fated stint at Los Angeles Galaxy before officially retiring in 2010.
MC: Youssef Chippo (Morocco) – In 1998, I was given a free football game called Kick Off to the World Cup, which was based around the 1998 World Cup (but also had loads of club sides in there as well). It was exceedingly difficult to play and I had trouble winning any matches. One thing I particularly remember from this was that this guy Youssef Chippo was incredible for Morocco – he always seemed to score.
A year later and Chippo joined Coventry City from Porto, alongside fellow Moroccan international Mustapha Hadji. Surprisingly enough, he was at Highfield Road for four years, staying there despite relegation from the Premier League in 2000-01. I seem to remember him scoring a brilliant goal at some point, but YouTube has yielded no answers. Either way, he was probably better in video game form than in reality, although Coventry could do with someone like him right now.
MC: Sunday Oliseh (Nigeria) – Another Nigerian who retired relatively young (hmm…), at the age of 31 in 2006, nonetheless Oliseh still had a relatively fulfilled career. At Ajax, he picked up an Eredivise winners’ medal in 1997-98, and also won the KNVB Cup twice. He then moved onto Juventus (I can’t say I remember this), but made very few appearances, before moving again to Borussia Dortmund, where he was part of the squad that won the Bundesliga in 2001-02 and reached the UEFA Cup Final the same year, losing to Feyenoord.
But it is his international exploits that he is best remembered for, particularly his winning goal against Spain during the 1998 World Cup, where he made Andoni Zubizarreta look a complete tit. Earlier in his career, he had won the Africa Cup of Nations and the Olympic title with Nigeria. He is probably nowhere near as good as I remember but I’m sticking him in anyway.
MC: Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast) – I’ve chosen to pack the midfield here, with one creative midfielder, one defensive, and one who can transition between the two. Yaya Toure is by far and away the best player in this midfield. Do I even need to explain why? You all know why – you can all see it for yourself in the Premier League this season. Even when he’s only operating at 70% of his capabilities, as was the case for much of last season, he’s still a very good player.
It’s worth bearing in mind that he has already won just about everything he could, at least at club level – the only thing that’s missing, as with all of his fellow countrymen, is an international trophy. He has title wins in his home country, Greece, Spain and England to his name, as well as Greek Cup, Copa del Rey, FA Cup, Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, and Club World Cup victories. He also has two CAF African Footballer of the Year Awards. But even all these don’t express how good he can be at his best. And to think, when he arrived in England, people doubted him.
AMC: Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria) – From nickname to nickname – Gnegneri to Augustine. But we all know them differently – after all, the stadium in Ogwashi-Uku (his parents’ home town) named in his honour is the Jay Jay Okocha Stadium. It’s rare that a living ex-footballer gets a stadium named after him, let alone one so young – he’s still only 39. That just shows the stature he has in his home country.
As someone who primarily follows English football, it’s easy to forget Okocha had a career before joining Bolton Wanderers – even when he joined, he was considered to be a “faded star”, despite only being 29. He went on to become their mercurial leader, captaining the side under Sam Allardyce, including to the League Cup Final in 2004, and scoring some brilliant goals. At a time when Bolton made a habit of signing stars on the decline like Youri Djorkaeff and Fernando Hierro, Okocha was the perfect example of why it’s sometimes good to gamble. His return to England in 2007 with Hull City? Let’s just ignore that.
ST: Nwankwo Kanu (Nigeria) – Yeah, another Nigerian. Who cares? It would be wrong to leave out someone so exciting, who just kept on going year after year in the Premier League goal. He didn’t have the most impressive goal-scoring ratio ever, and he may well be older than he says he is (officially he’s still only 36…), but he was such an important player, a trail-blazer in the Premier League for leading African strikers.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Kanu is another to have won just about everything. Champions League with Ajax in 1994-95, as well as three Eredivisie titles; the UEFA Cup at Inter Milan; two Premier Leagues and two FA Cups at Arsenal, including as part of the Invincibles team; a further FA Cup with Portsmouth; an Olympic gold medal in 1996; CAF African Footballer of the Year in 1996 and 1999. He is only missing a Cup of Nations title, but I doubt he’s too unhappy – after heart problems in the late 1990s, he is lucky to be alive, let alone go on to have such a successful career.
ST: Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast) – Drogba is many things – erratic, short-tempered, a cheat, perhaps even overrated. But it doesn’t matter any more. After that one night in May 2012, Chelsea fans don’t need to worry about those seasons where he contributed little, or that time he got sent off in the Champions League semi-final second leg for complaining to Anders Frisk once too often. The great players in football history come up with the answers when they are needed most, and you cannot criticise Didier Drogba for not doing that – he is the ultimate big game player.
I may get criticised for putting him in ahead of Samuel Eto’o, a man who has won more honours than Drogba over a much longer period of time. But Drogba’s a force of nature. When he is on song, he is unstoppable. In 2009-10, he scored 29 Premier League goals in 32 appearances, a remarkable record, especially coming off the back of scoring 13 goals across the last two seasons. Even as recently as earlier this year, when he joined Galatasaray after a brief stint in Shanghai, he still scored five goals and contributed six assists in ten Turkish Super Lig appearances, and bagged yet another Champions League goal. In Ivory Coast and Stamford Bridge alike, this man is a demi-god – not even Eto’o can say that.
GK: Richard Kingson (Ghana)
Def: Taribo West (Nigeria)
Def: Mo Camara (Guinea)
Mid: Kevin-Prince Boateng (Ghana)
Mid: Mustapha Hadji (Morocco)
For: El-Hadji Diouf (Senegal)
For: Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon)