Here, three of our resident writers, James Bennett, Sam Crocker and Salim Masoud Said, are joined by guests and SFG bandieras Lotfi Wada and Jimmy Aidoo to run the rule over the first ten players in our rankings.
100. Sol Bamba
Leeds United (ENG) / Ivory Coast / Centre Back
So, Sol Bamba’s back in England. After a two and a half years wandering through south-eastern Europe with Trabzonspor and Palermo, the man Sven-Goran Eriksson once compared to Franz Beckenbauer while at Leicester City made a return to the Football League Championship that definitely cannot be described as long-awaited in January, signing for fallen giants Leeds United on loan for the rest of the season.
Up until that point, it had not been a happy period for Bamba. He had made just one appearance for the newly-promoted Serie A side before going out on loan, and it was this dearth of game time (plus some Bamba-ific performances in his last major tournament) that led to his exclusion from the Ivory Coast squad for the Africa Cup of Nations, a decision which denied him the AFCON winners’ medal he probably didn’t really deserve.
But despite this, Bamba’s move to Elland Road has seen him rebuild his reputation somewhat. By February, he was captaining the team. In March, he scored his first league goal for the club. By the end of the season, he was on course for a permanent move to Yorkshire, and even endeared himself to the fans further by openly criticising club owner Massimo Cellino in the local media.
Cellino had clearly either not read the interview or wasn’t at all that bothered, because in June Bamba completed his permanent move to Leeds. A month later, he was appointed the new club captain by Uwe Rosler. He even picked up a Man of the Match award on the opening day of the season against Burnley, followed by the Player of the Month award for August.
Even so, this still hasn’t been enough to earn a recall from new Ivory Coast coach Michel Dussuyer. Les Elephants now seem to be heading in the direction of a younger generation, and at 30, Bamba’s time may have been and gone. This might be for the best for player and country, though, as Sol is clearly settled at Leeds. Things look up for him. And there’s no doubt the Ivorian FA still have his phone number.
Highlight of the Year: Being made captain of Leeds
Rosler showed great faith in him and Sol has repaid that. JB
99. Felipe Ovono
Orlando Pirates (RSA) / Equatorial Guinea / Goalkeeper
Like most of the players in the Equatorial Guinea squad, he arrived at the tournament as a Rumsfeldian ‘unknown unknown’.
Lithe, fresh-faced, and a mere part-time professional footballer with Deportivo Mongomo before AFCON 2015, first impressions suggested that the then 21-year-old Equatorial Guinea custodian would be out of his depth among full-time professionals.
Despite the concerns prior to the tournament, and some understandable amateur, raw moments during it, he was the outstanding goalkeeper at the tournament. For someone so svelte, his spring to clutch balls that hung in the air, even when faced with several bodies to navigate his way through, was particularly impressive. With it, his hoarding of the ball to consume those precious few seconds late on in games became a trademark which simultaneously wowed the host crowd and eased their nerves.
Those tournament heroics would see him move to South African giants Orlando Pirates, but the transition to full time professional football has not been plain-sailing. While he has shown enough promise in South Africa to dispel any belief that he is a one-tournament wonder, his blunder in the CAF Confederation Cup final reinforced the point that, at the age of 22, as much as he can be a match-winner on his day he can also be a match-loser.
Highlight of the Year: Making a name for himself at AFCON 2015
Turning out to be arguably the discovery of the tournament. His performances at AFCON 2015 will be memorable for years to come and allowed him to make a leap into playing full-time professional for one of Africa’s biggest clubs. SMS
98. Kelechi Iheanacho
Man City (ENG) / Nigeria / Striker
Kelechi Iheanacho will remember 2015 as the year his football career really took off and started to follow the trajectory many had plotted for him. On the basis of the brilliance he exhibited and the sheer enormity of artistry a good number of global football pundits felt his talent could afford him ever since, like duck to water. He exploded onto the world football stage. tearing the U-17 World Cup into shreds nearly three years ago in the UAE with breath-taking performances.
Moving from Africa to Europe on the back of his U17 World Cup heroics, his stature has grown considerably over the course of the last 12 months at Manchester City. Now placed behind only Sergio Aguero and Ivorian Wilfried Bony in the pecking order, the Imo State native has seen his stock take a steady rise and has gone ahead to feature for the citizens 14 times by the end of the first half of the 2015/2016 football season; scoring twice and providing four assists in the process.
Speed of thought is arguably his greatest asset, combined with sublime skills and coldblooded finishing. Consistently regarded as one of Africa’s finest players, Kelechi possesses all the attributes required for a modern footballer. Physically powerful, he combines strong running with deadly shooting, vision with awareness and a great attitude. Now a fixture in team selection for both club and country, it’s just a matter of when, not if, Kelechi Iheanacho will ever be crowned the African Player of the year.
Highlight of the Year: Steady development and regular call ups to the Nigeria senior squad
This youngster’s development has caused new Super Eagles coach Sunday Oliseh, who had overlooked the young Nigerian on a few occasions, to reconsider his stance with him and give him a look-in. His first senior Nigeria national team invitation came for the World Cup 2018 qualifying double-header against Swaziland. JA
97. Sylvain Gbohouo
TP Mazembe (COD) / Ivory Coast / Goalkeeper
After years of rolling out the hangdog figure of Boubacar Barry at tournaments it came as a slight surprise to the masses to see the relatively unknown Sylvain Gbohouo fielded as the first choice goalkeeper for Ivory Coast at AFCON 2015.
One of only two African-based players in Ivory Coast’s AFCON-winning squad, the goalkeeper was by no means flawless in his debut major tournament but he offered them authority, reliability and consistency which Barry, a veteran of umpteenth tournaments, may have been unable to regularly provide due to his unimposing physique and the trauma he had accumulated over the years.
Entrusted behind a defensive line that had entered the tournament as one of the leakiest, added with the baby steps of the uncapped duo of Wilfried Kanon and Eric Bailly, the eagle-eyed Gbohouo’s alertness and assertiveness in aerial situations saw the Ivorian defence collectively grow in confidence as the tournament went on, never shy to reprimand his colleagues with death stares when they put him under threat.
At club level Gbohouo made the switch from African Confederation Cup finalists Sewe Sport to African Champions League champions TP Mazembe but has found it difficult to severely threaten the imperious Robert Kidiaba because of injury putting him on the sidelines.
With age not on Kidiaba’s side and Gbohouo hardworking and keen to improve, one suspects it won’t be long before he dons the No.1 shirt for TP Mazembe on a regular basis.
Highlight of the Year: Establishing himself as Ivory Coast’s No.1 goalkeeper
Even had Barry not retired from international football, Gbohouo would still now be Les Elephants’ undisputed first choice goalkeeper such was his reliability at AFCON 2015. He did the basics well; claiming the balls he had a right to claim and making the saves he had to make. SMS
96. Thievy Bifouma
Granada (ESP) / Congo / Striker
At club level he has done little but run around and score few goals, making most scratch their heads and think what the point of him is. At international level he was the protagonist of Congo’s unlikely run to the quarter finals of AFCON 2015.
In simple terms, for all their coach’s notorious underdog wizardry, Claude Le Roy’s Congo would not have made it through the group stages without Thievy Bifouma. In a tournament which saw underwhelming lone-striker play, Bifouma’s hold-up play, link-up play and off the ball movement were the hallmarks of a high level striker who was at the very peak of his game on a stage where peak performance is utmost required.
That Congo made it through as group winners with the highest points tally (7) is still a mystifying blur of under-performance from other teams and opportunism from Le Roy’s side, but the individual quality of Bifouma can’t be discounted.
Highlight of the Year: Single-handedly pulling Congo through to the quarter finals
There are some teams that come to major tournaments and are not memorable. Congo had an impressive run on paper but a year later few remember the individuals in that team, just Bifouma. SMS
95. Samuel Eto’o
Antalyaspor (TUR) / Cameroon / Striker
He burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old with Spanish football giants Real Madrid in 1997 and has since gone on to become one of the most revered names in world football. In the pantheon of African football heroes, few measure up to the genius that is Samuel Eto’o. Born on March 10 1981 in Nkon, Cameroon, Eto’o has won an impressive four African player of the year award – a record he once held and now shares with Ivorian Superstar Yaya Toure. Indeed, he occupies a special place in the hearts of African football fans and lovers of the beautiful game world over.
For all his greatness, a series of underwhelming spells at Chelsea, Everton and Sampdoria reflected poorly on a footballer who was on the wane and perhaps disinterested. If the latter was the case, who could blame him? After all, here is a player who has won all the major honours he could have realistically won.
Turkey is now an upcoming graveyard for footballers so when Eto’o, aged 34, opted to move to Antalyaspor the meagre recent goalscoring output was expected to continue until retirement. But, if anything, his career has resuscitated and we’re seeing a Samuel Eto’o playing with the finesse, technical ability and dead-eye for goal again, reinforcing the belief that he really is one of Africa’s greats.
Highlight of the Year: Return to form
The former Cameroon captain finally seems to be enjoying his football and playing with that winning smile on his face again, sitting at the top of Turkish Super League goalscoring chart with 13 goals in 17 games. JA
94. Chancel Mbemba
Newcastle United (ENG) / DR Congo / Centre Back
As Newcastle fans will tell you via their chant, Chancel Mbemba is a class defender and rarely gives the ball away. An encouraging debut half-season for the Toon Army has finished off a year where he has established himself as one of Florent Ibenge’s most trusted players.
DR Congo finished third with only one win in their six matches at AFCON 2015, and Chancel Mbemba played a significant part in how hard they were to beat. While his preferred position is at centre back, it was in the maelstrom of midfield where he would prove his protean virtues and produce a string of assured performances beyond his years and experience.
Tough tackling and regal in posture, his tidy passing kept the DR Congo midfield ticking nicely, ensuring the team always had enough of the ball to have some control of the game. And he relished the physical duels, too, dominating both Serey Die and Yaya Toure in the opening hour of the semi-final.
Highlight of the Year: The maturity of his game
He has shown the raw ingredients that he has the potential to be a top class defender and is now one of the first names on the team sheet for the DR Congo national team. SMS
93. Mahmoud Kahraba
Zamalek (EGY) / Egypt / Winger
Joining Zamalek was surely the key for Mahmoud ‘Kahraba’ to gain more attention. A youth product of the Cairo-based ENPPI, Mahmoud Abdulmoneim, nicknamed Kahraba (Electricity) due to his energetic displays, has been a star player for all age groups of Egypt’s national team set up.
Regularly out-of-sorts when playing for the full national side, the tricky winger has finally found his feet at senior level in 2015. After a bunch of classy performances in ENPPI, he added to glittering displays with Egypt U23 in the first part of the year to earn a well-deserved move to the higher level.
His adaptation to his new team was seamless as he became a key member of Zamalek thanks to his fantastic performances in Egypt Cup final and CAF Confederation Cup last stages.
Highlight of the Year: His MOTM performance in Zamalek’s win over Orlando Pirates.
Arguably Kahraba’s best performance under Zamalek shirt. The dazzling winger was a class above the rest this night and the icing on the cake was made of two ingredients: a sweet backheel assist for Ahmed Mekky and a tasty finish on Zamalek fourth goal to complete the rout and his superb performance. LW
92. Thomas Ulimwengu
TP Mazembe (COD) / Tanzania / Winger
Lesser known than his compatriot Mbwana Ali Samatta, Thomas Ulimwengu finally blossomed this year after years trailing in the shadow of Samatta in 2015. Possessing the strength, the speed and the skills to outpace or outmuscle his opponents the Ulimwengu finally added a new string to his bow: passing.
His explosion was crucial for TP Mazembe as they became less dependant on their star Mbwana Ali Samatta and found another source of danger to threaten their African opponents and finally win their fifth African Champions League crown. The blossoming of Ulimwengu has been just as beneficial for the Tanzania national side where the burden has eased on Samatta to produce moments of top class quality.
For years, many had worried about the ceiling of Ulimwengu’s ability, fearing he had stalled, but in this breakthrough year he has shown that he is worth the hype and, at just 22, he can only get better with the right attitude. After winning the Holy Grail and doing everything possible at club level with Les Corbeaux a move to the Old Continent beckons for the youngster, with Turkey being the likeliest transfer destination according to transfer rumours.
Highlight of the Year: Al Merreikh-TP Mazembe leg in Omdurman
After being tormented by Al Merreikh fury during 70 minutes ,without finding any solutions to block it,the Tanzanian striker, aided by a superb pass from Roger Assale, silenced the home crowd and scored a crucial away goal to ease TP Mazembe way to the final. LW
91. Mubarak Wakaso
Las Palmas (Loan) (ESP) / Ghana / Midfielder
Not for the first year in the career of Mubarak Wakaso, his contributions to international football have exceeded what he has provided to the club game. Whilst he was one of the better performers as Ghana crawled to the AFCON 2015 final, his club career continues to stall, with his parent club Rubin Kazan farming him out on loan to two different teams in 2015.
Eventually forcing his way in Avram Grant’s starting line-up in the third group game, he added a much needed spark to the centre of the park, as he displayed his array of passing and long-range shooting abilities all too absent in the Ghana squad (and, arguably, the whole of Africa). Remaining a staple starter for the rest of the tournament once Avram had finished tinkering, his speculative effort that glided over Boubacar Barry’s cross one of the few points of note during the 120 minutes of open play during the final in Bata, as it reaffirmed his place at the base of his country’s midfield.
Whilst a regular for country, this has not been so much the case in the domestic scene. His move to Rubin Kazan from Espanyol in 2013 has proved again that it was the wrong move, with loan spells at Celtic and now Las Palmas showing his lack of worth at the Russian club.
Still only 25, Wakaso still has time to resurrect his club career, but will require a move away from Rubin as soon as possible so his career can stabilise and his undoubted talent can blossom.
Highlight of the Year: All-action performance versus Equatorial Guinea
Putting the game to bed (and perhaps sparking one of the most extraordinary and unsavoury stadium scenes in the history of African football) by netting the second just before half-time in the semi-final against Equatorial Guinea. SC