The African wing of SFG returns with their latest cohort of players as the countdown continues. Resident writers James Bennett, Maher Mezahi and Salim Masoud Said are joined by regular contributors Lotfi Wada and Jimmy Aidoo and, making his debut on SFG to shed some light on Dioko Kaluyituka, Ahmed Hashim!
80. Ayman Hefny
Zamalek (EGY) / Egypt / Attacking Midfielder
After wandering in mid-table clubs and Libya Ayman Hefny’s talent has finally flashed to the world. A pint-sized classical playmaker with superb vision, the former El Jaish and El Makassa jewel quickly adapted to high-pressure football ollowing his signature at Zamalek, even though he was sometimes played as an impact player in the first part of the season.
Always offering good performances either through cameos off the bench or as a starter, Hefny was a key member of Zamalek glorious 2015 year at national level. His small frame, his dazzling runs and his passing skills were also crucial for the White Knights in their African crusade where he always gave opponents problems.
His absence due to various injuries also showed how dependent of Hefny Zamalek were to unlock organized or defence-minded sides. His influence on the Zamalek strike force is visible through statistics as Hefny was Zamalek main assist provider either at national or continental level.
Highlight of the Year: Smouha versus Zamalek, April 2015
Individually this was Hefny’s best performance in terms of decisiveness and gameplay. After creating various chances for his teammates through his dazzling runs and silky through passes but with no desired results, Hefny decided to take matters into his own hands by taking a crucial penalty in the last minutes of the game. It was cooly converted by the diminutive playmaker to unlock a very tight game and give three important points to Zamalek in their bid to win the Egyptian Premier League title. LW
79. Dioko Kaluyituka
Al-Gharafa (QAR) / DR Congo / Striker
It was a year of two different halves for Dioko Kaluyituka. The first was exceptional – the DR Congo striker scored 11 goals in 11 matches in 2015 as his Al-Ahli team finished in their highest league position since 2005/06. He was a sort of a lucky charm for the club, with Al-Ahli losing only once in the 8 matches that he scored in during this period. Dioko’s partnership with club captain Meshaal Abdullah was also noteworthy, with the two combining to score 36 of Al-Ahli’s 48 goals in the season. On the personal level, Dioko once again picked up the Qatar Stars League top scorer award, becoming only the fourth player to win it for two consecutive years.
And then he jumped ship. It wasn’t surprising at all: Dioko’s move to a bigger club was only a matter of when and not if. When better-paying Al-Gharafa came calling, he didn’t require a second thought. After all, this was the same guy who once complained in the media that Al-Ahli did not give him a raise despite scoring prolifically and that “Qatari clubs don’t treat the African players well.“
With the start of the new season, however, Dioko has found the going tough. Despite high pre-season expectations, he has only been able to score twice in the opening 14 matches as Al-Gharafa found itself muscled out of the title race. It’s been a mighty fall from his time at Al-Ahli, where he had goal ratios of 0.84 and 0.96 in his last two seasons. But with new manager Pedro Caixinha coming in, there is hope that he will improve. In Caixinha’s very first game, Dioko scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Mesaimeer, which reminded fans of his form of old.
Highlight of the Year: Hat-trick against Al-Wakrah
Dioko’s personal highlight of the year was undoubtedly the 11-minute hat-trick against Al-Wakrah in March. He came up with three clinical finishes and it was a clear display of his abilities; at that moment, nobody could dispute the fact that he was the best striker in the country. AH
78. Medhi Benatia
Bayern Munich (GER) / Morocco / Centre Back
It has been a frustrating a year for Medhi Benatia. Had this list been judged on the sheer qualities of players’ natural ability rather than taking other factors into consideration, Benatia would have been placed higher up. Here, after all, is Africa’s best defender over the last half decade.
Sure, it has been a stop-start calendar year interrupted by an exhaustive list of injuries which has rendered him to just eight appearances this season, but, when fit, his quality is undeniable. An exceptional reader of the game and a reveller of one-on-one physical duels, the man who was nicknamed “Moroccan Maldini” during his time in Italy may no longer be a big fish in a small pond but he sure doesn’t look out of place in the Bundesliga champions’ team.
Although an agreement sadly seems to have been reached for the Morocco captain to only play competitive matches at international level, the Morocco captain’s task for the next 12 months is to play football regularly and lead his country to the 2017 AFCON.
Highlight of the Year: No severe drop-off in performance
A lot of time on the treatment table can disrupt the rhythm of players but when he does play, for Bayern or Morocco, he plays like he has never been away. SMS
77. Allan Nyom
Watford (ENG) / Cameroon / Right Back
Summoned to England in the summer by Watford coach and Hugh Laurie doppelganger Quique Sanchez Flores to tighten up the right side of their defence, the French-born Cameroonian has turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered.
There’s no flashiness to Nyom; his best work is carried in his own half than in the opposition’s. That is exactly why he was brought by Flores – the existing right-backs were deemed to be too attack-minded.
Coming in at 6’2”, Nyom has height to cope aerially, good positioning and the turn of pace and lung power to recover defensively if he is beaten. Match-by-match only Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie have outright won their duels against him so far this season. If anything, that was an off-day rather than the norm. Other than that, he has covered himself in glory, showing the defensive discipline he was bought for.
Highlight of the Year: Acclimatisation to the Premier League
Some people would have you believe that the differences between the English Premier League and other leagues in the world is nigh extra-terrestrial. Nyom has made the switch seamlessly and, halfway through the season, can be considered one of the best right-backs in the league this season. SMS
76. Syam Ben Youssef
Caen (FRA) / Tunisia/ Centre Back
The ignominious image of Syam Ben Youssef breaking through six security personnel in pursuit of match official Rajidraparsad Seechurn following the quarterfinal of January’s Africa Cup of Nations will surely define the Tunisian centre-half’s calendar year.
Onlookers later testified that Ben Youssef did indeed assault Seechurn in the Estadio de Bata tunnel. Surprisingly, Ben Youssef wasn’t individually disciplined. Tunisia were handed a $50,000 fine for failure to restrain their players and staff.
That shameful act sullied an otherwise fantastic year for the 26-year-old, who has surmounted the toughest of hurdles in the last half-decade. After failing to carve out a place at Bastia, Ben Youssef made his name in Tunisia, signing for Esperance de Tunis in 2009. Ben Youssef won two titles with the continental powerhouses, and when his two-year contract ran up, he decided against renewing and set his sights on proving himself in Europe.
A trial at Metz was inconclusive, and another at Nottingham Forest ended in calamity. Ben Youssef tore knee ligaments in the midlands. In one fell swoop, he was out of work and his career in jeopardy. A year later, the young centre-half had to start over with Leyton Orient in League One.
The mental strength to not only overcome a career-threatening injury, but also a major health setback helped Ben Youssef become the player he is today. After Orient, he settled in Romania, helping Astra to European football and earning himself a contract at Caen last summer.
In the international arena, Ben Youssef contested 12 matches for the Carthage Eagles. He and Valencia’s Aymen Abdennour are the beating heart of a stringent defensive unit trying to break into the African elite.
Highlight of the Year: Return to France
Ben Youssef’s vindicated return to Ligue 1 will serve as a platform for consistent long-term progression. MM
75. Joel Kimwaki
TP Mazembe (DRC) / DR Congo/ Centre Back
The TP Mazembe centre back has always been considered something of a liability, usually bailed out by more able centre-backs partnering him, notably Stoppila Sunzu and, in more recent years, Salif Coulibaly.
That was until this year. It’s been an incredible year for Joel Kimwaki where he has leaped from a liability to one of Africa’s best central defenders. At AFCON 2015, he, Chancel Mbemba, and his long term TP Mazembe colleagues Robert Kidiaba and Jean Kasusula, were the standout players for DR Congo as they bulldozed their way to a third place finish.
Playing a system which gave complete freedom to the attackers, and where attackers were not obliged to defend from the front, Kimwaki was often exposed one-on-one but repelled his opponents with defiance, usually in the form of a last-ditch tackle. A surviving member of TP Mazembe’s run to the Club World Cup final in 2010, the momentum of that AFCON2015 success carried onto club form. Authoritative and never one to shirk a challenge, his form and experience were invaluable in the away legs which have been the downfall of TP Mazembe in recent years.
Highlight of the Year: Finally fulfilling his potential
The one-club man was in danger of ruining his reputation and respect if he continued to make costly mistakes at the back. This year, though, Kimwaki has shown soothing solidity to fulfil the potential he showed in his early 20s. SMS
74. Florentin Pogba
St Etienne (FRA) / Guinea / Centre Back
In the run-up to AFCON2015 Saint Etienne boasted the best defensive record in Ligue 1, and they owed much of that to the resilient defending of Florentin Pogba. The Guinean centre-half forged an excellent partnership with the grey-haired Loic Perrin, and he translated that form to international level.
A no-nonsense, uncompromising defender, he would pick up an injury midway through the second game against Cameroon which would see him ruled for the rest of the tournament and the following four months through injury, but his form and important to his respective teams sees him make this list.
Guinea would feel the difference in the quarter final against Ghana when they were 3-0 down after 51 minutes and the game was all but over. With Pogba in the team and in the form he was in, such a big margin would have been unlikely.
Highlight of the Year: Becoming Guinea’s premier defender
Guinea boast one of the most troublesome attacks in Africa, but what they have severely lacked in the last five years in particular has been quality in defence. The emergence of Pogba has given them a figure to knit their defence together. SMS
73. Omar El-Kaddouri
Napoli (ITA) / Morocco / Midfielder
With Morocco refusing to host the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, and facing the subsequent possibility of suspension from several editions at a time, the beginning of this calendar year looked bleak for Omar El-Kaddouri.
The 25 year-old attacking midfielder started the year on loan in Turin. But for a player that often took on the role of a main attacking conduit, a meagre tally of 3 goals and 3 assists propagated a tinge of underachievement for El-Kaddouri who most feel could improve manifold by improving his end product.
El-Kaddouri returned to Napoli in the summer, but is yet to cement a place in Maurizio Sarri’s starting eleven. The gripping play of Lorenzo Insigne, in particular, has barred the Moroccan from establishing himself on the left wing. This season, El-Kaddouri has not started a single match in league play, coming off the bench eight times to accrue 115 minutes.
Luckily for the nifty-footed Brussels-born midfielder, Sarri has been willing to test him out in the Europa League, where Napoli have shone. El-Kaddouri is leading all players in the competition with 5 assists in 4 starts and a solitary goal to boot.
His form in the international arena reflects his European success. 2 goals and 2 assists in five international matches this calendar year have warmed El-Kaddouri to the Moroccan public, who are desperately attempting to forget a forlorn generation (Taarabt, Belhanda, Assaidi) for a new set of heroes (El-Kaddouri, Ziyech).
Highlight of the Year: Top assister in early stages of Europa League
Leading all players during the group stages of the Europa League in assists. MM
72. Adama Traore
Monaco (FRA) / Mali / Attacking Midfielder
Most African Golden Ball winners have since done precious little to linger longer in the world’s consciousness. Truly, it’s a pattern the remarkable Adama Traore, with his award-winning, eye-popping displays in New Zealand at the latest U-20 World Cup, wouldn’t want to emulate: certainly not when Philip Osondu, the Golden Ball winner in 1989 at U-17 level, ended up reduced to janitorial work at a Belgian airport; Macauley Chrisantus being drawn towards an uneasy Greek voyage; Emmanuel Sani, though yet to blow the candles on his 23rd birthday cake, already rooted in European football’s backwaters; Dominic Adiyiah’s woes are well documented; and Wilson Oruma, the one who’s come closest to hitting the heights, never really going very far.
In seeking a more positive example to follow, the Malian whizz kid will be looking too far into the past by drawing parallels with the 1999 Golden Ball winner Seydou Keita. Achieving the feat under similar circumstances – Mali placing 3rd at the tournament and winning the Golden Shoe nonetheless – Adama seems well placed to replicate Keita’s successes and perhaps go on to become the greatest player to ever come out of the West African nation.
Traore has already navigated the tough territory of a world youth star never having to fully make that smooth transition into the senior team by being an integral cog of the Malian side recently. After his brilliant performances in New Zealand, several scouts and suitors began drawing rings around his name and it was eventually AS Monaco’s irresistible offer that made OSC Lille cower into submission after having sworn to keep hold of their prized asset.
Highlight of the Year: Winning the Golden Ball
It is a feat which will put him down in the history books. Now a member of AS Monaco’s senior team, the path to greatness seems well paved for him and it will take something utterly freakish for him to dim the shine he’s so far shown glimpses of. JA
71. Cheikhou Kouyate
West Ham (ENG) / Senegal / Midfielder
Kouyate became one of the Premier League’s surprise breakout stars of the 2014-15 season after signing for West Ham from Anderlecht in June. Ostensibly a defender or defensive midfielder, the Senegal international’s time at Upton Park has so far been characterised by a series of key goals in big matches.
Though born in Senegal, Kouyate moved to Belgium as a teenager and made over 150 appearances for Anderlecht over five seasons before signing with Sam Allardyce’s team for £7 million. It wasn’t until just before the turn of the year that he scored his first goal for the club, scoring against Arsenal in December, but the goals he would add over the course of the year would mostly come when the Hammers needed them the most.
This included the opener in the home game against Manchester United in February, a spectacular volley after juggling in the ball in a crowded penalty area; a good touch for a big man, as they say in England. The next came in the London derby against Tottenham, where he loitered in the area like a striker and powerfully headed past Hugo Lloris to give the Hammers the lead. His fourth and final goal of the season would be the equaliser against struggling Leicester, a game the team would later lose.
West Ham won none of the games he scored in 2014-15, but this changed when he again scored against Arsenal, this time at the Emirates on the opening day of the season; he headed in a free-kick as he once again proved to be a nuisance from set plays in Slaven Bilic’s first game as manager. A second goal followed in the thrilling 4-3 defeat to Bournemouth, while in September he headed a dramatic last minute equaliser at home to Norwich.
But Kouyate is about so much more than his goals. His physical presence adds steel to the midfield as well as a goalscoring threat, and he has won numerous plaudits for his combative play; Allardyce compared him to fellow Senegal-born giant Patrick Vieira. While the Cup of Nations was disappointing for his nation, he will no doubt become a key part of the team going forward.
Highlight of the Year: Complete performance versus Manchester United
The stunning goal against Manchester United, and his all-round performance in that game which earned him the club award for the Best Individual Performance of the Season.