The African wing of SFG returns with their latest cohort of players as the countdown continues from 70 to 61. Resident writers James Bennett, Maher Mezahi and Salim Masoud Said are joined by regular contributor Theo Sakyi.
70. Abdelaziz Barrada
Olympique Marseille (FRA) / Morocco / Attacking Midfielder
Abdelaziz Barrada missed most of the first half of 2015 with a grade-three muscle tear, the injury only compounding questions on if Barrada is the same player he was at Getafe.
In Spain, the Moroccan midfielder enjoyed universal acclaim as a technical, passing midfielder, helping the Azulones side to consecutive mid-table finishes. A questionable move to Al Jazira led many to question Barrada’s ambition. But Barrada only spent a year in the UAE, before moving back to France. It is believed that Marcelo Bielsa was particularly keen on bringing the 26 year-old to Marseille.
His first season in la Provence was plagued with injury. Ironically, Barrada started to perform after Bielsa left the club immediately after losing the opening match of the 2015/16 campaign. Michel replaced Bielsa, and he and Barrada are on familiar terms, having crossed paths at Getafe. This season, Barrada has already managed five assists in league play, the third best total in France.
Highlight of the Year: Quick start to the 2015/16 campaign
Barrada quickly found his feet following Bielsa’s departure, developing a symbiotic relationship with Michy Batshuayi. MM
69. Boubacar Barry
Lokeren (BEL) / Ivory Coast / Goalkeeper
A man who has done little else other than convert a penalty to win AFCON2015 for his country so, naturally, he appears as one of the best African players of 2015. One of the criteria for the ranking of this list is the memorability of the moments the players have produced; years from now, what will you, dear reader, remember from 2015? It is on that point that the panelists that sorted the order of this list ranked Barry in the top 70 even though he has been warming the bench for Lokeren.
When he saved opposing goalkeeper Razak Brimah’s penalty, then stepped up to cooly convert his, he became a bona-fide national treasure. Confined to second choice after poor performances during AFCON qualifying, only an injury to Sylvain Gbohouo saw Barry reinstated to the starting XI. For all his experience, it was a selection that sparked outright anxiety for Ivorian fans.
Barry is considered a member of the golden generation, but he was arguably the rustiest, most ‘ungolden’ of them. If you asked an Ivorian schoolkid in 2006 which player they wanted to be almost none would have answered Barry, most probably wouldn’t have known who he was. Didier Drogba? Hell yes. The Toure brothers? Yes. Didier Zokora? Yes. Emmanuel Eboue? They would at least aspired to be as funny as him. But Barry? Few grow up wanting to become goalkeepers, no one in Ivory Coast grew up wanting to be Boubacar Barry.
It went beyond just football as the years passed by. His unfashionable position on the field played a role, sure, but his hangdog demeanor and his modest club career in Belgium made him an easy scapegoat when compared against the bigger names. In his latter years he hasn’t even had a flashy hairstyle; he may as well have been Bazza Down The Pub. All those factors, added with his erratic goalkeeping and untimely errors, compounded his scapegoat factor and, as a result, no one ever imagined he would turn out to be the hero.
“I’m not big in size or talent but I want to progress,” was Barry’s assertion after the final. He’s someone who clearly knows his limitations, but he has been undeterred to turn up for his national team despite the ridicule and setbacks over the years. He was the unlikeliest of heroes, especially given the fact for much of the tournament he had a substitute’s bib. It’s the kind of fluffy ending that usually only happens in fiction.
Highlight of the Year: Scoring the winning spot-kick
What else needs to be said? That penalty banished the pain and ridicule he had suffered over the last decade and being demoted to second choice in the tournament. That penalty vindicated his decision to continue playing for his country for one more tournament, unlike the likes of Drogba and Zokora, A perfect retirement from international football for a player with humility, who never gave up, and genuinely loved playing for his country. SMS
68. Aurelien Chedjou
Galatasaray (TUR) / Cameroon / Centre Back
Chedjou was one of the individuals deemed divisive enough to be omitted from the Cameroon squads post-World Cup 2014, receiving no call ups to any of the AFCON2015 qualifying games as the management looked to rebuild a young side with less imposing, strong personalities.
It was something of a surprise, then, when Chedjou was recalled as a last-minute replacement after Brice Ekongolo injured himself in a car crash. And, given the Indomitable Lions went into the tournament with a good defensive record, even more surprising to see him selected in the the starting XI for the opening game.
But it soon became apparent why he had been included. Reigniting his long term partnership with Nicolas N’Koulou at the heart of the defence, the Galatasaray centre back was imperious and commanding at the back. To underline his experience and ease at that level, he had 153 touches of the ball in his own half in the group stages- more than any other defender in the tournament.
The Indomitable Lions exited in the group stages but, for all their faults, their defence was not a problem. It was more odd team selections, an attack that went missing and a general lack of creativity which was their downfall. Chedjou was one of the few bright spots.
Highlight of the Year: MOTM display versus Guinea
One of the best individual defensive displays at the tournament, Chedjou outplayed and outmuscled Mo Yattara and Seydouba Soumah. SMS
67. Kei Kamara
Columbus Crew (USA) / Sierra Leone / Striker
2015 was the best year Sierra Leonean striker Kei Kamara has ever had as a footballer. Prior to 2015, Kei Kamara had been an unremarkable forward in Major League Soccer for many years, with his best scoring season amounting to 11 goals in 2012 with Sporting Kansas City. His mediocre form also followed him to England during spells at Norwich and Middlesbrough, before returning to MLS with Columbus Crew in 2015, the club he was first drafted for at the start of his career in 2006.
MLS is thought by some in Europe as a retirement league for players who are past their prime and are looking for a final pay cheque. However, Columbus Crew have no such players in their dressing room. The team is filled with players like Will Trapp, a deep-lying passing midfielder highly rated by Thierry Henry, Federico Higuain, an intelligent playmaker who coincidentally is Gonzalo Higuain’s brother, and Ghana’s very own Harrison Afful.
Kei Kamara has made the most of his talents in a cohesive side playing a well-drilled 4-3-3 system, as a centre-forward. He isn’t an exceptional footballer but occupies opposing centre-backs in build-up play and is a nuisance in the box at 6”2’. His 26 goals in 37 games is a massive turn around for a 31-year-old who had previously only gone into double-figures twice before in his career. If Columbus Crew hadn’t imploded in MLS Cup final we’d probably be talking about a champion too.
Notably, Kamara was also part of the Sierra Leone side that held Africa Cup of Nations champions Ivory Coast to a 0-0 draw in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. He eventually ended up retiring from international football because of unprofessional preparation before matches, although that obviously doesn’t take away from the season he’s had.
Highlight of the year: Goal versus Orlando City
His sublime lofted goal against Orlando City. TS
66. Jeff Schlupp
Leicester City (ENG) / Ghana / Left Back
An unlikely candidate for a list like this until fairly recently, Schlupp has had a tough road to Premier League football. Born in Hamburg, Germany to Ghanaian parents, Jeff moved to England with his family as a child and joined the Leicester City academy. He was loaned to Brentford in 2011, giving him his first taste of Football League action. His goal return of six goals in nine league appearances hints at his role; back then he was a striker.
Over the following five seasons at Leicester, he has gradually adapted to different roles, first as a left winger and then, during the team’s promotion campaign of 2013-14, as an attacking left-back. Initially this was out of necessity, after regular starter Paul Konchesky picked up a three-match ban, but he has since made the place his own.
It would have been hard to imagine a player who had spent his entire career as an attacking player adapting to such a radically different role at a high level such as the Championship; it would have been even harder to imagine it then working out at a higher level, namely the Premier League. And yet in the team’s first season in the league, he played in 35 of the team’s 38 league matches.
Not only that, but he also won the club’s Young Player of the Season award, as voted for by the fans, and the Players’ Player of the Year, ahead of the likes of Esteban Cambiasso, Leonardo Ulloa and Riyad Mahrez. He continued his form into the 2015-16 season as Leicester climbed to the top of the Premier League, but a hamstring injury in December curtailed a very impressive calendar year.
2014-15 also saw him become a regular in the Ghana national team for the first team. He had to wait three years for his second cap, after picking his first up in 2011 against Gabon. Though he missed out of the Africa Cup of Nations squad, he was recalled for the 2017 Cup of Nations qualifiers in March, and went on to score his first goal for his country against Mauritius in June. With a notable dearth of full-backs in the Ghana side, his place in the squad is seemingly assured for the foreseeable future.
Highlight of the Year: Late winner versus Spurs
A last minute winner against Tottenham in the FA Cup in January, after a great turn-around by Leicester in the last 10 minutes of the match. The goal was a classy left-footed volley, though owed a lot to a goalkeeping error by Michel Vorm. Still, a goal’s a goal – one of three in 2015 for Jeff. JB
65. Nouha Dicko
Wolves (ENG) / Mali / Winger
Wolverhampton has been home to many an African star, though not all of them have succeeded there: for every Henri Camara or Seyi Olofinjana, there’s an Isaac Okoronkwo or Hassan Kachloul. However, in 2015, three fixtures of the promising Wolves side were African and begun to make names for themselves: Carl Ikeme made his debut for Nigeria and immediately won over the Super Eagles fans, Bakary Sako earned a move to the Premier League with Crystal Palace, and Nouha Dicko begun to develop into a formidable striker.
I say begun, because it all came crashing down at the end of August when the 23 year old Mali striker ruptured his ACL, ruling him out of action for the next 9 months, a crushing blow for player and club, who had pinned their promotion hopes to Dicko’s blossoming partnership with former Arsenal youngster Benik Afobe.
To put this into context, it is worth recapping Dicko’s career. Born on the outskirts of Paris, he first progressed through the youth team at Creteil before moving to Strasbourg and, in 2011, to Wigan Athletic. However, he never made an appearance for the Latics, spending two part-seasons on loan at Blackpool, then moving on to Wolves and Rotherham.
Impressive form for the League One side led to him being recalled by Wigan and then sold to Wolves for £300,000 in January 2014. His goalscoring record at the club is 29 goals in 65 appearances, but it was in 2015 that he really came of age, as the team’s Dicko-Afobe-Sako front-line surged into promotion contention, winning 12 of their last 24 games and missing out on the play-offs on goal difference.
Wolves entered in the 2015-16 season as one of the title favourites, but with Dicko out, their attack has been blunted. It has also cost the player the chance of establishing himself in the Mali national team, at a time when Modibo Maiga is struggling for form and Cheick Diabate is out of favour. Whether or not he comes back as the same player after such a serious injury will determine whether he adds to the 2 caps he received in 2014. For now, he remains a player with enormous potential.
Highlight of the Year: Brace versus Leeds
Scoring two in a thrilling 4-3 victory over Leeds in April to keep Wolves’ play-off hopes alive. JB
64. Jordan Ayew
Aston Villa (ENG) / Ghana / Striker
To be blunt, there are still some people out there who consider Jordan Ayew to be a ‘fraud’ who is hanging off the coattails of his brother Andre and father Abedi. He had been in and around Marseille’s senior team at a young age but was mostly a disappointment, making frustrating decisions on the ball and showing indiscipline.
It was during a loan spell at Sochaux in 2014 that he showed some sparks of quality and started to look like a competent professional who at least deserved to start for a middling to upper-table Ligue 1 side. This earned him a move to Lorient in the 2014/2015 season.
Playing as a second striker he managed 12 goals and five assists. Sandwiched in between his season was the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. He unexpectedly had to step up and start as Ghana’s leading forward due to Asamoah Gyan suffering from an injury. Although he didn’t score in the group stage his work ethic was exemplary and, to be fair to him, he had to spearhead the team in an unfamiliar 3-5-2 formation in the Black Stars’ first game against Senegal, where he had little to no support.
After being subbed for Cambridge United’s Kwesi Appiah in the quarter finals, he returned to the starting XI against Equatorial Guinea and stroked a penalty past Felipe Ovono. Avram Grant succumbed to pressure to play an unfit Asamoah Gyan in the final and after the elder statesman had little effect in the match against the Ivory Coast, Ayew ended up taking a spot kick during the shoot-out and converted while Gyan hid away.
After returning to France and scoring a couple more goals for Lorient this seemed enough to convince Aston Villa to fork out £8 million for Ayew before the start of the 2015/2016 season. Ayew was often played out of position on the wing and placed on the bench. He has fared a little better under Remi Garde.
Highlight of the Year: His goal against Paris Saint Germain
His well struck shot from outside the box left Salvatore Sirigu floundering. TS
63. Nordin Amrabat
Malaga (SPA) / Morocco / Winger
At 28 years of age, Nordin Amrabat is arguably playing the best football of his career. A mainstay in a good Malaga side, and undroppable for his national team, Amrabat has finally reached a level of consistency that can be relied upon.
In the south of Spain, the Moroccan forward now plays all over the attacking line. Amrabat has been deployed as a striker for the first time in his career, but he also plays on either wing. His hard-running, physical, kick-and-chase dribbling style can be a nightmare to defend against.
An obvious criticism that may be levied against Amrabat is that his end product seems to have gone missing this year. In all of 2015, Amrabat only has 3 goals and 4 assists to his name with Malaga.
However, with Morocco, Amrabat has been clutch. In the opening match of 2017 AFCON qualifying, Amrabat was man of the match against Libya and he assisted the only goal of the match, beating his defender and putting the ball on a platter for Omar El-Kaddouri to finish in an open net. The next matchday took place in Sao Tome e Principe, and though it proved trickier than expected, Amrabat was again at the heart of the win, scoring one and assisting another.
Highlight of the Year: National team performances
Consecutive man of the match performances in AFCON qualifying fixtures have helped Morocco to the top of Group F. Nordin participated in a friendly match against Uruguay alongside his younger brother Sofyan, in what was a heartfelt moment for the Amrabat family. MM
62. Joel Matip
Schalke (GER) / Cameroon / Centre Back
The 24-year-old opted to retire from international football in the aftermath of Cameroon’s atrocious World Cup 2014 campaign, and it appears his self-imposed exile has propelled his club form to new heights. Befitting for a player not keen on meddling in off-the-field drama, Joel Matip’s work on the pitch is just as squeaky clean and unfussy.
Tall, upright and gracefully thin, the 6’4” Matip is not one for the hurly-burly of physical defending that will leave opponents with soreness and bruising the next morning; his game centres around assessing situations and using his caricature-like long legs to interpret the situations unfolding in front of him before intercepting the ball with unnerving calmness. In that sense, much of the work that he does can go unnoticed to the casual eye.
The physical side of his game can leave a lot to be desired, but the maths also reflects his interpretation of the game is of an excellent standard. By the end of last season, only three players had accumulated more interceptions than Matip since the 2012-2013 Bundesliga season. Having been at Schalke since 2000, and with his contract due to run out, the time has come for Matip to move out of his comfort zone.
Highlight of the Year: Club form at Schalke
There is no doubt that snubbing his national team and consequently cutting down on the air miles has allowed Matip to refocus with his club side. He has had the best spell of his career to date and, with months left to run on his contract and talks stalling, a move to a bigger club is on the horizon.
61. Bakary Sako
Crystal Palace (ENG) / Mali / Winger
While Bakary Sako’s 2015-16 season has begun in the shadow of longer-serving Crystal Palace team mate Yannick Bolasie, this has been an important calendar year for the winger who now plays for the Eagles domestically and internationally. While his loyalty to Wolverhampton Wanderers ended, he was rewarded for his patience with a Premier League move, and picked up his first goal in a major international tournament.
This is the culmination of three years’ effort for Sako, who first moved to Molineux from Saint-Etienne in 2012; he was following a path formed by brother Morike, who had moved to England 7 years previously with stints at Torquay United and Rochdale. An imposing figure at 6-foot tall, he immediately caused havoc in Championship defences, scoring on both his Wolves cup and league debuts.
However, his season was curtailed by injury and Wolves were relegated to the third tier. Nonetheless, to his credit, he remained loyal to the club, picking up a League One winners’ medal in the process. The club’s first season back in the Championship saw him star once again, and he would eventually be named in the division’s Team of the Season.
In the mean time, he also made his debut for Mali, after having previously represented France at U21 level. His Wolves form saw him called up to the team’s 2015 Cup of Nations squad, and he scored the team’s only goal in the 1-1 draw with Ivory Coast. After returning from Equatorial Guinea, he formed an impressive attacking partnership with Benik Afobe and Nouha Dicko in the second half of the season as Wolves narrowly missed out on the play-offs on goal difference.
Out of contract at the end of the season, Sako chose to leave in search of Premier League football, and eventually signed a three-year contract at Crystal Palace. Despite not featuring in the opening matches, he made an immediate impact once Alan Pardew introduced him to the team, scoring a late winner on his Palace debut against Aston Villa, before scoring and picking up an assist the following week in the team’s 2-1 win over champions Chelsea.
Though the Eagles have numerous attacking options, Sako will no doubt play a key role as they push for a Europa League spot this season, as well as cementing his place as a regular international Eagle.
Highlight of the Year: Opening games for Crystal Palace
His first two appearances for Palace, and in particular performance against Chelsea. There are fewer better ways of kicking things off at a new club. JB