AFCON 2017: 7 defenders to watch out for

After a day off to prevent pre-AFCON burn out, SFG bandieras Maher Mezahi, Salim Masoud Said and Sam Crocker return to profile the 7 defenders, including goalkeepers, you should keep an eye on. They bandiera will be back in the next two days with similar lists for midfielders and forwards. The Twitter hashtag to keep a track of these players’ tournament is #SFGAfcon21. To the business at hand.

Ley Matampi – TP Mazembe | DR Congo

We can confidently say that there will be better goalkeepers at AFCON 2017 than Ley Matampi, there’ll certainly be taller ones (he stands at just 5’11”), but there won’t be more entertaining ones. The years of playing second fiddle to the inimitable Robert Kidiaba at TP Mazembe haven’t quite reached closure. In fact, the arrival of Sylvain Gbouhou saw the Ivory Coast No.1 relegate Kidiaba to the bench, and only elongate Matampi’s wait, forcing him to go out on loan again for regular football.

Nicknamed ‘Sonas’, after the National Insurance Society of DR Congo, the 27-year-old is now No.1 for his country, irrefutably so. He made a convincing case for himself during the 2016 African Nations Championship (AFCON for domestic-based players) in Rwanda, notably saving three penalties in their penalty shootout win over Guinea in the semi finals. DR Congo would go on to win the title and Matampi was named in the tournament’s Best XI.

Those heroics, under the gaze of DR Congo coach Florent Ibenge, saw him parachuted into the full DR Congo starting XI, and he has taken the opportunity with characteristic brio. He has been dominant of his area (and aerial balls, despite his height disadvantage), cherishing the ball each time he plucks it out of the air. He seems to fully stretch for every save giving the impression he’s really, really trying, and there has been plenty of over-elaborate saves for good measure. Above all, he’s just been good to watch, an energetic cheeky-chappy enjoying his time in the spotlight. He makes goalkeeping fun. –Salim Masoud Said

Fabrice Ondoa – Sevilla | Cameroon

Continuing in the oversized jersey of Charles Itandje before him, Fabrice Ondoa continues to prove that you don’t need to be playing football domestically to be any good on the international stage, something that appears to have become a Cameroonian goal-keeping trait.

Whilst Ondoa’s club football life may be hibernating, it doesn’t appear to be showing when he turns up to play for his country. Having only played 5 competitive first team games in his career to date – all on-loan from Barcelona at Spanish third division side Pobla Mamufet in early 2016 – it’s almost as if he stores performances somewhere, releasing them to produce illustrious performances as Cameroon’s first choice goalkeeper. Despite being only 21 years of age, previous manager Volker Finke rightly showed faith in him during his tenure, as his commanding showings between the sticks at AFCON 2015 cemented his place as a core component of this team.

Mature beyond his years, quite how his continually stagnating club career and lack of significant time on the pitch will affect him remains to be seen. However, with over 20 caps already behind him at this tender age and with manager Hugo Broos taking an inexperienced squad to Gabon, Ondoa will be a vital cog this time around. –Sam Crocker

Ramy Bensebaini – Rennes | Algeria

On the outskirts of Algiers, in the heart of a rural commune named Tassala El-Merdja, a ceramics magnate has built an unrivalled state-of-the-art football academy. With the infrastructure in place, Paradou Academy sub-contracted JMG Academies who had partnered so successfully with ASEC Mimosas in Ivory Coast.

The Academy’s first successful graduate, Ramy Bensebaini, is set to become a starter in the heart of Algeria’s defence. Bensebaini has slowly and surely carved out a name for himself in Ligue 1, deputising at left-back, centre-half, and defensive midfield. The PAC graduate is extremely comfortable on the ball, and intelligently patrols vacancies. For many, he is a natural successor to the very much missed Madjid Bougherra. –Maher Mezahi

Ahmed Hegazy – Al Ahly | Egypt

Hegazy’s stint in Europe, with Fiorentina in the Italian Serie A, didn’t work out well. Chances were limited from the outset and a major injury lay-off would turn out to dim any fading hopes he had of making a surge into the first XI for once and for all.

For many Egyptian players, home is where the heart is – and in a footballing sense, too, as that is where they can rediscover their former selves. So, after a loan spell at Perugia, Hegazy returned home, joining Egyptian giants Al Ahly, and he is now showing glimpses of the promise in the Pharaohs shirt that initially made Fiorentina take the punt.

A silky, swaggering centre back of yesteryear, Hegazy isn’t one for modern, hustle-and-bustle defending. Hector Cuper’s pragmatic system suits him perfectly as it masks his starting-speed weakness, amongst other things, and allows him carry out Rolls-Royce defending: reading the game and stepping up from defence, lumbering past one or two players like a 1980s sweeper, to trigger the counter-attacks that are becoming a trademark feature of Egypt’s game. –SMS

Nicholas Wadada – Vipers SC | Uganda

After being snubbed for a long time, since CHAN 2014 in the greatest country in Africa, South Africa, coach Micho Sredojevic could no longer ignore Nicholas Wadada. The Viper SC captain was recalled to the Uganda team back in June last year after a laudable season that saw him lead his team to second place in the league as well as winning the Uganda Cup.

The 24-year-old has never looked back, displaying similar performances to those that he records for his club to make the right-back position his own. Although he loves to go forward – he will need no invitation to – Wadada he also does credible work in defence, saving the blushes of centre-backs colleagues in the team with his recovery tackles to cover their mistakes. –SMS

John Boye – Sivasspor | Ghana

Despite what his name and youthful looks might suggest, John Boye is now a man. Whilst he may be a centre-back more renowned for being snapped kissing a big wad of bonus cash during World Cup 2014, he has become a regular part of the Ghanaian defence since AFCON 2012, and will need to be showing more maturity than he did in Brazil if his country are to succeed in Ghana.

Easy-to-spot on the pitch due to the quite ‘noticeable’ blonde peroxide streaks he has through his hair, he has carved out a role for himself in the Black Stars team as a reasonable quality defender, remaining largely unthreatened for his position. Whilst the likes of Mohammed Awal and Daniel Amartey pushed him out in Equatorial Guinea, he has formed a reliable partnership at the back with Jonathan Mensah over the last few years, providing the most stability for this erratic Ghana side. It’s a partnership you would expect Avram Grant to stick with in Gabon.

Strong in the tackle and at winning the ball in the air, Boye has nailed himself down a regular place in the line-up of Turkish side Sivasspor, having been deemed too good for second division football following relegation with Kayseri Erciyesspor the year before.

Wilfried Kanon – ADO Den Haag | Ivory Coast

The unsung hero of the Ivory Coast defence. The AFCON success saw good things happened to the members of that defence with their careers still ahead of them, with the exception of Serge Aurier who was already in situ at PSG.  Eric Bailly swiftly moved to Villareal and is now Manchester United, and Sylvain Gbohouo moved to Congo super club TP Mazembe. Wilfried Kanon stayed in The Hague with ADO Den Haag and he still remains at the justice capital of the world.

When Herve Renard took over Lille in the summer of 2015 he had quickly sought to rectify that, with a deal for Kanon advancing to the medical before Lille pulled the plug. A knee injury had arisen and they were unwilling to take the risk while he was unfit. It was devastating news for a player who was as key as anyone to Ivory Coast’s 2015 win. The move never came to fruition after Renard was sacked.

Kanon had started AFCON 2015 terribly, berated for his lack of composure on the ball by an agitated Renard. The he became Mr Reliable, eclipsing Gbohouo, Aurier and Bailly in his consistency over the tournament. A capable performer at centre back and left back, Kanon won’t set the continent alight with his ability, but he’s the type of uncomplaining, solid, versatile player that is a coach’s dream.


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