Meet the 8 Africa-based players to watch out for at AFCON 2021

Everybody knows Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez, and all those other boring players. So I will not bore you. Here, we shine a light on the players still playing in Africa that you should watch out for.

Shimelis Bekele – Ethiopia – 32

For what it’s worth, I think Shimelis Bekele is one of the most underrated players in Africa. And by underrated I really mean underrated. He is underrated because he hasn’t played for the best teams in the continent but he has lasted seven years in – going by the CAF coefficient – the best league.

Ethiopian footballers don’t have the best reputation abroad, but Bekele has proved to be the outlier. In Ethiopia’s 25-man AFCON squad, he is only one of two players plying their trade abroad.

As their experienced talisman, much will be expected of Bekele and his cunningness in the final third. After a nine-year absence from AFCON, maybe, after seven years in the Egyptian Premier League with three different clubs, he can remind the continent that he exists and that he has returned bigger, brawnier and better.

Peter Banda – Malawi – 21

The Malawian attacker did something unthinkable, something that, to this day, still makes Europeans shake in anger: despite not being short of suitors in Europe, he left Champions League-bound Sheriff Tiraspol, who went on to be drawn in the same group as Real Madrid and Inter Milan, to join Simba Sports Club in Tanzania. Yes, he rejected the chance to play in the Santiago Bernabeu and San Siro for the hekaheka (beautiful chaos) of the NBC Premier League in Tanzania!

He has been slowly eased in at Simba where the pressure to perform is high. In the little game time he has had he has showed the flashes and promise. Banda is very much a technician. His slim build is not enough to hold off strong defenders, but he is dogged enough to always try to win it back and try to fend them off.

He is a fine dribbler, albeit guilty of over-elaborating, and though he does cross with both feet his final ball can be inconsistent; frustratingly that part of his game lets him down when he’s usually done the right things leading up to it. What’s for sure is he can get you on the edge of your seat.

Diney Borges – Cape Verde – 26

BREAKING NEWS! As we write this, Borges has just extended his contract wirh FAR Rabat in Morocco until 2024. The centre back has cemented himself as one of the best centre backs in one of Africa’s most intense and demanding leads since 2019.

One of the strengths of his game is his aerial duels in the penalty area. Not only does he win them but his headers are cleared into areas that don’t pose an immediate threat to his team, allowing them to reset and reorganise. His long range passing is another thing that stands out, with FAR Rabat and Cape Verde full-backs confident his passes will find them.

Djigui Diarra – Mali – 26

You’re unlikely to see Mali’s second choice goalkeeper in action, but you should know that he exists. Nicknamed ‘Screen Protector’ for the layer of safety he provides in his area, Diarra has taken the Tanzania Premier League by storm since joining Young Africans from Stade Malien in Mali.

Parachuted into a team that was struggling to build up play from the back, he has been the vaccination required for that ill. The green side of Kariakoo can be excused for thinking they have bought a deep-lying playmaker, such is the number of times he’s involved, rather than being a bystander, when retaining possession or instigating attacks.

Within just a few months he has shown he is distributor and creator. It was his pre-assist which saw Young Africans emerge victorious in the Tanzania Super Cup.

Mohamed Abdelrahman – Sudan – 28

Two losses and one win from their first three games left Sudan with little room for error. Up stepped Mohamed Abdelrahman who scored three goals in three games as the Falcons of Jediane saw off Ghana, Sao Tome & Principe, and finally South Africa to finish as Group C runners up.

Following his dismissal, Hubert Velud won’t be at AFCON to see the fruits of his labour. The art of being a manager when first being appointed is knowing what to change and what not to change. Burhan Tia, Velud’s successor, would be wise to continue to sit deep and let Abdelrahman lead the charge from the front. During qualification the Al Hilal Omdurman striker has been the one-man band providing the mobility, running the hard yards and conjuring something out of nothing.

Axel Meye – Gabon – 26

A member of Gabon’s squad at the London 2012 Olympics, seasoned watchers of African qualifiers will remember Axel Meye giving the Ivorian centre back pairing of Eric Bailly and Wilfried Kanon a torrid time as Gabon recorded a famous 2-1 victory in Bouake during 2018 World Cup qualification.

Meye excels with his back to goal, overpowering any defender that doesn’t relish the hurly-burly of high balls or, on any particular day, ‘doesn’t fancy it’. He’s now strutting his stuff with IR Tanger in Morocco where has quickly made a reputation for himself, currently sitting second of the Morocco Botola’s goalscoring charts. He’s forced himself back into the Gabon squad on the basis that, in terms of output, he’s one of the best strikers currently in Africa.

Ali Maaloul – Tunisia – 32

Arguably the finest African left back of this generation. When he’s not kickstarting moves down the left, he’s usually finishing them off. The Tunisian has been a model of exceptional consistency at club and national level, making him undroppable and one of the first names on the team sheet.

Perhaps his only memorable blip came during World Cup 2018, when all the eyes of the world on him. That aside, his consistency has made him a regular at Al Ahly, Africa’s biggest and most successful club, and the Tunisia national team. His importance is demonstrated by his numbers in the final third. He has the highest accuracy when it comes to crosses in the Egyptian Premier League this season with 55% of his crossed finding a team-mate.

Prince Dube – Zimbabwe – 24

The Prince will be hoping to overcome an injury-ravaged 2021 for a better 2022, starting with this edition of the Africa Cup of Nations after returning to match fitness last month. He had shone bright in 2020, particularly under the bright lights of the Chamazi Complex in Dar es Salaam with Azam FC and, had fitness permitted him, he would have most probably finished as the top scorer in the league.

Constantly on his toes and a composed finisher. Dube is particularly dangerous in the space in behind. His pace onto through passes rarely hinder him in producing an ice cool finish. For Zimbabwe, we will most likely see him come off the bench. Tired defences will have to be on high alert.

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