Ligue 1 Well-Represented at Africa Cup of Nations

Jonathan JohnsonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2013

Ligue 1 Well-Represented at Africa Cup of Nations

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    As the 2013 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations shows off some of the continent's best football talent in South Africa, one European league is represented better than most: France.

    Ligues 1 and 2 would perhaps have been better represented had Cameroon and Senegal made it through, and had the Ayew brothers, Andre and Jordan, made the Ghanaian selection. But even without them, France's top flight still boasts a significant number of players across the teams.

    France has for a long time been considered a feeder league for other countries, with the English Premier League being the most recent example of a competition plundering the wealth of talent on offer in Ligue 1. However, a large part of that success has been France's ability to attract a high concentration of African talent.

    Over time that potential has either been nurtured and then sold at high profit like Michael Essien's move from Lyon to Chelsea for almost €30 million, or turned into naturalised French talent. The likes of Marcel Desailly (Ghana), Patrick Vieira (Cape Verde Islands and Senegal), Lilian Thuram (Guadeloupe) and Christian Karembeu (New Caledonia) all descended from Africa to represent les Bleus.

    The latest class of African talent is particularly strong. Here are some of the main protagonists in South Africa.

Alain Traore

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    Leading Burkina Faso to their first Africa Cup of Nations victory since they reached the semifinals on home turf in 1998 is Lorient's Alain Traore. The 25-year-old attacking midfielder's brace against Ethiopia sealed the Stallions' first win in 22 attempts, and his performances have so far illuminated Group C.

    With three goals in two appearances (one as a substitute) against Nigeria and Ethiopia, Traore's electric showings in the 2013 edition has brought him to the attention of a host of clubs. The Burkinabe side have a wealth of French-based talent in their squad and now look well-placed to eliminate holders Zambia on Tuesday.

    So far this season the former Manchester United trialist has six goals and four assists in 13 league appearances for les Merlus, building on last season's impressive showing for Auxerre. In a disappointing campaign that ultimately ended in a first relegation in over 20 years for AJA, Traore still emerged with his reputation enhanced. Nine goals and three assists in 27 appearances represented a career-best season to date.

    He's a good bet to eclipse that total with high-flying Lorient this season, but he almost didn't make it to South Africa through injury.

Jonathan Pitroipa

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    Teammate and Breton rival Jonathan Pitroipa of Rennes has been another big factor behind Burkina Faso's impressive start. One goal and three assists in two games make him one of the tournament's most productive players so far, and his link-up with Traore has been vital.

    It was his pass that set up the FCL man for the Stallions' equaliser against Nigeria, and he was also on hand to provide for Traore once more as well as Evian midfielder Djakaridja Kone against Ethiopia. It was a man-of-the-match performance from the former Hamburg man who has impressed in Brittany since his arrival in 2011.

    The 26-year-old has six goals and three assists in 19 league appearances so far this season, almost bettering last season's total of six goals and five assists from 36 games in half the time.

Ryan Mendes

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    Before the Africa Cup of Nations started, little was expected of Lille striker Ryan Mendes, and even less was expected of minnows Cape Verde Islands. One assist in three appearances later and the Blue Sharks have embarked on an historic run to the quarter-finals, and Mendes is at the heart of the success.

    It was his pass for Platini's goal that allowed the nation of just 500,000 people to score their first-ever goal at the tournament against Morocco with a delicate chip. It was also his late charge into the Angola defence that ended with a pass to Marco Soares, who set up Heldon's dramatic winner.

    The team goal capped an impressive showing from Mendes, who is one of the better-established stars of the side and a talismanic presence despite his 23 years of age.

    In Ligue 1, he is a lesser-known quantity but still highly rated by les Dogues' fans. Two goals and one assist in nine appearances since a summer move from second tier Le Havre is an encouraging start to life for Mendes.

Aymen Abdennour

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    Going into the tournament, Tunisia's Aymen Abdennour was one of Ligue 1's biggest losses. His presence is always sorely felt by Alain Casanova's Toulouse side, who often ask French international midfielder Etienne Capoue to fill in at centre-back. TFC's loss, though, is the Eagles of Carthage's gain.

    With one clean sheet from two appearances so far, Sami Trabelsi's side may have struggled to cope with tournament favourites Ivory Coast in a 3-0 defeat. However, they were strong defensively against Algeria in their opening 1-0 victory, and Abdennour is an integral part of the side.

    That is also the case for club as well as country. The 23-year-old has one goal and one assists in 15 appearances, but more importantly has helped keep five clean sheets this season.

    Linked with Arsenal previously, he signed a new contract last February but could be tempted to leave in the summer if Toulouse fail once again to deliver on the considerable promise in their side.

Jonathan Ayite

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    Togo's Jonathan Ayite is another player impressing in South Africa. One goal in two appearances for the Sparrow Hawks is a good return for a player in and out of struggling Brest's first team in Ligue 1.

    The 27-year-old scored the equaliser in an unlucky opening defeat to favourites Ivory Coast, but has looked lively in both of Togo's games so far. Ayite has looked good partnered with Tottenham's Emmanuel Adebayor but is in need of first-team football at club level.

    Two goals from 12 appearances in the league, one a vital winner at Valenciennes in September is a reflection of a player in and out of the first team. 

Honourable Mentions

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    The representation of talent doesn't stop there, though. Younes Belhanda, one of last season's revelations for Montpellier, was in action for Morocco before the Lions of Atlas bowed out. Last season's form has proved difficult to replicate for the precociously talented 22-year-old, but he remains one of Ligue 1's top talents.

    The Algerian duo of Sochaux's Ryad Boudebouz and Marseille's new arrival Foued Kadir also failed to shine. Former Lille and Paris Saint-Germain coach Vahid Halilhodzic's side crashed out with a game to spare in Group D.

    Tunisia's Aymen Abdennour is also flanked by two Ligue 1 compatriots. Evian's Saber Khelifa is in attack whilst talented Bastia playmaker Wahbi Khazri is also in the squad.

    PSG's Momo Sissoko and Ajaccio's Sigamary Diarra are representing Mali and the Eagles look a good bet to go further than last year's semifinal under former Dijon coach Patrice Carteron.

    Togo's Jonathan Ayite is joined by Lorient's Alaixys Romao and Reims' veteran goalkeeper Kossi Agassa.

    But it is not just on the pitch where French football has influenced the tournament. A number of teams this year are under the charge of tacticians who have cut their teeth in France at some point. Six coaches, including Carteron, Halilhodzic, defending champions Zambia's Herve Renard, Democratic Republic of Congo's Claude le Roy, Ivory Coast's Sabri Lamouchi and Togo's Didier Six, all have French roots.