With the African Cup of Nations only recently behind us, I am turning my crystal ball to the future to present a list of 10 of the continent’s finest young prospects. While none of these men were able to influence the tournament just past, I am sure that at least some of them will make their mark on proceedings in the future.
Note that this list is ’10 of the Best…’ rather than ‘The 10 Best…’, thus I have left out some of the continent’s star men who have already begun to make their mark at the continental high table. My views on the likes of Victor Moses, Younes Belhanda and Christian Atsu are readily available on Bleacher Report and elsewhere.
Whether you agree or disagree with my picks, comment below and let me know your own suggestions.
Currently playing for Academica Coimbra in the Primeira Liga, Salim Cisse may be the least-heralded of the 10 players I have chosen to profile here, but he could well be among the continent’s brightest young players.
Having moved to Rome from Conakry, Guinea to escape the country’s political instability, Cisse was picked up by Serie D side Arezzo, who nurtured and developed his prodigal talent. His confident attacking displays and impressive scoring statistics caught the attention of Academica, who moved to sign him in July of 2012.
His swift rise to the top has continued in Portugal, where goals against Benfica, Athletic Madri, and Braga already have seen him identified among the finest young forwards playing in the nation.
A higher stage awaits, and Guineans everywhere can look forward to one of the globe’s most exciting young talents turning out for the Syli Nationale.
Developed at Genoa, the Accra-born forward caught the attention of Italian giants Juventus in 2012. They spent €4 million to purchase the talented attacker. Despite choosing to continue Boakye’s education down in Serie B was Sassuolo, there is a genuine hope among Juve officials that the striker will one day be a key player in the first XI.
Having made his debut for Ghana last year, Boakye was called up by the Black Stars for the 2013 Cup of Nations. It’s fair to say that the six-footer never truly got a chance to shine in South Africa. When the team were searching for a difference-maker in the crucial semifinal against Burkina Faso, it was perhaps telling that they turned to Emmanuel Clottey rather than Boakye.
Still only 20, the explosive youngster has the potential to be a fixture in the Ghanaian lineup for years to come. He could well imitate Kwadwo Asamoah as a key player for both the Black Stars and La Vecchia Signora.
Despite turning out for France U21s, I have a great hope that one day M’Baye Niang may go the way of Adel Taarabt, Victor Moses and Sofiane Feghouli and throw his hat in with the land of his parents rather than the plush metropole.
However, at Milan, in the company of Italian strikers Mario Balotelli and Stephen El Shaarawy, both of whom were born of African parents, it seems more likely that Niang’s future is with France.
He is still developing, and so perhaps won’t emerge as the star that I am hoping, but as far as raw material and pedigree go, Niang has to be taken seriously. Quick, and with excellent acceleration, Niang also boasts an impressive physique, as well as the strength to battle even the hardiest Serie A defender.
The question remains as to whether Niang can marry these abilities to an astute footballing mind and a mature understanding of the striker’s role. Time will tell whether the finished product will turn out for Les Bleus or The Lions of Teranga.
His stock may have fallen after Celtic’s underwhelming home defeat to Juventus in the Champions League this week, but his earlier performances in the competition have alerted Europe to one of Africa’s finest up-and-coming talents.
Capable of playing in defence or in midfield, Wanyama’s Glasgow side slapped a £25 million price tag on the youngster after his pair of stunning performances against Barcelona in the group stage. Bought for less than a million pounds, this represents a terrific investment for the Hoops.
Already a seasoned international with Kenya, Wanyama could well become the symbol for a new force on the continental scene. Playing in midfield alongside his brother, Inter Milan’s McDonald Mariga, the Nairobi-born midfielder has the potential to become a new East African icon.
Not as high-profile a player as some of the others on this list, and playing for unfashionable Reading in the Premier League, Akpan could be seen as something of a left-field choice.
However, since making the enormous step up from League One Crawley Town in January, Akpan has looked comfortable in the hallowed refineries of the EPL and has been one of the key figures in Reading’s resurgence in 2013.
Still only 21, Akpan has taken the long road to the Premier League, having been let go by Everton as a youngster. 18 months down in Crawley saw him find his feet in the professional game before Reading gave him the leg up back to the big time.
Despite being born in Liverpool, Akpan has declared his interest to one day represent Nigeria, the land of his parents, at international level. The Super Eagles may not be short of top quality midfield talent these days, but don’t be surprised to see Akpan muscle his way into the setup in time for the 2015 Cup of Nations.
One man who may well be standing in Akpan’s way in the Super Eagles’ midfield is Joel Obi.
In the euphoria and the excitement of Nigeria’s first continental victory since 1994, few thought about the talented players who hadn’t made the cut for the tournament squad. Of the stars who didn’t make the final 23, Joel Obi may well have been the unluckiest.
Eighteen months ago, Obi would have been seen as a shoo-in for the Afcon squad, but a year plagued by injury and an absence of form have seen the talented youngster slip away from the national scene. All of the key components are there for the player to emerge as a top-class midfielder—he is versatile and speedy, has excellent technique and is capable of playing across the park.
However, in order to realise his immense potential, the Lagos-born star needs to start forging the opportunities his talent deserves.
Jordan Ayew has already featured at an Afcon, but despite starting in Ghana’s opening game of their 2012 campaign, his contribution was negligible, failing to find the back of the net.
Jordan may be a surprise choice, considering both his failure to make the Ghanaian Cup of Nations squad and his recent disciplinary misdemeanours—against Evian last weekend, he came on as a substitute in the 73rd minute, was booked in the 74th minute and was sent off in the 75th minute.
To dwell on this would be to ignore some of the finer aspects of one of the most talented youngsters to emerge on Ghana’s conveyor belt of talent in recent times. Dovetailing beautifully with his brother Andre for both club and country, the younger Ayew offers quick feet, good movement and the drive to take defenders on.
In January, while the Black Stars laboured in South Africa, he scored in three consecutive games for Marseille—it’s unlikely Ghana will risk heading to a major tournament without him again.
With the Golden Generation of the Ivory Coast gently fading into retirement and sailing off into the sunset after their latest—and perhaps greatest—failure, the national side are going to be in need of a collection of new heroes.
The Anzhi Makhachkala striker may not yet have the aura of his predecessor Didier Drogba, but the youngster towers over the veteran striker and will doubtless be harbouring hopes of replicating his stunning career. Signed for €18 million as a key part of the revolution taking place in Russia, Traore has been flourishing in the exalted, moneyed company of Dagestan.
Fast, powerful and capable of using his imposing height to rile even the most composed of defences, Traore is in prime position to lead the line for the Elephants for a decade to come. A pairing with Wilfried Bony could well bring success where the Golden Generation have failed.
I have been tracking this young Senegalese striker for a while, ever since he guided Toure Kunda de Mbour to the Senegalese top division. His big breakthrough came through at the London 2012 Olympics, when five goals helped to mark him out as one of the star strikers in the tournament.
The performances brought him to the attention of FC Krasnodar in Southern Russia, who beat competition from West Ham, among others, before parting with €2 million to snare him from Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Able to play as a leading front man or out on the right side, I foresee Konaté making a name for himself in the Russian league before heading to a bigger club. His key attributes, namely positioning and finishing instincts, are transferable, and if his all-round game can improve alongside, we could soon be looking at one of the continent’s most complete forwards.
Those of you twitching with the perceived neglect of North Africa and the reservoir of talent that exists on the shores of the Mediterranean will be sated by the inclusion of Mohamed Salah.
The last two years may have been devastating for Egypt, with political upheaval and national tragedy being reflected in the turmoil and violent protests that have undermined and overshadowed the country’s football.
But there are green shoots on the horizon, and the brightest of these is forward Mohamed Salah.
Currently plying his trade in the Swiss Super League with Basel, Salah is capable of providing direction and vitality on the left flank, while also offering an attacking threat through the middle. Despite not yet being prolific in Europe, he was on target last Sunday, when he struck in his side’s 3-0 rout of Sion.
Someone, somewhere will be plotting the return to greatness of Egyptian football, and be under no illusion—Salah will be the figurehead of that revival.