This article profiles the five finest Africans to have played in Serie A. AC Milan’s first-leg Champions League victory over Barcelona was marked by the central role African players played in the performance, and the continent’s influence over Italian football looks unlikely to cease anytime soon.
Two Ghanaians, Kevin Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari, scored the goals, while Stephen El Shaarawy and M'Baye Niang, born of Egyptian and Senegalese parents respectively, impressed. Guinean Kevin Constant and Malian Bakaye Traore also featured, and despite their eventual loss, the future looks bright for Milan following the Serie A return of Mario Balotelli.
This collection of players are the latest in a line of African stars to have graced the Italian top flight. In this piece, Bleacher Report’s African expert Ed Dove profiles the top five. As with my recent article considering African players in the Bundesliga, this article considers the greatest African players to have enjoyed even the briefest stay in Serie A, rather than the African players who have made the most impact within the league.
So apologies to you, Obafemi Martins.
‘Tonton’ Rigobert featured in my recent ‘Top 10 Africans in Bundesliga History’ list due to his immense impact on the continental game. As in Germany, his stint in Italy may not have been voluble, but Song’s incredible pedigree makes him eligible for this list.
The Indomitable Lion’s brief sojourn in Germany, with Koln, was preceded by an even shorter stay in Italy. Salernitana are not a club on the radar of many outside of Campania. In the last nine decades, they have broken into Serie A only twice, with both episodes lasting no longer than a solitary season—once in the '40s, and once, latterly, in 1998 when they were promoted as Serie B winners.
In order to bolster their back line ahead of the tribulations in wait, the Salerno side recruited a hulking young Cameroonian defender from Metz. Sadly, for both Salernitana and Song, the deal didn’t work out. The side were relegated straight back from whence they came, and the defender, at odds with the team’s management, was frozen out, rescued only by Gerard Houllier and a switch to Liverpool.
Certain difficulties at club level, however, have failed to taint the legend of one of Africa’s finest. The icon is one of the greatest defenders ever produced by the continent, and despite the controversy that has often marred his career, can rightly be considered among Africa’s finest.
One of the author's favourite players of all time, it’s sometimes hard not to look at StepApp’s career and think ‘what if?’ The reason for this is a catalogue of devastating injuries that have often served to undermine the midfielder’s immense talent.
A product of Ghanaian and Accra giants Hearts of Oak, Appiah was the first Black Star to turn up at Udinese—a tradition that has continued with Asamoah Gyan, Kwadwo Asamoah and, currently, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu. Despite arriving in Udine as a striker, the player was converted to a deeper, midfield role. He would excel in this position and earned a move to Parma in 2000.
It was here that Appiah’s problems began, as a bout of viral hepatitis threatened to derail the move.
Despite this, more impressive performances led to a move to Juventus, and it seemed like the Ghanaian international had truly arrived. Sadly, Appiah failed to sustain his early promise, and he moved to Turkey, and Fenerbahce, in 2005. Two years later, he suffered the knee injury that was the catalyst for his ultimate decline.
A sterling, mobile, energetic midfield operator, Appiah was adored for his ferocious shooting from distance, as well as his delightful technical ability—as demonstrated by this stunning goal for Fener against Schalke in the Champions League.
Another Ghanaian, Abedi Pele is undoubtedly one of the finest players ever to emerge from the African continent. With a godlike status in his homeland, the attacker is among the greatest Africans ever to appear in Serie A.
He arrived in 1994, to Torino, impressing in his first season with 10 goals in 32 appearances. It was a ratio he failed to sustain in his second year, managing to find the net only once in 17 games before moving to Germany, and to 1860 Munich. His brief stay in Italy enforced the perception of Pele as a nomadic journeyman, although he remained in Turin long enough to make a lasting impact on Toro fans.
His receipt of the ‘Best Foreign Player in Serie A’ award during his time with Il Grantata is testament to his enduring quality and his ability to adapt to a multitude of surroundings.
The ‘African Maradona’ was, at times, unplayable. An Africa Cup of Nations winner in 1982 with Ghana, he received three African Footballer of the Year Awards and was the Cup of Nations Golden Ball winner in 1992.
In his timeless tome on African football, Ian Hawkey goes to town describing George Weah’s unforgettable goal against Verona—it is possibly my favourite single description of a goal:
The black and red of his shirt suddenly brilliant, the white of his shorts, socks and sweatband bright against his skin, three Veronese players regrouped enough to attempt the first intervention. A pair of them prepared a joint ambush. Weah rode both challenges simultaneously with a pirouette through 180 degrees, let the ball run its own course before retrieving it again as if he was picking up a briefcase he had dropped off in a cloakroom. Some 45 metres from the opposite goal, Weah lengthened his stride. His movements until now had been subtle, balletic. Now there was power. He slipped the ball to the left of a defender and, accelerating suddenly, recovered it after passing the Verona man to his right. Arriving at the edge of the Verona penalty area, Weah had left all opponents but the goalkeeper in his wake. He chose to shoot from there, some 18 metres from goal, from an angle made sharper by the advance of the goalkeeper. Weah directed his shot with the instep of his right foot, still accelerating and leaning to his right to gain just enough backlift to arrow it precisely into the bottom corner of the net: 3-1.
It was the finest goal scored by an African on Italian (if not European) soil, and one that highlighted almost every aspect of Weah’s genius. Miguel Delaney may have complained that his trophy cabinet wasn’t as brimming as it should have been, and while that is a fair point, it’s hard to disagree with the sheer power, the devastating finishing and the magnificent aura of George Weah.
Few players could have scored that goal; born in Africa, many consider it the Goal of the Decade.
African Giant Samuel Eto’o arrived in Italy, at Internazionale, at a threshold in his career.
After taking the hotseat at the Nou Camp, Pep Guardiola wasted little time in clearing the decks of talent which he believed not to be conducive to the advancement of the side, thus, Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto’o, three of the team’s stars, were shown the door, told to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
Away from the comforting confines of Catalonia, Eto’o might have forecast the end of his career and opted to take things easy—a superstar, he seemingly had little to prove to anyone but Pep.
Instead, he moved to Inter Milan and became an even more accomplished player—his application and effectiveness in a wider position on the right under Jose Mourinho earned him many plaudits, and a player who had previously had a reputation for self-aggrandisement was a crucial component in the hard-working, disciplined Champions League winning side of 2010.
His fine form in Italy continued beyond the Special One’s departure; for example, few in 2011 would have preferred Barcelona’s replacement David Villa, to his predecessor. Despite further turmoil for the Nerazzurri, Eto’o was a consistent and persistent threat with 21 goals in 35 games—an impressive return for the Cameroonian.
In a recent article I wrote analysing the career of Didier Drogba, I concluded that the former-Chelsea man was not on the same level as Eto’o, in my opinion, the greatest star produced by the continent. The key support for this point of view came in the success and triumphs that have followed the Indomitable Lion throughout his career—the four-time African Player of the Year is surely the finest African to ever step foot in Serie A.