This article profiles 10 strikers who are thriving in some of the world’s lesser leagues.
While Bleacher Report produces a great deal of content concerning the major leagues across Europe and the rest of the world, those players plying their trade outside the traditional spotlight rarely receive the same attention.
However, the strikers listed here have been setting matches alight and putting their opposition to the sword in recent times—for many, a place at one of the game’s more exalted stages is surely not too far away. This piece celebrates their achievements to date.
For this article I sought players not playing in one of the big four European leagues—those of Italy, Spain, Germany and England—and I also ignored the traditional heartlands of Brazil and Argentina. Naturally, considering my capacity as an African football expert, the stars of that continent are strongly represented within this list.
Anyone who has taken even a cursive glace towards the Swiss top flight, the Europa league or North African football this season will not have missed the burgeoning phenomenon of Mohamed Salah.
Against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane last week the young forward once again demonstrated what he is capable of, linking well with Valentin Stocker and Marco Streller to cause uncertainty and hesitation among the Spurs defence. Particularly impressing with his pace, desire and movement, Salah’s performance against a top side evidenced his growing standing in the world game.
Capable of playing out wide or through the middle, Salah has not been as prolific this season as some of the other stars on this list. Instead, he has revelled in a supporting role, improving his maturity and awareness of the game and producing numerous chances for the likes of Streller and the veteran Alex Frei.
This was evident no more so than in Basel’s Europa League group game against Sporting Lisbon—where Salah made two crucial assists to help the Swiss club on their way to a 3-0 victory.
The vast majority of my recent writing concerning Ivorian frontman Wilfried Bony has been discussing his role in the nation’s succession narrative, and the responsibility he might have in supplanting Didier Drogba and the rest of Ivory Coast's Golden Generation.
Bony, along with Lacina Traore and Seydou Doumbia, offer optimism that the inevitable extinction of Drogba et al may not be felt so keenly by the Elephants.
There is a reason that Bony inspires such confidence in a nation that has been so reliant on one key figure in the past.
Currently with Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem in the Eredivisie, Bony has been an electrifying force in Holland. Before he had even played his 50th game for the club, he had already hit the 30-goal mark, and considering this season alone, his scoring record has been prodigal.
Despite the oft-quoted clichés about the Dutch league being a ‘soft touch’ and affording strikers easy goals—both of which may well be true—Bony’s record of 29 goals in 26 games thus far is a stunning achievement.
Chelsea have been touted as a possible destination in the past, and while this would provide a delicate symmetry with the career of compatriot Drogba, recent reports such as this from the Daily Mail have suggested that West Ham United is a more likely destination. The in-form striker would probably command a transfer fee of around £12 million, but early signs suggest that he would be worth every penny.
Welsh international forward Robbie Earnshaw was in danger of enduring a very underwhelming end to what has been a fairly prolific career.
A homecoming to first club Cardiff City in 2011 looked like it might have been a fairytale finale, with the prospect of veteran forwards and club icons Earnshaw and Craig Bellamy finally guiding the capital city club to the promised land of the Premier League. Unfortunately for Earnshaw, while Bellamy has become the beating heart and the spiritual core of the Bluebirds, he has been deemed surplus to requirements.
An unlikely loan stint to Maccabi Tel Aviv preceded his eventual release from Cardiff, and, already into his 30s, it remained to be seen what would become of a forward for whom explosive pace had been such a potent weapon.
At the end of February, Earnshaw crossed the Atlantic to join Toronto FC and new manager Ryan Nelsen in the MLS.
Only a handful of games into his tenure in North America, it’s hard to judge exactly how (or indeed if) Earnshaw will prosper at a club which could represent his last chance in the sport. Having scored a goal per game since arriving however and picking up the MLS Player of the Week Award already, early signs suggest that the Zambia-born front man may just be a resounding success with TFC.
Dieumerci Mbokani has been demonstrating for a while that he has all of the requisite tools to prosper in one of Europe’s major leagues. Unfortunately, spells in France and Germany didn’t quite work out, and since 2011 the Congolese front man has been back in Belgium, where the environs seem particularly complementary to his diverse skill set.
The latest in a long line of fiercely talented forwards to emerge from the former nation of Zaire, Mbokani demonstrated his talents at the recent Cup of Nations, where the odd splash of raw power or clinical forward play brightened up an otherwise disappointing campaign for the Leopards.
At 27, he may have one final big move in his locker, but then again, he may be content to remain in the Jupiler League, kicking back at domestic giants Anderlecht. His 17 goals so far this season indicate that Mbokani is relishing the opportunity to tear up the best defences Belgium has to offer.
Young forward Leigh Griffiths has long been considered one of the finest prospects in Scottish football, but never before have his talents and, perhaps more importantly, his consistency, been in evidence over a season.
Currently second in the SPL’s top scorer charts, only Motherwell’s Mike Higdon stands ahead of him—having scored two goals more. Indeed, Grffiths’ influence in Hibernian’s season has been marked—he has bagged exactly 50% of their goals, and despite the Edinburgh side languishing in the bottom half of the league, things could have been so much worse without their young front man.
Indeed, the Hibees are fortunate to have him.
Having been bought from Dundee by Wolves in January 2011, the striker was sent back to Scotland to improve his game. Hibs benefited from his presence last season, but this year his impact has been breathtaking. The fact he was Scottish player of the month both in August and in February demonstrate the 22-year-old’s consistency this term.
Questions do remain about his temperament; Wolves took a look at their investment back in January of this year, but the return to the West Midlands was besmirched by an unfortunate Twitter controversy. It wasn’t a first offence, previously at Hibernian Griffiths had enraged supporters and the club’s hierarchy by gesturing offensively to opposition fans.
One can’t overlook his irrepressible goalscoring, and if Griffiths can keep himself away from the negative press, Wolves could have a gem on their hands.
Diminutive front man Chucho has long been one of the Americas’ most devastating forwards, but, to my mind, has never quite received the praise that his goals have deserved.
Perhaps this is because his one spell in Europe came with Birmingham with a loan deal back in the 2009-10 season. Indeed, the fervour of a relegation battle wasn’t the best environment for the Ecuadorian to get to grips with the demands of the Premier League, and three goals in 30 performances for Brum represent a poor return.
Undeterred, Benitez’s return to Southern America and to Mexican heavyweights Club America has resulted in goals at a ratio of which the striker hadn’t mustered previously.
With delightful dribbling ability, lightning pace and deadly finishing, the striker’s lack of stature (5’6") hasn’t affected his game, and he has the strength and the aerial prowess of a much taller man.
Benitez top scored in the Mexican Apertura, and is in a good position to do the same in the Clausura—he currently sits in joint-third place in the standinsg.
Still only 26, a return to a major European league may not be out of the question, but if scoring goals for fun is his true passion in life, then there is little that could tear Chucho away from Mexico.
In mid-to-late 2012, one of the more pressing questions in African football surrounded the future of Hacken and Ghana star Abdul Majeed Waris—after tearing up the Allsvenskan, where would the striker turn to to take his career to the next level?
He chose Russia, and Spartak Moscow, and even though the early going has struggled to match up to his electric displays in Sweden, Majeed might just have found an ideal environment to hone his skills. The development of Nigerian front man Emmanuel Emenike gives me cause for encouragement, and I hope the young Ghanaian can follow a similar trajectory.
Majeed was the revelation of the 2012 Allsvenskan. He topped the scoring charts with 23 goals—a full six ahead of his nearest rival, and while some strikers are purely focused on feeding off the creativity of others, the Ghanaian showed his willingness to influence proceedings deeper in the pitch, contributing nine assists—the fourth-highest in the league.
Having only played a handful of games since the end of the Russian Winter break, it’s too early to say when Spartak will begin to benefit from Majeed’s myriad of talents. If the striker can adapt quickly, he may well be able to push the Moscow side up from their mid-table spot into the European places.
Nigerian football is awash with talented young stars at the moment. The recent Cup of Nations victory allowed the watching world to marvel at the exciting stream of young Super Eagles emerging into world football’s sporting universe.
While the likes of Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa and Sunday Mba are likely to be cornerstones of the national side for years to come, few of them have made as considerable an impact in their domestic league as Kalu Uche this term.
At 30, the Aba-born forward is no spring chicken, but rarely in his 15 years as a professional has he flourished as finely as he has this season.
Since arriving at emerging Turkish side Kasimpasa last summer, Uche has consistently showed the form that threatened to make him a household name in Spain with Almeria.
With over a goal every other game for his new club, he currently sits one goal behind Burak Yilmaz in the Turkish scoring charts, and has guided Kasimpasa into the Europa League Qualification spots.
A return to the national setup might not be too far off if this form continues.
Following the departure of Brazilian playmaker Willian, Mkhitaryan has taken on an even more pivotal role at Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk. The Armenian Player of the Year is capable of playing in a number of attacking midfield positions, and has demonstrated his proficiency both at scoring goals, but also creating them for his teammates.
Not nominally a striker, I opted to include Mkhitaryan in this list because his goal tally this season stacks up against some of the finest strikers in Europe. The Armenian has played as a forward in the past, but it is all the more stunning that he leads the Ukrainian Premier League scoring charts on 21 goals despite operating in a deeper position.
He began to impose himself during Shakhtar’s impressive Champions League campaign, and looks set to be a key figure as the Donetsk side continue to assert themselves among Europe’s finest.
Having been touted as an emerging young star for years, Gabonese frontman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has finally found a place he can call home. Consequently, the goals are coming thick and fast.
Even though Ligue 1 is not a "lesser league" like some of the others in this list, the perception is that, like the Portuguese and Dutch Premier Leagues, Ligue 1 occupies a place on the second rung of Europe’s top flights. This is perhaps an argument for another day, suffice to say that Aubameyang’s current goal haul of 17 represents an impressive feat in a division which is still among Europe’s strongest.
Indeed, when one considers that only PSG maestro Zlatan Ibrahimovic stands ahead of him in the classement of top scorers, the young forward’s season stands out as even more commendable.
Saint-Etienne finished seventh last season, almost 20 points off Champions League qualification, with Aubameyang mustering an encouraging 16 goals throughout the campaign. The departures of the three players that bested him in the scoring charts in 2011-12 have levelled the playing field in France, and the Stephanois now sit in third place, ahead of local rivals Lyon, and looking a good bet to seal a berth in the Champions League third qualifying round.
Having failed to find his feet at Milan as a much younger man, Aubameyang has finally settled in the Loire. Still only 23, this former African Player of the Year nominee has the potential to be one of Europe’s top strikers.