This article presents the ten greatest African-born players to have played in the English Premier League. With so many of the continent’s stars having graced the nation’s top flight, I was spoilt for choice and could easily have filled this list twice over.
I have looked to present the players who have made the biggest impact at the top level of the game, those who achieved the highest level of performance and who left an indelible mark on the world of football.
I have focused on those who achieved the most in the game, who demonstrated the highest levels of technical prowess and who managed to excel over a relatively long duration.
I have not focused purely on those players who made an impact within the Premier League, rather, I present the finest players born in Africa, who at one time or another featured in England’s top flight.
Two caveats I should make clear initially: I have considered players born on the African continent—not those who were born in Europe, of African parents, playing for African national teams—such as Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kevin-Prince Boateng. This means however, that some players born in Africa but who played for European national sides, have been considered for inclusion.
Secondly, I have limited my quest to those players who graced the English top flight since the top division was re-branded as the Premier League, in February 1992. Thus, players such as Leeds United’s South African winger Albert Johanneson have not been considered.
Few players are genuinely both a great scorer of goals and a scorer of great goals, but Tony Yeboah was both in his sparkling career.
During his time in England with Leeds United, Yeboah became the only player in Match of the Day history to win consecutive Goal of the Month competitions. In the Premier League, the Ghanaian forward demonstrated a terrifying penchant for powerful long-range drives and stunning volleys.
Beyond the spectacular, he also managed to maintain a regular, and at times uncontrolled scoring habit. This was illustrated best in his back-to-back Bundesliga Golden Boots while at Eintracht Frankfurt—when he twice topped terrific generations of German forwards.
He also enjoyed an impressive scoring record with the Black Stars, managing 29 goals in 59 international appearances.
When Yaya Toure arrived at Manchester City in the summer of 2010, the majority of observers expected him to operate as a stereotypical West African holding midfielder. An upgrade on Nigel de Jong and a top-end model in the same mould as Mahamadou Diarra or Papa Bouba Diop.
What they received was something very different: an elite, dynamic playmaker, capable of operating at the head of the midfield, adept at manipulating the opposition defence and poised to drive the Manchester City team forward—first to their FA Cup victory, and then to their triumphant Premier League success of 2012.
While Toure’s performances have tailed off this season, both domestically and with the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire, I have little doubt that he will once again find his prime, as a new-look City attempt to win back their title next season.
One of the finest African players of his generation.
Unlike almost all of the other players on this list, Jay-Jay Okocha never influenced the elite levels of sporting competition like he might have done. That’s not to say however, that he wasn’t capable of doing so.
With sublime technique, a dazzling imagination and a penchant for the spectacular, Okocha was the ultimate artist, and possessed attacking capabilities like few other players before or since.
Ultimately, Okocha was a relentless entertainer, rather than a relentless winner; content to sparkle in modest confines, he was a blessing for Bolton during the Trotters’ sustained stay in the Premier League.
Few who have seen him play could ever forget the graceful poise and assured elegance with which Okocha controlled the ball, expressed himself and beguiled defences.
There is a very good reason why, despite their recent malaise at the business end of competition, Arsenal are still hugely popular in Nigeria.
After a glorious start to his career, and ultimate success with the Super Eagles at the 1996 Olympics and the FIFA U17 tournament in 1993, things appeared to have come to the end of the road when it was revealed that Kanu had a serious heart defect.
An operation and an extensive recovery period undermined any genuine opportunity the forward had to make his name with Internazionale. But Arsene Wenger handed him a lifeline by signing him for £4.15 million in February 1999.
In his first full season at the club, Kanu stole the hearts of Gunners fans with a sublime 15-minute hat-trick after entering the fray as a substitute against Chelsea.
He recently ended his career as a Champions League winner, a UEFA Cup winner, a two-time Premier League winner, two FA Cups and an Olympic gold medal. A deity in Nigeria and a beloved character in football’s universe, few have the global appeal, the joyous unpredictability and the unaffected sporting genius of Kanu.
Michael Essien may feel and seem like a faded old veteran of the game now, but cast your mind back to Chelsea’s display of dominance in the middle of the last decade—and recall the Ghanaian as one of the most powerful midfielders ever to grace the English top flight.
At the time of his departure from Lyon to Chelsea—for a mouth-watering £24.4 million—Essien may have been raw, but already looking very much like the real deal. He could run, he could pass, he could shoot, and boy, could he tackle!
He was an indispensable feature of two title-winning teams, and demonstrated on numerous occasions, his invaluable versatility. It is just a shame that injuries robbed Chelsea, and crucially, Ghana, of such a prodigally-talented individual.
It remains to be seen whether the return of ‘Daddy’ Jose Mourinho to Chelsea will spark an Indian summer to "the Bison’s" career. Perhaps the chemistry will once again be such that the midfield monster, managerial genius and beloved club will again enjoy the glories of yesteryear.
Famously Senegal-born, Vieira’s West African origins came under the microscope when Roy Keane searchingly demanded why the Arsenal man had opted to represent his adopted nation of France, rather than the land of his birth.
I doubt Vieira regretted the decision as he became one of Les Bleus’ most decorated stars—over 107 caps and 12 years of service. The midfielder didn’t just pick up the honours however, he earned them, performing admirably as a central component of France’s victorious teams at the World Cup, European Championships and Confederations Cup.
In the Premier League, Vieira also emerged as a dominant figure in Arsene Wenger’s superlative team of the late 90s and early 00s. Club captain, he played in North London between 1996 and 2005, marshaling those around him, regaining the ball—offering dynamism in the Gunners’ core and feeding those capable of thriving in danger zones.
Vieira became a club icon, and closed an enormously successful period in the club’s history by securing the FA Cup in 2005—his being the crucial winning penalty in the final. The glories were many, but those tangles with Roy Keane stole the imagination, and will go down in history as one of the finest personal rivalries of the Premier League era.
Born in Accra, Desailly was another who graced the glorious French team that achieved so much at the turn of the Millennium.
He was a composed and elegant defender, who matured from being a dynamic, energetic midfielder to emerge as one of the finest centre-backs of his generation; a sublime operator for Marseille, Milan and Chelsea.
A sole FA Cup triumph is the total of Desailly’s major domestic honours in West London, but he formed a classy, imposing partnership with Frank Leboeuf and would certainly not have looked out of place in their subsequent dominant era.
Desailly’s true brilliance however, probably came in European and international competition. Twice he won the Champions League (with Marseille and Milan), before bringing home the double of the World Cup and European Championship with France.
While the last five years have seen an increase in both multifunction midfielders, as well as those whose expertise lies in retaining, reusing and recycling the ball—rather than regaining it, it is impossible to deny the influence and impact the Claude Makelele had on two great teams.
Revered for the simplicity and efficiency of his play, Makelele was the reference point for Real Madrid—the engine in the Rolls Royce and the platform from which the artists around him were able to play.
While Florentino Perez was immune to his value to the team, Claudio Ranieri was not, and the Kinshasa-born Makelele was a crucial component to the Chelsea side that, under Jose Mourinho, conquered the EPL.
While he may have missed out on France’s most glorious period, struggling to find his place in a midfield already containing Didier Deschamps, Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, he returned to the international fold in time for the 2006 World Cup, where he helped to lead France to that infamous final with Italy.
George Weah only enjoyed the briefest of spells in the English top flight, but based on the criteria outlined in my opening slide, he is eligible for inclusion in this list.
In reality, he is a player that it is pretty hard to ignore; twice African Footballer of the Year, one-time FIFA World Player of the Year and also European Player of the Year—Weah was one of the globe’s outstanding players in the mid-90s.
His outstanding talent may not have been reflected in an extended list of honours, but few can deny the purity of his talent or his ability to make a stunning impact. His goal for Milan against Verona in 1996 remains one of the finest goals scored in Serie A history, and is perhaps the ultimate expression of his prodigal ability.
Naturally, international opportunities were limited with a Liberia team that he all but carried, but Weah still managed to introduce himself to the English public via brief stints with Chelsea and Manchester City at the dusk of his career.
I think it’s fair to say that many were surprised by Drogba’s rise to the absolute pinnacle of the sport, particularly considering his inglorious origins in a Chelsea shirt. If I’m being honest, I had my doubts that this seemingly powerful forward, who hit the deck at every and any opportunity, would be a successful figurehead for Roman Abramovich’s emerging revolution.
But how the times have proved me wrong!
While the pleading and the petulance still remained, the odd flashes of brilliance, became performances of genuine dominance and displays of concentrated elegance and devastation.
Before long it became apparent that Drogba had the lot: strong enough to out-muscle the largest of the EPL’s centre-backs, intelligent enough to outsmart the wiliest and a natural athleticism to give him the edge over almost every opposition.
After moving to England, the honours began to match his talent. Prone to excellence on the big occasion, Drogba defeated Manchester United in the 2007 FA Cup final, Portsmouth two years later and Liverpool in 2012. He also found the net against Everton in Chelsea’s 2009 triumph.
Whilst the international recognition with the Golden Generation of the Cote d’Ivoire may never come, Drogba etched his name in the pantheon of greats with a glorious display in the Blues’ unlikely Champions League triumph over Bayern Munich.