This article looks towards the youth of Africa and profiles the five most exciting youngsters from the continent.
Despite all being young stars, the players are all at differing stages of their development. From international regulars to raw 17-year-olds, from those who have already featured in the Champions League to those who have only made a handful of outings at club level.
I have focused on those players who have the capacity to excite, to enthral and to exhilarate, thus, perhaps it is no surprise that three of the five players featured are offensive stars.
However, this is not to say that attacking is the be all and end all.
This article is about the promise and electricity that only youth can harness, and thus I have included two players who are not attackers, but who have the potential to emerge among the world’s finest in their relative positions
While Africa’s talent production is perhaps not as exceptional now as at other times in the past, I was spoiled for choice in compiling this selection.
I have capped the age at 21, thus players such as Victor Wanyama and Victor Moses, despite being at the beginnings of their careers, have missed out.
I could easily have doubled this selection, and players such as Imoh Ezekiel, Moussa Konate, Khouma Babacar, Richmond Boakye, Christian Atsu and Jordan Ayew—just to name a few—have been unfortunate in their absence.
A successful six months could change everything, and when I revise this list at the end of 2013, don’t be surprised to see several of these forgotten stars make the cut.
Despite possessing a star-studded squad, headlined by Samuel Eto’o—arguably the continent’s finest-ever player—the team have consistently failed to get their act together, have overcome the divisive influence of their federation and have been absent from the continental high table for too long.
However, the emergence of players like Fabrice Olinga suggest that the future may well be a lot brighter than the present. The Indomitable Lions may well be able to look forward to a return to the glory they have tasted in the past.
Olinga is one of the finest prospects on the planet and could headline this bright future.
A product of the Samuel Eto’o Foundation in Douala, the striker followed in the footsteps of his patron and hero and moved to Mallorca to continue his development.
While Eto’o managed to make his breakthrough in the Mallorca first team, it wasn’t until Olinga had been spotted and recruited by Malaga that he made an appearance in La Liga.
The forward became the league’s youngest-ever goalscorer after bagging the sole goal on his debut against Celta Vigo and replicated this instant impact with the national side as well, hitting the winner against Cape Verde in Yaounde.
Both club and country have been restrained in introducing the forward into the glare of regular first-team competition, but expect the 17-year-old to become a major player in the future.
One of the neglected subplots of Nigeria’s run to Africa’s continental title earlier in the year was coach Stephen Keshi’s revolutionary approach to squad selection.
Convinced by the merits of unity and togetherness rather, perhaps, than natural ability and reputation, the Big Boss wasn’t afraid to axe some would-be stars in order to improve the ethic of the side.
The likes of Obafemi Martins, Peter Odemwingie and Taye Taiwo were neglected as a whole swathe of domestic-based players and nascent talents were drafted into the side.
Inevitably, some of the additions proved not up to the task, but Keshi should be praised for the way he has managed to make international stars and continental champions out of the majority.
One of the major success stories is Kenneth Omeruo.
The 19-year-old only made his international debut earlier in 2013 but looked so assured that he forged a place for himself early on in the Cup of Nations. Despite being an absolute junior at international level, Omeruo consistently looked composed and refined, and he formed a terrific partnership with Godfrey Oboabona in the heart of the Naija defence.
A Chelsea player who has spent time on loan in Holland with ADO Den Haag, chairman Roman Abramovich must have been delighted to learn of the prodigal young talent the club possessed.
Omeruo is still young, and so while Jose Mourinho may decide that his immediate future is better spent out on loan, expect this exciting young defender to build a terrific career for himself—in West London or beyond.
Cameroon fans can take solace from the fact that not one, but two of their young forwards are among the list of Africa’s most exciting talents. Jean Marie Dongou joins Fabrice Olinga in my selection.
While both men grew up looking up to national hero Samuel Eto’o, identifying the former Barcelona man as their hero, it is Dongou that is coming closest to emulating his hero.
In fact, the current La Masia student carries the moniker "The Next Eto’o"—a fine indicator of the intensity of his raw ability. Despite the pressure that comes with being placed on such a pathway, the striker’s prodigal rise hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.
Dongou was recently top scorer in prestigious youth tournament the Next Gen Series and indeed, goals are his key currency. Expect his education at Barcelona to improve on more than just his ability in the opposition box, he is already versatile enough to play on either flank, and with devastating pace and clinical finishing ability, Dongou has the raw materials to contribute in a multitude of offensive ways.
It may not be long before the precocious 18-year-old is contributing to the senior sides for both club and country.
The news that 20-year old Ogenyi Onazi would be absent for Nigeria’s trip to the Confederations Cup earlier in the summer was met with dismay.
Despite being one of the squad’s youngest and most inexperienced players, the Lazio man has become central to Stephen Keshi’s plans and to the tactical approach of the Super Eagles.
Onazi, the engine of the side, has forged a spot for himself playing alongside John Obi Mikel and Sunday Mba in a three-man midfield. While Mikel is the playmaker of the team, a bundle of majestic touches and sweeping passes, Onazi is as vital as his counterpoint.
Demonstrating a maturity beyond his years, the energy and discipline to excel in the heart of the park and already with European and International games behind him, Onazi is one of the most exciting young Africans currently playing the game.
Back in May I named him as possibly the Best Young Player the general footballing public hadn’t heard of.
As someone who particularly appreciates and values the role and approach of the defensive midfielder, I am especially keen to witness how Onazi develops and how he grows into this exciting young Nigerian side.
Expect another big 12 months cumulating in a World Cup performance next term.
The "Egyptian Messi" has made the right career choices to date and is bubbling up to be one of the continent’s finest talents.
Salah’s rise has come at a particularly pertinent time for Egyptian and North African football. When being interviewed by a journalist from Football.com, speaking about the player, I said the following:
Salah is a very special talent - he is particularly revered in Egypt, where, after a time of intense turmoil, and the end of a cycle for the all-conquering national side of the last decade, he is the bright young thing, and the next Egyptian superstar.
The hangover following the Arab Spring and the fading away of the nation’s Golden Generation has been deep and intense. This summer's retirements of Mido and Mohamed Barakat served to highlight the changing of the guard.
But Salah looks set to begin his own era with the Pharaohs.
Following Xherdan Shaqiri’s departure to Bayern Munich, Swiss side FC Basel turned to Salah to fill a creative berth on the flank. He has become a major component of the side’s fluid, menacing forward line and has impressed with his speed, creativity and terrific technique.
In the parochial confines of the Swiss League, the youngster has flourished. Last season, fans of Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea were able to witness, firsthand, his litany of talents in the Europa League, and the future surely holds many great triumphs.
A move to a bigger club and a major league surely awaits, but having insisted that he will not move from Switzerland this summer, according to Mahmoud Elassal of Ahram Online, expect Salah’s rapid progress to continue in the tranquil environs of St. Jakob-Park.
Comment below and let me know who you think should make the list and how far you believe these stars can go in the sport.
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