This article profiles six uncapped African players who have the potential to flourish at the World Cup in Brazil next summer.
World Cup years always have the capacity to shape the landscape of international football. While legacies will undoubtedly be forged in the stadia of Brazil, new heroes will be discovered and fresh villains will be cast.
Going into a major international tournament, national coaches often scour the world looking for those uncapped players that could make that crucial little difference to their squad or give them that cutting edge. The nets are cast far and wide and new stars are recruited to shine on the most prestigious stage of all.
For players, the temptation can be too much.
Ahead of the last World Cup, Algeria were just one nation to thoroughly assess their options in order to give themselves the best possible chance of success.
Thus, the likes of Ryad Boudebouz, Carl Medjani and Habib Bellaid were co-opted into the Algeria squad, despite having represented France at youth level. The promise of an invitation to the world’s grandest stage proved too much for men who had once only dreamed of turning out for France.
Expect this narrative to be replayed as we countdown to Brazil next summer.
I have long championed the Nigerian cause of Nedum Onuoha. Even though my faith may have dwindled a little in recent times, I still believe the QPR man could have a part to play in Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagle squad.
The former Manchester City stopper has had a troubled relationship with the Nigeria Football Federation. The selectors have tried to incorporate Onuoha at times in the past, but the former England youth international has persistently rebuffed their attentions, preferring to hold out for the Three Lions.
Now 26 years old and with numerous options ahead of him in the England defence, the time has surely come for Onuoha to build an international legacy with Nigeria.
His versatility and experience would surely help a young back line, while his speed and athletic ability make him a competent defender. His personable qualities have also been praised and Stephen Keshi could surely count on Nedum to be a patient and reliable option, even if a first-team spot can’t be guaranteed.
One particularly exciting subplot to every World Cup is the emergence of bright young players—untainted by the fear of failure or the pragmatism of experience—who explode onto the scene and etch their name into history.
Could La Masia man Jean Marie Dongou be the next breakout star?
Having arrived at Barcelona from the Samuel Eto’o Foundation in 2008, Dongou has gone from strength to strength. Initially, there were concerns that the West African was only interested in scoring goals, but he has gradually managed to improve his build-up play and creativity.
He could be an exciting prospect next summer following another year of development. After a dark, lean period in their history, a forward line including Samuel Eto’o, Fabrice Olinga and Jean Marie Dongou could fire Cameroon to a glorious tournament.
For some of the players on this list, Ishak Belfodil could well be the precedent setter. Despite representing France at all youth ages from U17 to U20, the striker has long desired to be part of the Algeria set up.
As a youngster, his father appealed to Algeria, announcing Belfodil’s intention to play for the Desert Foxes. The Algerian FA seemingly neglected the information, however. Feeling jilted, the forward went on to excel for France’s youth sides.
Algeria are incredibly lucky to have a second shot at securing the player.
Just as his career is kicking off, both player and nation have reconciled over their previous differences.
After some encouraging seasons in Parma, Belfodil signed a five-year contract with Italian giants Internazionale earlier this month.
Currently sitting pretty in CAF Qualifying Group H, Algeria will surely look to integrate the 21-year-old into the set up ahead of next summer's World Cup.
With Demba Ba, Moussa Sow, Dame N’Doye and Papiss Cisse available, Senegal are not short of firepower.
However, I am certain that the Lions of Teranga would not turn down the opportunity to add Mbaye Niang to their options.
Like Belfodil, the Milan man is a Serie A-based forward who has represented France at various youth levels. He is far less prolific than his Algerian counterpart, but at only 18, he still has some crucial formative years ahead of him.
With the Senegalese national side brimming with centre-forward options, it is unlikely that Niang would find a berth as the side’s figurehead. Fortunately, he is versatile enough to contribute in a number of different roles, as his pace and agility are potentially devastating in wide areas.
It may well be that his future lies with Les Bleus, but if not, Senegal could possess a valuable impact player come the World Cup.
Nigeria aren’t short of options in midfield. John Obi Mikel is guaranteed a spot, while the workhorse Ogenyi Onazi is likely to fill in alongside him. Stephen Keshi’s 4-3-3 formation allowed Stephen Mba to excel as the third man during the Cup of Nations earlier in the year, but his form has tailed off dramatically since February.
The likes of Joel Obi, Nwankwo Obiorah and Fegor Ogude will be among the contenders, but the failings of characters such as Nosa Igiebor will surely leave the door open for anyone who catches the eye.
Hope Akpan is determined that that will be him.
Following a move to Premier League side Reading in January, Liverpool-born Akpan declared his intention to rediscover his roots and throw his hat into the ring with Keshi’s youth revolution.
The competition will be fierce, but perhaps the relegation down to the Championship will afford Akpan more playing time and a greater influence within the Reading side.
Don’t bet against Akpan helping the Royals back to the Premier League and the Super Eagles to Brazil next June.
Another Senegalese star yet to feature in the international arena is Mouhamadou Dabo. At 26, the full-back has a different profile to some of the others on this list, but he too could be set for a World Cup berth next summer.
Despite featuring regularly for the France U21 side back in 2007 and 2008 and even getting a call-up to the national side in February 2009, Dabo is yet to feature for Les Bleus and thus could still feature for the Lions of Teranga.
A terrific prospect at Saint Etienne, he struggled in Spain with Sevilla before returning to Ligue 1 and to Lyon in 2011. With 30 league appearances last term, Dabo performed admirably in a Lyon team struggling to find its feet in the changing landscape of Ligue 1 today.
Capable of playing on either flank, Dabo would be a valuable asset to a Senegal side also in the process of reinventing themselves.