This article ranks the top 20 young African talents in the world right now. The continent’s football is coming under the spotlight once again, with seven of the 10 CAF World Cup Qualifying groups still up for grabs heading into the final round of matches.
Not all of the players featured here will be competing in this weekend’s qualifying clashes, and only a select few will be performing at the World Cup next summer.
However, regardless of the prognosis for their short-term international future, all 20 of these players could be set for glorious, glistening careers.
In compiling this list, I have taken 21 as the cut-off point, thus, exceptional African youngsters such as Vincent Wanyama, Victor Moses and Emmanuel Badu (all 22), as well as Lacina Traore (23) all miss out.
The ranking of this list considers reputation, expectation and promise, but it does also place a value upon current performance. The final shortlist ran to nearly 50 names, with each being considered and evaluated before being rejected or accepted. I have little doubt that six months to a year of progress could easily see the likes of Sadio Mane, Uche Nwofor or Abdallah Yaisien breach the top 20.
Name: Emmanuel Mbola
DOB/Age: 10.5.1993 (20)
Club: Hapoel Ra’anana
Playing Style: An attacking left-back capable of operating offensively further forward. Mbola is fast and no slouch defensively.
Pedigree: Was set to be the finest African full-back of his generation following a terrific stint at Congolese giants TP Mazembe and then a loan deal at Porto. Made his first start for Chipolopolo as a 16-year-old and is currently the second youngest Cup of Nations player of all time.
Great Hope: It's concerning that he wasn’t picked up permanently by the Portuguese—few clubs have such an excellent record of plucking talent from relative footballing backwaters, but he has age on his side. If he can overcome injury concerns and escape the burdens of such exceptional early achievements, we could see him back at a big European name in a couple of seasons.
Name: Khouma Babacar
DOB/Age: 17.3.1993 (20)
Club: Modena (on loan from Fiorentina)
Playing Style: His nickname, “The New Drogba” tells only part of the story. Babacar certainly has an impressive, imposing physique, but has also been deployed on the wing.
Pedigree: Arrived at Fiorentina in 2009 as a raw child prodigy. Cesare Prandelli saw fit to fast-track him to the first team during the 2009-10 season, but he is yet to make the impact that has been expected, perhaps too soon.
Great Hope: Loan deals will be the order of the day for the immediate future, Ghana’s Richmond Boakye, two months older than Babacar, provides a good template to follow. Will struggle to muscle his way into the Senegalese national setup, with the squad boasting a vast amount of fantastic forwards—the World Cup will surely come too soon.
Name: Pape Moussa Konate
DOB/Age: 3.4.1993 (20)
Club: Genoa (on loan from Kuban Krasnodar)
Playing Style: A forward who is also capable of operating on the right wing.
Pedigree: Shined intermittently at Maccabi Tel Aviv, but also endured a long goal drought. One of the finest players on show at the 2012 Olympic Games, where he bagged five goals and earned a move to Kuban Krasnodar despite Premier League and Ligue 1 interest.
Great Hope: The terrific outing at the Olympics put many major clubs on alert, but the reality is that Konate will need to add consistency to his game. A loan move to Genoa could go either way, it is certainly a major opportunity, but the Senegalese forward will need to overcome the homesickness that affected his time in Russia.
Name: Vincent Aboubakar
DOB/Age: 22.1.1992 (21)
Playing Style: A clinical striker who offers a probing physical presence. Aboubakar can also play on the wing and is more than capable of stretching defences with his lightning pace.
Pedigree: It feels like Aboubakar has been around for ages. In some ways he has—having made his debuts for Valenciennes and Cameroon way back in 2010. The goals haven’t exactly flown in since then, but slowly and surely the striker is beginning to find his niche. A move to Lorient, who have a strong record for developing African players, could be exactly what the doctor ordered.
Great Hope: There are some encouraging early signs at new club Lorient, including a match-winning goal against his former side Valenciennes. Has ground to make up, but certainly possesses the raw materials and is in the setting to do just that.
Name: Fabrice Olinga
DOB/Age: 12.5.1996 (17)
Playing Style: A pacey, strong and clinical forward who has already demonstrated a big-game mentality and an aptitude for the grand occasion.
Pedigree: Made a major impact with both Malaga and Cameroon during his initial appearances, but is being bedded slowly into both setups. As with Jean Marie Dongou, who is featured later in this list, Olinga is a product of the Samuel Eto’o Foundation and shares a great deal in common with his patron.
Great Hope: His debut goal for Malaga set tongues wagging, and for a moment people began to forget quite how young Olinga is. La Liga’s youngest goalscorer (breaking Iker Muniain’s record) the forward is set for a terrific future in the game. The scaled-down investment at Malaga may well give him an immediate chance to demonstrate his capabilities.
Name: Emmanuel Frimpong
DOB/Age: 10.1.1992 (21)
Playing Style: A tenacious, gnashing defensive midfielder whose progress has been curtailed by several injuries.
Pedigree: Has won many admirers for his off-the-pitch, Twitter-based larks, but the reality is that Frimpong is an effective, combative, energetic central midfielder who offers something different to typical Arsenal academy graduates.
Great Hope: Left the England youth system and committed himself to the Black Stars of Ghana. The great aspiration, domestically, is that he can finally replace the bite and authority of Patrick Vieira in Arsenal’s midfield. His progress may well by stymied by Mathieu Flamini this term.
Name: Zakaria Labyad
DOB/Age: 9.3.1993 (20)
Playing Style: A diminutive figure but possesses outstanding technical ability and an improving physical presence. His rapid acceleration allows him to escape from the rigorous attentions of defenders.
Pedigree: The latest in a long line of creative attacking midfielders with origins in Morocco, Labyad represented Holland at youth level before opting for the land of his ancestors. He served his apprenticeship with PSV before moving to Lisbon and Sporting Club de Portugal, in 2012.
Great Hope: In addition to an already growing stable of young, creative Moroccans (joining Adel Taarabt, Younes Belhanda and Nordin Amrabat) Labyad represents an extension and potentially an upgrade, rather than a revolution. Another example of the encouraging trend of young African players spawning the attentions of major European nations in order to represent the land of their origins and reconnect with their roots.
Name: Siyanda Xulu
Nationality: South African
DOB/Age: 30.12.1991 (21)
Club: FC Rostov
Playing Style: Hardworking central defender who allies his towering frame with terrific vision for a pass out of defence to create a pretty complete package.
Pedigree: Arsenal looked close to securing a move for the youngster back in 2010, only to be outdone by work permit eligibility. That fact alongside the reality that Barcelona and Atletico Madrid were keeping tabs on his progress demonstrate the player’s immense promise.
Great Hope: Rostov looks like a stepping stone for bigger and better things; the defender seems comfortable here despite some injury disruption earlier in his time in Russia. However, the fact that Gordon Igesund has resisted calling Xulu into Bafana Bafana’s starting lineup, despite the team’s recent troubles, could be concerning.
Name: Serge Aurier
DOB/Age: 24.12.1992 (20)
Playing Style: A versatile player who excels at right-back but can also operate in the heart of defence, Aurier’s key strength is his tackling. However, alongside his impressive attacking credentials, particularly his confident passing, the Ivorian offers both defensive and offensive qualities.
Pedigree: He looked close to a move to Arsenal at times during the summer, even posing in an Arsenal shirt, and may still be on his way to the Gunners in the future as a long-term replacement for Bacary Sagna. Everton, Fulham and Marseille have also been linked with the youngster’s signature by Sky Sports. Joined Toulouse in 2012 after earning his stripes at Lens.
Great Hope: Looks a safe bet to succeed Emmanuel Eboue as the Cote d’Ivoire’s first-choice right-back for the next 10 years. It is still early days in his development, but if Aurier can continue in his current trajectory then he could certainly make a full-back berth at one of Europe’s top clubs his own.
Name: Mohamed El-Nenny
DOB/Age: 11.7.1992 (21)
Club: FC Basel
Playing Style: As my friends at Egyptian football web-site King Fut described him, a “Rock in Egpyt’s midfield for many years to come.”
Pedigree: At 21, El-Nenny already has 23 Egyptian caps to his name, usurping a number of established international players to make the defensive midfield role his own. He was a pivotal part of the impressive Egyptian Olympic team at the 2012 Olympic Games and has signed a permanent deal with Basel this summer, having performed admirably on loan last term.
Great Hope: If El-Nenny can improve his strength and physical presence, then he could well be the complete midfielder. His creativity and distribution is encouraging, while he has the ability to drive the Pharaohs on from midfield. At the least, a worthy successor to Hossam Ghaly and Mohammed Shawky, at the best, the heartbeat of another glorious Egyptian side and a regular in one of Europe’s major leagues.
Name: Jean Marie Dongou
DOB/Age: 20.4.1995 (18)
Club: Barcelona B
Playing Style: Initially arrived in Catalonia on the back of some remarkable goal-scoring records as a youngster. Still thrives in front of goal, but brings a lot more to the table following his early tutelage at Barcelona.
Pedigree: Arrived at Barcelona in 2008 as a graduate from the Samuel Eto’o Foundation in his homeland. The parallels with Africa’s finest player are almost too easy to make.
Great Hope: Earlier in the summer I earmarked Dongou as the World Cup’s potential breakout star. The globe’s greatest sporting spectacle has the habit of throwing up young stars who make their name and build an international reputation on the grandest stage. Few talents have Dongou’s capacity to follow so emphatically in the footsteps of the likes of Pele and Michael Owen.
Domestically, with the backing of Barcelona’s La Masia, Dongou can be anything he wants to be.
Name: Kenneth Omeruo
DOB/Age: 17.10.1993 (19)
Playing Style: A composed, assured defender who plays with the authority of a man 10 years his senior.
Pedigree: Recruited by Chelsea from Standard Liege in 2012, Omeruo spent last season honing his craft in the Dutch league with ADO Den Haag. His standout moment to date came at the 2013 Cup of Nations when he not only broke into the Super Eagles first team (having only made his debut in January) but also became a regular as the young side went on to claim the continental crown.
Great Hope: Has the potential to be the outstanding African defender of his generation. Can look forward to another decade or so in the heart of Nigeria’s defence, with international honours already behind him and a budding partnership with Godfrey Oboabona already looking resilient.
Chelsea will be a harder nut to crack, but should he not find favour in West London, there will doubtless be other major clubs looking for a superb, mature centre-back to marshal their back line.
Name: M’Baye Niang
Nationality: Senegalese (French)
DOB/Age: 19.12.1994 (18)
Playing Style: Versatile enough to operate in a number of forward positions, Niang is a raw talent, but his pace and agility already makes him a devastating prospect. He is an effective dribbler despite his relatively imposing frame.
Pedigree: Snapped up by Milan following some electric outings for Caen. Represented France at various youth levels, but it remains to be seen whether he will build his international future with Les Bleus or Senegal.
Great Hope: If he can add mental fortitude to his game and prove he can be a little more prolific, Niang has the potential to be one of Europe’s most effective frontmen. The silly business ought to be cut out, but with teammates and role models such as Mario Balotelli and Robinho, this shouldn’t be a problem…oh wait!
Name: Richmond Boakye
DOB/Age: 28.1.93 (20)
Club: Elche (on loan from Juventus)
Playing Style: Powerful, hardworking striker, if a little rough round the edges.
Pedigree: Acquired by Juventus following some excellent showings at Sassuolo and Genoa, Sir Alex Ferguson was also reported to have been interested in the player while at Manchester United.
Great Hope: A great example of the best way to use the loan system, Boakye has now graduated from Serie B, where he guided Sassuolo to promotion and is now at La Liga side Elche. He has already made a handful of appearances for the Black Stars and will be looking to make the World Cup squad next summer.
Name: Ishak Belfodil
DOB/Age: 12.1.1992 (21)
Playing Style: An excellent all-rounder in the mould of a Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Mario Balotelli, Belfodil can take players on, out-muscle hulking defenders or bring teammates into the game. He has the potential to dovetail superbly with the clinical Mauro Icardi.
Pedigree: A regular at France youth level, having been overlooked by Algeria, the North Africans received a second shot to recruit the youngster after learning of his ambitions with the Desert Foxes. Belfodil bagged eight in Serie A last season with Parma in his first full season in the first team.
Great Hope: Will likely challenge Mohamed Salah and Stephan El Shaarawy to be considered North Africa’s finest striker over the next decade. Could benefit from the upheaval and disorganisation at Inter to become a mainstay of the side and forge a terrific partnership with Icardi.
Name: Jordan Ayew
DOB/Age: 11.9.91 (21)
Club: Olympique Marseille
Playing Style: A forward with quick feet, good movement and the drive and desire to take on (and beat) Ligue 1 defenders.
Pedigree: Pretty outstanding. The youngest member of the Ayew family, the son of Abedi Pele and the brother of fellow international Andre. Basically, Black Star footballing royalty.
Great Hope: If Ayew can put his misdemeanours—both on and off the pitch—behind him, then there is no limit to his impact. Ayew will surely soon take the reins from Asamoah Gyan at international level, and OM will hope that he can begin to replicate the outstanding contributions of his father at the Velodrome.
He has a long way to go, following a stuttering few years.
Name: Ogenyi Onazi
DOB/Age: 25.12.1992 (20)
Playing Style: An assertive defensive midfielder who marries relentless running and excellent anticipation; more likely to win the ball via a perfectly-timed interception than a crunching tackle. A perfect foil for the majestic John Obi Mikel.
Pedigree: The greatest project to emerge from famous Nigerian pastor T.B. Joshua’s My People football club, Onazi was picked up by Lazio in 2011. The fact he was born on Christmas Day and the influence of Pastor Joshua has forced the imposition of a religious thread on Onazi’s career.
Great Hope: Observers hope that Onazi’s terrific performances in the Europa League last season, notably in a 0-0 draw with Tottenham at White Hart Lane, are the beginning of a long and successful European career. Could become one of the world’s finest defensive midfielders and is already a crucial component in this excellent Nigerian side.
Name: Ahmed Musa
DOB/Age: 14.10.1992 (20)
Club: CSKA Moscow
Playing Style: Pacy wide play down the right flank, often allied to incisive movements and ferocious finishing when cutting inside.
Pedigree: Contributed 11 goals last term as CSKA won the Russian title, a successful season was completed by a few exciting cameos in Nigeria’s run to the Cup of Nations title. A masterful technician and a wonderful dribbler.
Great Hope: Musa showed his youth and naivety in the Confederations Cup when initial great work too often came to nothing and opportunities were lost. He could have a major impact at the World Cup in a Super Eagle attacking trident alongside Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike.
Name: Christian Atsu
DOB/Age: 10.1.1992 (21)
Club: Vitesse Arnhem (on loan from Chelsea)
Playing Style: A left-sided attacker, Atsu combines speed, tactical awareness and wonderful technical ability. He is another to be saddled with the “African Leo Messi” tag.
Pedigree: Won the Player of the Year prize while on loan at Rio Ave in the Portuguese lower leagues. Highlights of his time at the club include a beautifully taken strike against Benfica, before he was snapped up by Chelsea before he could truly make his mark at Porto.
Great Hope: Youngsters arriving at Chelsea can go one of two ways. The loan deals—often to Vitesse—can lead to a prodigious talent being polished and primed for the big time (see Kevin De Bruyne and, inevitably, Thibaut Courtois), or they can end up resulting in unfulfilled promise and a life away from West London.
His current situation will surely feel like a step down from the Estadio do Dragao, but Atsu has the class to make a big impression under Jose Mourinho.
Name: Mohamed Salah
DOB/Age: 15.6.1992 (21)
Club: FC Basel
Playing Style: A winger who revels in Basel’s progressive 4-3-3 approach. Nicknamed “The Egpytian Messi” for a reason.
Pedigree: Widely credited with being one of the key factors in Egypt’s rejuvenation on the continental stage, the 21-year-old Salah has already emerged as one of the side’s key figures. His emergence has helped eased the fallout from the widespread departures of the nation’s Golden Generation. Currently the joint top scorer in the CAF World Cup Qualifying programme.
Great Hope: The immediate aspiration is that Salah can end Egypt’s decade of World Cup disappointment and lead the Pharaohs to Brazil next summer. A Champions League campaign with Basel will be an exciting challenge, particularly as the club will hope to continue in Europe beyond Christmas.
Expect to see Salah in one of Europe’s biggest leagues next season.
Comment down below and let us at Bleacher Report know who you believe should have made the list and don’t hesitate to hit me up on Twitter to talk all things Africa and African football. @Eddydove