50 Best African Players on the Planet Right Now
This article profiles the 50 best African players in the world today.
Much of the talent in this list was on show at the Cup of Nations, earlier in the year, as well as the recent CAF World Cup Qualifying play-offs. Many of these stars will feature at the main event in Brazil next summer, while large swathes of those featured play for some of the world’s major clubs.
In compiling this list, I have considered both reputation and form. Some of these players are fairly new to the scene but are enjoying remarkable years, while others may be in a career lull but have enduring qualities that consistently place them among the continent’s greatest.
Please comment below and let me know your thoughts on my rankings, to suggest others who should have been included and to talk about anything Africa.
50. Serge Aurier
Any Cote d’Ivoire fan concerned about the Elephants’ increasing stagnation over the last few years will be heartened by the presence of a number of youngsters primed to break into the first XI.
While much of the media focus over the last year or so has focused on the side’s strikers and the potential replacements for Didier Drogba, it is Toulouse man Aurier who has forced his way into the starting line-up first.
Emmanuel Eboue risks becoming history as far as the national side is concerned!
Aurier is a versatile starlet who excels as a right-back. He is a fine tackler but is also comfortable as an attacking threat as well.
If he can continue on his current trajectory, then Elephants fans need not be so concerned about the ageing Golden Generation.
49. Idrissa Gueye
Senegalese midfielder Idrissa Gueye has been such a revelation during the World Cup Qualifying programme, and it is a shame that at the end of it, he won’t be featuring at the main event next summer.
The Lille man has gradually been improving his game in the French top flight and is now one of the finest all-round midfielders in the Ligue 1. As part of a new generation of Dogues and an emerging figure in Alain Giresse’s rebooting of Senegal, audiences will surely become a lot more familiar with the dynamic midfield starlet.
Anyone watching the Lions of Teranga’s second leg battle with the Cote d’Ivoire will surely have noticed the way that Gueye dominated Yaya Toure in the heart of the midfield—the diminutive star has an exciting few years ahead of him.
48. Dieumerci Mbokani
The goals haven’t flown in at Dynamo Kiev quite as regularly as they did at Anderlecht, but Dieumerci Mbokani remains one of Africa’s deadliest frontmen.
In many ways he is the complete package; he is powerful and provides an attacking presence, yet at the same time he has an excellent turn of pace and knows how to knock the ball past defenders and beat them on the ground.
He can also create goals as well; Mbokani made five assists and scored once during Dynamo’s 9-1 thrashing of Metalurh Donetsk.
He is reportedly unhappy with life in Ukraine and, particularly, the team’s rotation policy. Tottenham Hotspur have been linked with a move, and the time is right for the 28-year-old Mbokani to once more try his hand in one of Europe’s major leagues.
47. Cheick Diabate
Having earned his stripes with Ajaccio and Nancy, Cheick Diabate is now well-established as Bordeaux’s key man.
He has a terrific scoring record with the Girondins and, in recent times, has forged an effective partnership with Senegalese winger Henri Saivet.
He ended the Ligue 1 season on fire and regularly looked determined not simply to find the net but also to dominate contests and ensure victory for the Bordelais. One example was the French Cup final, when he scored twice against Evian to bring the trophy back to the Stade Chaban Delmas. At 6'4", he is a towering presence and offers a major physical threat. However, recently, his improving composure has added another element to his game.
He currently sits in fifth place in the Ligue 1 scorer charts and this season has picked up where he left off. Witness, for example, his brace and Man of the Match performance against Sochaux in early October.
46. Mbark Boussoufa
The reboot of Anzhi Makachkala may have ended the promise of a new European superpower forming in the North Causcasus, but the club’s demise hasn’t been all bad news for the players to have been cast off by Suleiman Kerimov.
Willian and Samuel Eto’o have, notably, moved to the Premier League, while Dutch-Moroccan midfielder Mbark Boussoufa has made the move to Lokomotiv Moscow.
He has quickly adapted to life in the capital and has began to turn in the kind of performances that saw him once recruited by Chelsea and earn the reputation as the Belgian league’s finest player.
He has excelled in a central midfield role, where his technical prowess has allowed him to dictate the play and involve himself with the majority of the side’s moves, racking up a number of assists in the process.
45. Adel Taarabt
Another sublime Moroccan midfielder is Adel Taarabt.
Opinion may be split as to whether he is a genius or a jester, but on his day, Taarabt remains one of the continent’s most exceptional talents, capable of the kind of magic that very few can muster.
Certainly, it’s fair to say that those days don’t come around very often. He has struggled to assert himself amidst the massed ranks of attacking talent at struggling Fulham, and he only sporadically demonstrated his class in the Premier League before that.
Still, I am confident that if he can find the right environment next season, be it in the Premier League or abroad, the 24-year-old can finally begin to progress after some stuttering seasons.
There is some indication that he may be primed to blossom for Fulham in the second half of the season. The Moroccan has gushed about the impact of the Cottagers’ new coach, Rene Meulensteen, and perhaps the new Dutch coach will be able to get the best out of the former Tottenham man.
44. Sebastien Bassong
Times have been tough for Bassong over the last few months.
The Cameroonian defender has fallen out of the picture with the national side and has endured a torrid time at Norwich. He was particularly culpable for a number of goals in the Canaries' 7-0 defeat at the hands of Manchester City and has since been dropped by Chris Hughton.
Still, I am confident that this is merely another blip in a career that has seen the Paris-born centre-back endure long spells on the sidelines at Tottenham Hotspur and suffer relegation with Newcastle.
He has all the tools to be an excellent centre-back, but he needs to be a little more disciplined and avoid a tendency to switch off or meander away from the crucial areas.
As Volker Finke aims to assemble his strongest possible team ahead of the World Cup, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him turn back to Bassong, particularly if the Clairefontaine graduate can rediscover the former that made him one of the EPL’s top defenders in the 2012-13 season.
43. Vincent Aboubakar
Sometimes it just takes a change of scene for a player to unveil himself before the watching world.
Vincent Aboubakar was resigned to a substitute role for much of last season with Valenciennes, scoring only two goals in the process.
However, a move across Northern France, to Lorient, this summer, has prompted a turn up in fortunes for the Cameroon frontman. He has already scored five goals so far this term, and even if Lorient’s form hasn’t been excellent, Aboubakar has been one of Ligue 1’s most impressive forwards—he was also Man of the Match for his new side's 1-0 victory over Valenciennes.
The likes of Pierre Webo, Benny Moukandjo, Samuel Eto’o and Eric Choupo-Moting look set to shoulder the scoring burden for Cameroon next summer, but don’t be surprised to see Aboubakar force his way from the bench to the starting XI for the Indomitable Lions.
42. Efe Ambrose
In early October, I wrote a feature arguing that Efe Ambrose is on track to become an African great.
The defender is only 25 but has already conquered the continent as part of Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagles team and has become a Champions League regular. He has already won championships in Nigeria with Bayelsa United and Scotland with Celtic, and he also enjoyed a successful stint in Israel with Ashdod.
Ambrose was also a pivotal part of Celtic's remarkable pair of performances against Barcelona in the Champions League and has demonstrated his composure in imposing atmospheres on numerous occasions.
One of his key assets, perhaps, is his versatility. For Nigeria he operates as a right-back, while for the Buoys he provides presence as a centre-back or a defensive midfielder.
Already one of the older heads in the national side, Ambrose is well on track to become an all-time great for the Super Eagles.
41. Mo Diame
Since moving to West Ham United from Wigan Athletic, Mo Diame has begun to be considered among the Premier League’s most impressive midfielders.
His performances at Upton Park have made his acquisition by Sam Allardyce (on a free transfer) look like a remarkable spot of business.
Diame is a classic West African midfielder: He can pass, he can tackle, he has a remarkable engine, and he is physically excellent, possessing both strength and pace. It is no surprise that his showings in East London prompted interest from major clubs such as Arsenal and Spurs.
Diame is only 26, despite having four years’ EPL experience already in the bag. Don’t be surprised to see him make a move to one of the country’s big dogs before too long.
Left-sided winger-cum-forward Christian Atsu may be taking a little longer than expected to impose himself consistently for Ghana, but I have little doubt that it won’t be long before he is one of the national side’s stars.
2013 hasn’t quite been all that I had anticipated it would be for the former Porto man. He was one of many Ghanaian players who flopped at the Cup of Nations, and the excitement that surrounded his move to English giants Chelsea quickly dissipated as he was shipped out on loan to Vitesse.
Fortunately, Atsu is thriving at the Dutch side, one of Chelsea’s many feeder clubs, and was particularly impressive in the Vitas’ 3-1 victory over Utrecht at the beginning of November.
He signed a five-year deal when arriving at Stamford Bridge, and surely one day, he will be in a position to continue the fine Ghanaian tradition at the club.
39. Aurelien Chedjou
While at Lille, where he was part of the title-winning side of 2011, Aurelien Chedjou showed himself to be a complete defender.
He is adept at carrying the ball out of defence, can tackle effectively and understands the importance of teamwork. He is physically excellent and was an important component of the Lille cycle that contained the likes of Gervinho, Adil Rami, Eden Hazard, Yohan Cabaye and Eden Hazard.
This summer, Chedjou moved to Turkish giants Galatasaray and has settled well, initially under Fatih Terim and, more recently, under Roberto Mancini.
Cameroon can boast a sublime defensive unit, and Chedjou has all of the tools to be the star man of this backline at Brazil 2014.
Taye Taiwo has rarely been missed from the Nigeria set-up over the last few years. Taiwo, once of Marseille and Milan, was once Africa’s finest attacking full-back, and the natural successor to Celestine Babayaro.
However, as part of Stephen Keshi’s policy of focusing on the team, at the expense of potentially disruptive individuals, Taiwo was axed, and the door was opened for Elderson Echiejile.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the left-back berth anymore; the Braga man has started everyone of Nigeria’s games in 2013, apart from the friendly against Italy, and has became a vital part of the Super Eagles’ defence.
Beyond his defensive prowess, he has, notably, chipped in with some crucial goals. His stopping header against Mali in the AFCON sent Nigeria through to the final, while he also bagged a goal against Tahiti during the Confederations Cup.
37. Younes Belhanda
Many were surprised when, despite the numerous major clubs to have been linked with his signature in the summer, Younes Belhanda chose to sign for Dynamo Kiev.
It has been a slow start to the season for Kiev, with a large influx of new, foreign players disrupting the rhythm of the side. Despite being part of this early-season malaise, and only winning two of his first five games at the club, Belhanda’s creative class has eventually begun to shine through.
He was particularly impressive in the rout of Metalurh Donetsk, when he scored a hat-trick and made an assist from central-midfield. He is steadily growing into life at the Olympic Sports Complex.
The Premier League has long been his desired destination, and Arsenal and Tottenham remain on alert.
36. Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu
Udinese midfielder Badu’s stock has fallen in 2013, following a promising start to his career. Admittedly, Ghana were poor at the Cup of Nations, but Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu was particularly disappointing.
His energy remains endless, and his tackling remains pure. But when receiving the ball at his feet and with space ahead of him, he often left a lot to be desired with his passing and decision-making.
He has been reduced to a substitute role since then, but I have no doubt that he will return to the fold stronger than before. He was particularly outstanding in Udinese’s 3-1 victory over Parma at the beginning of September, when he scored a goal and was named the Man of the Match.
35. Moussa Sow
Powerful Fenerbahce forward Moussa Sow is another on this list who was part of that exceptional Lille side that conquered France back in 2011.
Since moving to Turkey in 2012, he has become one of the Super Lig’s star men. He is more often used on the flanks these days, where his pace and power make him a handful for full-backs. Despite being used in support of a forward such as fellow West Africans Pierre Webo or Emmanuel Emenike, Sow has bagged five goals so far this season, making him the league’s joint fourth top scorer.
He was Man of the Match in Fener’s recent 2-0 victory over bitter rivals Galatasaray, and was particularly outstanding in Kanaryalar's 4-0 win over Elazigspor. During this contest he was once again named as the game’s outstanding player and also bagged a hat-trick.
34. Alain Traore
While 2013 has been the most remarkable year in the history of Burkinabe football, their star performer, Alain Traore, has not been able to enjoy it is he might have hoped.
After scoring three goals in the opening two games of the Cup of Nations, Traore’s tournament was curtailed after only 11 minutes of action against Zambia due to injury. He subsequently missed out on the Stallions’ remarkable run to the final and didn’t play again until early April.
Even after his return, injury never truly left him. He has only twice featured in Ligue 1 this season, playing little more than an hour of action. He was rushed back to action for the World Cup play-off against Algeria, but he was unable to influence the proceedings when brought on by Paul Put as a final throw of the dice.
He remains a fine attacking talent, however, and once he recovers his form and fitness, I am confident that there is much more to come from the 25-year old.
33. Steven Pienaar
Pienaar may have abdicated from his duties with the South African national side, and he may have enjoyed his fair share of injury woes over the last few years, but he remains one of Africa’s finest creative midfielders.
At Everton, a club where he has truly found his niche, he operates on the left wing, just ahead of England left-back Leighton Baines, with whom he shares a telepathic relationship. The pair’s combinations and forward thrusts often prove devastating for the Blues’ opposition, and they have been heralded as one of the EPL’s most effective partnerships.
Pienaar has developed a reputation as somebody who has the invention and ability to change the complexion of a contest in a split second. This was rarely more evident than with his superb improvised winner against Hull City in the middle of October.
32. Godfrey Oboabona
Young Nigerian defender Godfrey Oboabona has been one of the revelations of the season.
He is one of the key successes in Stephen Keshi’s revolutionary overhaul of the Nigeria squad and was one of the star men as the Super Eagles claimed the continental title in early 2013.
Despite his young age and his lack of experience outside of the Nigerian league, he excelled in South Africa, particularly in the quarter-final when he kept Didier Drogba quiet, managing the legendary forward with the experience and poise of a much older man.
I was also present on Monday night as he effectively silenced Mario Balotelli.
Despite a number of clubs being linked to his signature, Oboabona signed for Turkish side Rizespor during the summer. Whilst this move feels a slight step down from some of the illustrious destinations that had been linked with his signature, the defender will hopefully hone his skills in Turkey before moving onto one of Europe’s major leagues.
31. Kossi Agassa
While some were surprised that Stade de Reims retained their Ligue 1 status last term, anyone who had even glimpsed their goalkeeper Agassa would understand why they managed to preserve their place against the elite.
Their remarkable defensive record was certainly the difference between relegation and survival. They only conceded 42 goals in 38 games, the best record in the bottom half of the league and the seventh best in the entire division.
Agassa brings calmness and composure to the backline, and when his organisational skills don’t cover all eventualities, his athletic prowess are often enough to thwart enemy attackers.
"Magic Hands" may now be 35, but his abilities have shown little sign of ceasing. He has won three Man of the Match awards already this season, and even saved a penalty against Lyon as Reims secured a valuable 1-0 victory.
Reims have conceded only one more goal than Marseille this term and currently sit comfortably in eighth place. Agassa’s clearly got a little more in the tank!
30. Adlene Guedioura
It’s true that Adlene Guedioura hasn’t taken the Premier League by storm since making the step up from the Championship at the end of the summer transfer window.
In swapping Nottingham Forest for Crystal Palace, the midfielder made a move that many had long sensed was inevitable. Writing for the BBC during the summer, I suggested that Guedioura was “a complete midfielder (who) combines physical prowess with majestic technique.”
He may well prove to be a key component in Tony Pulis’s midfielder as the Welsh boss attempts to save Palace, while he could also be a standout performer with Algeria in the World Cup next summer.
29. Sofiane Feghouli
Could Sofiane Feghouli be one of the surprise stars of the World Cup next summer? Few sides will be so directed towards providing for one player that the Valencia man, with a bank of hard-working, combative, ball-winning midfielders behind him, will surely get plenty of time and opportunity to demonstrate his worth.
Over the last twelve months or so, he has demonstrated an ability to rise to the big occasion. He scored and was Man of the Match in a Champions League draw with Bayern Munich last season, and he also scored and set up a goal in the Desert Foxes’ 2-2 draw with the Cote d’Ivoire at the Cup of Nations.
Manchester United were linked with a move for the North African in September 2012, and if Feghouli can begin to add some consistency to his twinkled toes, then maybe this level of attention will return.
28. Ahmed Musa
Versatile forward Ahmed Musa remains a raw talent, but he is one of the most promising forwards in Africa and looks set for a bright future.
He predominantly thrives as a pacy right winger but can also operate up front. His movements are incisive and, regularly, decisive. While his finishing remains erratic, he is capable of ferocious shots.
His decision-marking needs to improve, and if Musa can bring this aspect of his game up to his technical prowess, he could well become of the continent’s most impressive attackers.
In the last twelve months, he has been champion of both Africa and Russia—there is much more to come from Musa.
27. Salomon Kalou
I never felt that Salomon Kalou got the recognition he deserved at Chelsea. He was brought to the club by Jose Mourinho, a manager who had a clear vision for how he wanted the forward to develop. However, following the Portuguese boss’s departure, a succession of managers came and went without truly trusting Kalou with an extensive run in the first team.
The Ivorian frontman went on a miraculous scoring run at the end of last season, finding the net 12 times in Lille’s last 12 Ligue 1 showings. He was also Man of the Match on three occasions, perhaps demonstration of his growing influence.
While he is clearly enjoying life in Northern France, it seems that a return to the Premier League is a priority. Arsenal have been linked with the forward, while his £2.5 million release fee might encourage a few clubs lower down the league ladder.
I suspect Didier Zokora may deserve a re-evaluation from many of us. He was allowed to leave Tottenham with little ceremony in 2009, following three years with the club, and was deemed surplus to requirements at White Hart Lane.
He left the Premier League having still not convinced anyone of his ability to impose himself as a defensive midfielder and dictate the tempo of a top-level contest.
These days, for the Cote d’Ivoire, he operates as part of the backline. He thrives as a libero alongside a more physically imposing centre-back, and his qualities in this position were demonstrated in the second-leg play-off match with Senegal.
While the Elephants’ midfield and attack wilted against the Lions of Teranga, their defence, marshalled by Zokora, stood strong. His excellent anticipation and fine reading of the game can often diffuse a problem before the immediate danger hits his side. He will surely be a vital player for the Ivorians in Brazil next summer.
25. Asamoah Gyan
The great caveat, when evaluating Asamoah Gyan’s statistics and form, is that the striker has been playing in the Emirati league, with Al Ain, since 2011. His scoring record since then, of 61 goals in 46 games, puts him in a par with Messi and Ronaldo, but in truth, the quality of the opposition is such that Gyan is able to sleepwalk through games and still look deadly.
His lack of match sharpness doesn’t seem to be having too much effect on his international career. He still leads the line for the Black Stars and will do so at the World Cup next summer. He has found the net eight times in his last seven games with Ghana, but it remains to be seen whether he can replicate this against elite sides in Brazil.
He has once again been named to the shortlist for the CAF 2013 African Footballer of the Year.
24. Demba Ba
The striker enjoyed a run in the team at the end of last season but struggled to find the net, and this season both games and goals have dried up. He has only found the net once so far this term, against Schalke in the Champions League.
However, his misfortune at Stamford Bridge has not affected the fine reputation the forward enjoys, a result of his excellent stints at Newcastle and Hoffenheim before that.
Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain have both been linked with a January move for the striker who, at best, is fourth choice at Stamford Bridge. Should he receive regular first-team football once again, then Ba should be primed to rediscover his excellent goal-scoring form of years gone by.
23. Ogenyi Onazi
Ogenyi Onazi is, quite possibly, my "Man of 2013." I am over about my adoration for the Lazio man and genuinely believe that he is on course to grace the elite levels of the sport.
Since installing himself as a regular for the Super Eagles during the 2013 Cup of Nations, Onazi has emerged as a key man in the Nigerian set-up. His boundless energy, fine tackling and mature anticipation gives John Obi Mikel the freedom to express himself and drive the team forward.
Having seen him play in the flesh, it is clear that Onazi’s offensive play requires some improvement, but it is important—if not remarkable—to recall that this guy is only 20 and has time to blossom.
Mikel may well prove to be a key influence. Speaking to Onazi recently about Mikel’s influence, he said, “If you mingle with an Eagle you get a better chance to soar higher”—poetic as well as promising!
Wilfried Bony has taken his time adapting to life at Swansea City, but the striker has begun to show signs that he is repaying the club’s patience, and I remain confident that he will grow to be a key man at the Liberty Stadium.
The Ivorian forward found the net 51 times in 69 games for Vitesse Arnhem and defied defences by scoring a multitude of different goals. He is fast, strong and an excellent finisher.
Sabri Lamouchi is taking his time introducing the young Elephants to replace the creaking Golden Generation of the Cote d’Ivoire. Bony may have to be content as an impact substitute at the World Cup next summer, but soon after that, I expect he will begin to lead the line for the national side.
21. Alex Song
Song hasn’t enjoyed an easy ride since swapping Arsenal for Barcelona in the summer of 2012. He has reportedly had some fallings out with key team-mates—including Gerard Pique—or found himself persistently on the peripheries of the first-team squad.
These struggles had led to him being linked with a move away back to North London, to his former club Arsenal or, more intriguingly, their rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Manchester United have also been linked to his signature and may look to make a move in January.
While Barca may have lost faith in Song, he remains a key player for Cameroon and looks set for a fascinating 2014.
20. Kevin-Prince Boateng
Kevin-Prince Boateng has developed extensively since the earlier days of his career, when he was rejected by Tottenham Hotspur after failing to make an impact in North London.
Since then he has matured extensively and had begun to grow into Milan’s famous No. 10 shirt, at least until Kaka returned. He is effective playing just behind the front man and is an effective striker of the ball.
His energy will be a major asset for Ghana next summer, as it is for Schalke in the Bundesliga and the Champions League. Against Werder Bremen recently, he found the net twice and impressed with his all-round play—it was a performance that demonstrated just what Prince is capable of.
19. Didier Drogba
Having become a legend of the sport at Chelsea, where he won the Champions League (single-handedly, according to Alex Ferguson) as well as a whole host of other honours, Drogba is now one of African football’s elder statesmen.
He still knows how to bang in the goals and currently sits in third place in the Turkish Super Lig scoring charts, having bagged six so far this season.
The only absence from his honour-dripping CV is success with his national side, Cote d’Ivoire. Despite being the figurehead of the Elephants’ Golden Generation and a national icon, Drogba and his team-mates have repeatedly struggled in the latter stages of the Cup of Nations.
The former Marseille man and his compatriots will be hoping that they can make up for their many missed opportunities in Brazil next summer. The tournament offers them a final chance to leave a lasting legacy in the international arena.
18. Andre Ayew
Ayew has long been Ghana’s Great Hope, due, in no small part, to his impressive lineage (he is the son of Black Stars legend Abedi Pele) and his prodigious talents. His troubled relationship with national coach Kwesi Appiah has affected his international career. He missed out on the Cup of Nations, for example, following a dispute with his boss.
His importance to the side was demonstrated by the fact that it was the national president who begged the Marseille man to return to the fold. He rejoined the team against Senegal, to take his place among the star-studded returnees who guided the side over the finish line.
Ayew has the potential to be a star in Brazil. Playing predominantly on the left side for OM this season, he has been a great threat, scoring five times in the league to date. For Ghana, I expect him to operate through the middle, where he ought to dovetail excellently with Asamoah Gyan.
17. Sulley Muntari
I have often argued that Sulley Muntari is one of Africa’s most underrated players.
Here is a guy who has won the Champions League, the FA Cup, Serie A (twice), the Club World Cup and numerous other domestic honours. He has played at two World Cups and twice been a semi-finalist in the Cup of Nations.
Nevertheless, his tenacity and bite in midfield is often overlooked, while his technical prowess is undervalued.
Muntari will need to battle for his spot in the Black Stars midfield at the World Cup next summer, but his forceful energy in the heart of the park should complement the likes of Kevin-Prince Boateng and Michael Essien.
Maybe the world will be forced to stand up and take note of Muntari’s talents.
16. Nicolas N'Koulou
Despite being only 23, Nicolas N’Koulou is already one of Africa’s most established defenders.
He has made over 60 league appearances for two of France’s biggest clubs, Monaco and Marseille, and already has over 30 caps for Cameroon.
During his career he has been linked with European giants, such as Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Arsenal, and surely has a successful decade ahead of him.
N’Koulou is an exceptionally versatile competitor, and while he hasn’t escaped criticism during the last few years of disappointment and underachievement for Cameroon, he has improved considerably and is now a key man for club and country.
Hopefully the errors that have crept back into his game at Marseille won't rear their ugly head for the Indomitable Lions in Brazil.
15. Michael Essien
I was delighted to witness Michael Essien’s terrific return to the Ghana side for their remarkable demolition of Egypt. The Bison returned to the Black Stars with the confidence of a man who had never been away—he reminded the watching world of what they’d been missing.
A disastrous injury record has savaged the midfielder’s career over the last few years. Had he avoided the tears and twists that have set him back so frequently, I have little doubt that he would sit at the top of this list. It’s easy to forget just how superlative he was at Lyon and then at Chelsea.
Having missed out on the 2010 World Cup, he will be keen to make up for lost time in Brazil. Could Essien, as the chief actor in Ghana’s all-star midfield, guide the Black Stars to the Promised Land of the semi-finals?
14. Victor Wanyama
It was little surprise when Victor Wanyama was nominated for the prestigious African Player of the Year award earlier in the month. It has been a remarkable 18 months for the central midfielder, who has grown to be considered among Africa’s finest in his position.
Such continent-wise recognition has not resulted from his performances with Kenya, which, despite their vast potential, remain a league or two beneath Africa’s giants.
His finest moments came in Celtic’s outstanding performances against Barcelona in the Champions League; they were performances in which Wanyama demonstrated both his offensive and defensive skills and placed him firmly in the shop window.
His new club, Southampton, are enjoying a remarkable start to the season and currently sit in fifth place. Wanyama has been slow to adapt to the Premier League, but despite fan pressure to recall Jack Cork, who impressed at the base of the midfield last season, he retains his place.
13. Jonathan Pitroipa
At the 2013 Cup of Nations, a tournament derided for its lack of offensive quality and attacking impetus, Jonathan Pitroipa was a ray of light.
He was the competition’s standout talent and was the key figure as Burkina Faso, which had never won a game in the tournament away from their homeland before, enjoyed an incredible run to the final. The Stade Rennais winger’s dribbling, technique and dazzling footwork beleaguered opposition defenders, while he also proved to be both a goal-scorer and a match-winner.
It was no surprise when he was named as Player of the Tournament, and being nominated for BBC’s African Footballer of the Year is just desserts for a terrific 12 months.
12. Mohamed Aboutrika
It is one of the great disappointments of the last decade of international football that Mohamed Aboutrika, national symbol and world-class midfielder, will almost certainly never play at a World Cup.
The Egyptian was part of the Pharaohs team that succumbed to Ghana in the recent CAF play-offs, and he has also endured failure on so many occasions beforehand. Although he was a key figure in the recent glorious era of Egyptian football, arguably the most impressive cycle in African international history, the wider global audience may never know the true majesty of his talents.
Aboutrika is an exceptional playmaker and a fantastic role model to boot. While his loyalty (he has been signed to Cairene Giants Al-Ahly for a decade) is admirable, it has dissuaded him from pursuing a career in a major European league.
11. Victor Moses
Victor Moses’s loan move to Liverpool may feel like a step in the wrong direction, but I actually imagine that the experience at Anfield will simply add another dimension to a footballer who has enjoyed a remarkable few seasons.
When the young Nigerian swapped Wigan for Chelsea in the summer of 2012, some suspected the move might have come too soon. Instead, Moses scored some crucial goals in both the Champions League and League Cup and began to develop his game.
The pinnacle of his year came in South Africa, during the Cup of Nations. He proved himself both to be a player for the big occasion—scoring twice against Ethiopia to secure Nigeria’s progress from the group—and also a creative influence. His display in the semi-final against Mali was one of the finest I have witnessed by any African over the last twelve months.
Moses took to Merseyside instantly, scoring a goal on his debut, and looks set for another big year. The World Cup looms large on the horizon for Africa’s champions.
10. Mohamed Salah
Despite Egypt’s capitulation at the hands of Ghana during the CAF World Cup Qualifying play-offs, Pharaohs forward Mohamed Salah remains one of the continent’s most exciting attackers.
At Swiss side Basel, he continues to grow into a thrilling prospect; he has adapted well to the demands of the Champions League, having impressed in the Europa League last season.
He has effectively filled the creative wide berth vacated by Xherdan Shaqiri and has proved to be a terrific component of the club’s fluid, menacing, speedy forward line.
Salah is surely destined for great things; Tottenham and Liverpool have both been linked with his signature, and the Egyptian certainly has the technique to thrive at either of these clubs, even if his finishing can be wayward.
9. Emmanuel Emenike
It is testament to his growing influence within the Nigerian set-up that Emmanuel Emenike was sorely missed at the Confederations Cup in the summer.
Without him, the Super Eagles struggled to find the net when it mattered; a whole host of flimsy forwards came and went without leaving an impact. The Fenerbahce man was conspicuous in his absence, and his return against South Africa came as a major boost for the side.
In the following three games he scored four goals, including the brace against Ethiopia that sent the Super Eagles on their way to the World Cup. He could make a star turn in Brazil.
8. Samuel Eto'o
It may have taken Samuel Eto’o a game or two to adapt to life in the Premier League and at Chelsea, but he has now began to demonstrate his quality on a regular basis.
Eto’o’s improving form has prompted Jose Mourinho to suggest that the Cameroonian icon is one of his favourite players. He was exceptional against Schalke in the Champions League and has also scored goals against The Albion and Cardiff City in the EPL.
Eto’o may have been a panic signing as the summer months drew to a close, but the ageing frontman has proven time and time again that he knows where the goal is. He has an incomparable record among his African peers and will look to add to his World Cup tally of three goals in Brazil next summer.
7. Vincent Enyeama
Lille stopper Vincent Enyeama is currently in the form of his life. He delivered an outstanding display recently against a Falcao-inspired Monaco and is in the middle of a fantastic run of clean sheets. He hasn’t conceded in the league since the middle of September.
It hasn’t all gone Enyeama’s way since arriving in France, and it is to his great credit that he overcame a season-long loan back to Israel last season to claim his spot as Les Dogues’ No. 1.
He was also in fine form at the Cup of Nations where, with an inexperienced centre-back pairing ahead of him, he organised the defence well and was rewarded with a spot in the Team of the Tournament.
6. John Obi Mikel
2013 was the season when John Obi Mikel finally realised his potential in the famous green of Nigeria. Previously, he had too often flattered to deceive.
The history of Mikel’s progression in the sport makes for fascinating story. He was a child prodigy who glistened at the Youth World Cup in 2003, outshone only by Messi as a creative talent. At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho attempted to forge a defensive midfielder out of the "Next Okocha," and the result has long been an unhappy compromise.
At the Cup of Nations, however, thriving under the responsibility afforded him as one of the side’s senior men, Mikel was outstanding. His graceful passing and majestic control of the middle of the park guided the Super Eagles to the continental title.
5. Mehdi Benatia
While Roma’s offensive has certainly been glittering this season, their success has been built upon a formidable defence. After 12 games, the capital club have only conceded three goals.
Certainly, the whole unit—Vasilis Torosidis, Federico Balzaretti, Leandro Castan and even Daniele De Rossi—have all played their part. Mehdi Benatia has also made an outstanding contribution and has emerged as one of Europe’s finest defenders.
His name may not sit comfortably among some of the star players on this list, but the Moroccan has been consistently excellent for several seasons now. He is a fine reader of the game and also capable of playing the ball out of defence to great effect.
It is no secret that Gervinho is a “confidence player,” one whose fragile mental state has too-often undermined his fantastic talent. Over the last 18 months, his weaknesses have been there for all to see in both an Arsenal and a Cote d’Ivoire shirt.
Since moving to Roma, however, he has appeared reborn. I suggest that the reconnection with Rudi Garcia, the manager who got the most out of the Ivorian during their time together at Lille, has helped Gervinho rediscover the qualities that once made him such a feared prospect.
He has been one of the star men in Roma’s rise to the top of Serie A and will look to complete his revival in Brazil next summer as part of the Cote d’Ivoire’s Golden Generation.
3. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
2012-13 was a remarkable season in the career of Gabonese forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The striker turned down a move to Tottenham Hotspur and took the time to improve as a player at Saint-Etienne.
His scoring feats last season left him in second place in the Ligue 1’s goals charts, only pipped to top spot by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. For a long time it was clear that Aubameyang would soon be destined for the top of the game.
Having won the Coupe de la Ligue with the Loire club, he moved to Champions League finalists Dortmund.
His early showings in Germany have been excellent, and with seven goals already, he has clearly taken no time at all to adapt to life in the Bundesliga.
Aubameyang’s achievements have seen him shortlisted by the BBC for their African Footballer of the Year award; he is a young forward who will surely go from strength to strength.
2. Kwadwo Asamoah
Having made the step up from Udinese to Juventus, Kwadwo Asamoah endured a season of two halves. For the first six months of the campaign, he demonstrated his class and versatility. Having been used to operating in a central role, he adapted to life on the left-flank, as both a midfielder and a wing-back, and became a useful component of the Juventus line-up.
Unfortunately, his year pivoted on a particularly disappointing Cup of Nations tournament with Ghana. I had tipped him to be one of the stars of the show, but he was thoroughly unable to rise to the occasion and the Black Stars were eliminated with barely a whimper.
After this disappointment, his season with Juventus barely recovered.
I am confident, however, that the first half of 2013 will be little more than a blip in the young man’s career. He has been nominated for CAF's African Player of the Year away, and while I doubt he will win the honour this season, I suspect such recognition awaits.
1. Yaya Toure
By his own exceptional standards, it’s been a poor 2013 for Yaya Toure. Still, despite this, he remains Africa’s outstanding individual talent and the continent’s best player.
Even if he hasn’t quite electrified matches and dominated contests like he did in the 2011-12 season, and even if the Cote d’Ivoire endured a disappointing 2013 Cup of Nations, Toure remains the only African to have been named among the world’s finest in the Ballon d'Or shortlist. It is recognition he deserves as Toure remains a hugely influential player.
Consider this: So far this season, Toure has averaged 82.6 passes-per-game (via whoscored.com). Africa’s next most prolific passer is Monaco’s Moroccan midfielder Mounir Obbadi with an incomparable 62. If Toure’s relationship with Fernandinho can improve, then he could be set to make amends in 2014.