This article profiles 20 African players who are set for a big year. This collection is an assembly of stars at very different stages of their respective careers, but each is primed for a big 12 months.
Some of these names are figures embarking on the opening stages of their nascent careers, others are veterans poised for a renaissance.
Naturally, in a World Cup year, the tournament will go a long way to deciding whether or not these players look back fondly on 2014. Over half of the names on this list represent (or in one case, could represent) one of the five nations heading to Brazil, and all but one play their football in Europe.
Twelve months ago, few of us could have expected the imminent impact of Kenneth Omeruo. The young central defender emerged during the Cup of Nations to forge a water-tight partnership with Godfrey Oboabona.
Between them, the two youngsters saw that Joseph Yobo was displaced from the Super Eagles first XI. They demonstrated maturity and composure and held the fort as Nigeria charged to the continental championship.
The second half of Omeruo’s 2013 was ravaged by a shoulder injury suffered during the Confederations Cup.
He has played only once, in the second leg of the play-off against Ethiopia, since hurting himself against Spain and is only now emerging from the first major setback of his nascent career.
With first-team opportunities limited at Chelsea, Omeruo has sought pastures new in the January window. A loan move to Middlesbrough, which is imminent, according to BBC's Oluwashina Okeleji, provides him with a stage upon which he can both resume fitness and begin to adapt to the challenging conditions of the English football league.
Current Boro boss Aitor Karanka was himself a former centre-back and ought to have a great impact on Omeruo’s development.
He's not a new face or a youngster embarking on the opening stages of his career, but Emmanuel Adebayor has certainly felt like a man reborn in recent fixtures.
Having been frozen out—excluding a brief, bizarre cameo—under Andre Villas-Boas, the Togolese forward has been the main beneficiary of the Portuguese boss’s departure. New Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood has brought Adebayor back into the fold and, for once, the striker has an opportunity he looks keen to capitalise on.
Since returning to the team toward the end of December, the frontman has scored four goals in six games. He is relishing the link-up with Roberto Soldado and looks to be approaching his best form.
Spurs fans will be praying that the inevitable sulk can be postponed for as long as possible.
Having arrived at Internazionale in the summer of 2013, there was always the risk that Taider would become tarnished by the current malaise around the club and would struggle to prosper in such a transitional team. His countryman, Ishak Belfodil, has certainly encountered such issues and is already keen to escape, per Stefan Coerts of Goal.com.
Other signings, including Rolando and Ruben Botta, have also made little in the way of a positive impact.
Taider, on the other hand, has looked fantastic. He has made the right-hand side of midfield his own domain and has very much looked the part over the last few months.
With fine technique, stamina and natural fitness, he will be looking forward to performing for Algeria in the fairly favourable Group H next summer.
Kenny Otigba is younger than the majority of players on this list. He is also less experienced and hasn’t even declared whether he intends to represent Nigeria or Hungary, for whom he has turned out at U21 level.
I suspect that Stephen Keshi, particularly with a World Cup as the ace up his sleeve, may well convince Otigba that the Super Eagles ought to be a key feature in his future. Beyond Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo, Nigeria aren’t blessed with fantastic central defenders, and Otigba could feasibly be performing regularly for one of FIFA’s top 35 sides within a year or two.
He previously turned down a move with Liverpool to remain at Heerenven, where he is thriving under Marco van Basten. The Dutch league may not be able to contain one of their brightest talents for too much longer.
Wilfried Bony has struggled to find his best form since arriving at Swansea during the summer.
In the Eredivisie, with Vitesse Arnhem, he was a remarkable force, capable of devastating teams with his strength and power, or with his pace and precision. Last year he was the division’s top scorer, with 31 goals.
Injuries have certainly played their part in Bony’s underwhelming start to life in the Premier League; in patches, he has looked like his ferocious best, but those moments have been interspersed with some fairly anonymous substitute appearances.
Swansea’s general struggles haven’t provided the ideal conditions for his gestation period.
He began the year with a bang, however; two goals and a Man of the Match performance weren’t quite enough to sink Manchester City, but they did indicate that Wilfried was slowly finding his feet in the Premier League. He also scored a late header to dump Manchester United out of the FA Cup.
I recently ranked Vincent Aboubakar 43rd in my Best Africans in World Football over 2013 list. If the striker can continue his fine form of the second half of 2013, then there is no reason why he cannot be a lot higher in the list by the end of this year.
The striker has long possessed power, pace and a keen eye for goal, perhaps the magic three for a centre-forward. Unfortunately, at Valenciennes he never quite managed to put it all together—games came and went with Aboubakar sitting eternally on the peripheries.
A move to Lorient seemed to flick a switch in Aboubakar’s mind. He has been in electric form during the early stages of the season and currently sits in third place in the Ligue 1 top-scorer charts. If he can continue this form for the rest of the year, and for the World Cup, then his abilities will soon surely be exhibited on a higher stage than the Stade du Moustoir.
Almost a year ago I listed Salim Cisse among the 10 best up-and-coming Africans in world football. Having arrived in Portuguese football, with Academica, from Italy, his goals against major clubs brought him to the attention of Sporting Lisbon.
Back in February, I anticipated that a higher stage awaited Cisse; however, I didn’t quite expect that the move would come so soon.
In truth, it probably came too soon.
He certainly has the lot, but he simply hasn’t shown it all too much in Lisbon. His hard work, intelligent running and impressive strength has mainly been wasted in the reserve team, particularly after the Lions recruited Colombian forward Fredy Montero on loan.
If Cisse can finally get some game time at the Jose Alvalade, or if he can find a club that truly appreciates his talents, then 2014 could be a big year.
The Ivorian stopper was a regular in all of my end-of-year lists. He was one of the finest youngsters in 2013, one of Africa’s best defenders and also looks set for a big year in 2014.
In 12 months I fully expect Aurier to be playing for a Champions League team and to enjoy a much broader international profile. Having outpaced Emmanuel Eboue to claim a starting berth in the Cote d’Ivoire first XI, he should also be very excited about the realistic prospect of starring at the World Cup.
Aurier has the lot. He has the energy and the drive to thrive as a full-back, but he also has the physique and the poise to thrive in the heart of the defence. For Toulouse, he has looked good on the right side of a back three, perhaps a perfect compromise.
In his long-term future, I anticipate a permanent move to right-back. Arsene Wenger has been keeping tabs as he seeks a successor for Bacary Sagna, according to James Dickenson of the Express.
Many of the nations heading to Brazil next summer will be pinning their hopes on the performances on one key creative talent. For Algeria, that man is Sofiane Feghouli.
Amidst the Desert Foxes’ collection of defensive, gritty midfielders, Feghouli is a touch of class. He is a stylish playmaker who is proficient in dead-ball situations and also has the guile to unpick stacked defences.
The men that accompany him in Algeria’s midfield will all work tirelessly to ensure he has as much of the ball as possible. They provide the platform, leaving Feghouli to supply the ammunition for the North African’s forward line.
If he can avoid too many anonymous performances, like those that undermined his brief Cup of Nations showings, then Feghouli could assert himself as Africa’s most creative talent. If he cannot, then Algeria ought to be anticipating an early exit.
Mohamed Salah may not be a particularly original name to include on this list, but if the last few years are anything to go by, then the Egyptian forward is set for great things during 2014.
The North African has been relentless since leaving Al-Mokawloon to join Basel in 2012. He starred in the Europa League, became a Swiss champion and looked accomplished in the Champions League. At the 2012 CAF Awards he was also named the Most Promising African Talent of the Year and was among CAF’s nominees for 2013 African Player of the Year.
At the time of writing, Metro reports Liverpool are aiming to complete a £9 million move for Salah. If he does make the switch, then Salah has the directness and pace to prosper in the Premier League. He should certainly be a fine addition to Liverpool’s fluid forward line, adding an extra layer to Brendan Rodgers' side.
Over the last 12 months I have repeatedly sung the praises of Ogenyi Onazi. The defensive midfielder came from nowhere to forge a space for himself in the Nigerian first team during the Cup of Nations.
He not only earned a spot in Stephen Keshi’s XI, he also changed the complexion of the Super Eagles side, bringing balance to the team and allowing John Obi Mikel to flourish as a creative force. Onazi, standing at 5'8", isn’t an imposing figure in the middle of the park; instead, he regains possession through assertive interceptions and mature positioning.
It is fascinating to see where Onazi goes from here. Already an established international and thriving at Lazio, the sky looks to be the limit.
Liverpool and Everton have been touted as potential destinations, according to Ben Jefferson of the Express, with the Reds slightly ahead in the midfielder’s preferences. Whether or not Onazi leaves, the World Cup will provide him with the perfect stage upon which to demonstrate his qualities.
Be under no illusion, Sochaux are in grave danger in Ligue 1. The Montbeliard club currently sit in 19th place in the French top flight, with only Ajaccio below them. They are currently six points off safety.
Things could be a lot worse. While Herve Renard hasn’t improved Sochaux’s league position since arriving at the club in early October, he has begun to improve the club’s form; they netted draws twice in November and have currently won their last two games—against Rennes in the league and lowly F.C. Bressuire in the French Cup.
Renard always needed to recruit well in January and it is perhaps no surprise that he has turned to Central Africa for new personnel.
Nathan Sinkala and Stoppila Sunzu were signed almost as soon as the window opened, the former on a six-month loan deal and the second on a three-year contract.
The pair were key figures under Renard during Zambia’s unlikely 2012 AFCON triumph; either man would go through a brick wall for their French coach and surely have the ideal conditions to begin to make a name for themselves within a European context.
The dual transfer will also be good for Zambian football, as both young men will bring benefits to the national side following these fresh challenges and a change of scene.
Saints fans could be forgiven for questioning why the club splashed £12 million on signing Victor Wanyama from Celtic. In Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork, Southampton already possessed two outstanding central midfielders, who, together, were the heartbeat of the side during the second half of last season.
However, despite occasional calls for Cork to be reinstated in the side, Wanyama has steadily begun to show his class in the Premier League. In England, his power, anticipation and fine aerial presence were always guaranteed to make him a hit.
In early December, the Kenyan suffered a hairline fracture in his leg in a defeat to Aston Villa. He is yet to return, but when he does, expect the powerhouse to be invigorated and fresh for the run-in.
Following his glorious contributions at the Cup of Nations in January and February, Sunday Mba’s 2013 hit the buffers.
The attacking midfielder emerged from nowhere to bring home the continental title as part of Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagles elect. After starting the tournament on the subs' bench, he begun against Ethiopia and then went on to score the winners against both the Cote d’Ivoire in the quarter-final and Burkina Faso in the final.
Such contributions will ensure that Mba’s name is never forgotten in his homeland.
Unfortunately, however, he couldn’t continue the momentum generated from these performances. A transfer wrangle between two Nigerian sides, Enugu Rangers and Warri Wolves, meant that he was sidelined for much of the calendar year. This reality naturally affected his form and fitness and Mba lost his starting spot in the national side during the Confederations Cup.
A move to Ligue 2 side CA Bastia might not be a switch quite befitting a continental champion, but it at least provides Mba with a chance to once more prove his worth to Keshi ahead of the World Cup.
Nosa Igiebor’s 2013 replays almost as a mirror image of Mba’s year.
The Real Betis midfielder headed to the AFCON with designs on being the Super Eagles’ key creative talent, the figure that would provide for the likes of Emmanuel Emenike and would unlock the continent’s stubborn defences.
Unfortunately, his influence in the first two games was negligible. Igiebor was replaced in the dour draw with Zambia and wasn’t seen again.
His club career also threatened to melt down as he was lambasted by Betis fans for not having delivered on his transfer fee and for taking an extended hiatus from Andalusia.
Despite his troubles, Igiebor’s esoteric qualities remain, and Stephen Keshi has assured the midfielder that the door is still open. He was recalled to the national side in the autumn and will have an eye on a World Cup spot…the magic is there, but the ball is in Nosa’s court.
Senegalese fans have every reason to feel confident about the next few years.
In Alain Giresse they have a manager that knows the African game like the back of his hand. The nation can also boast a formidable stable of attackers, not to mention an exciting generation of youngsters just dying to make a name for themselves with the Indomitable Lions.
In truth, the likes of Moussa Konate, Pape Souare, Sadio Mane and Boukary Drame could all have made this list. All have an exciting year ahead and should combine to prompt an upturn in Senegal’s fortunes.
Idrissa Gueye ended the year strongly and was a star man in Senegal’s thwarted bid for World Cup qualification. He brings energy and dynamism to the midfield and is an emerging force for Lille in Ligue 1.
Nantes centre-back Papy Djilobodji is also a fine component of the Senegalese side and his performances in France have led to Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund battling for his signature, per Jack Wilson of the Daily Star. The defender is ambitious and keen to test himself in the demanding climes of the Champions League.
Scottish giants Celtic look to be in pole position to secure a signature from the 19-year-old Pharaoh Mahmoud "Trezeguet" Hassan, according to Richard Bath of The Scotsman.
While Egyptian giants Al-Ahly would not be able to refuse a big-money move for their starlet, there is a hope at the club that the youngster could fill the shoes of the departing legend Mohamed Aboutrika.
Whether he departs or not, expect Trezeguet—along with Basel’s Mohamed El Nenny—to drive the emerging generation of Egyptians on toward a bright future.
It is quite remarkable that five years after breaking into the Marseille side, no one yet knows quite how good Jordan Ayew is.
The pedigree has been well-documented and the flashes of brilliance, however sporadic they may be, still suggest that somewhere there is a player just waiting to explode onto the scene. However, a combination of injuries, poor discipline and dreadful decision-making have raised doubts about Ayew’s long-term potential.
Most concerning has been his perceived apathy. Ayew too often gives the impression of not caring, not striving to become the best he can be with Marseille or of leaving a lasting legacy with Ghana.
What he needed was a move to a club where he would be given the chance to be the main man and to realise the virtues of endeavour and commitment. A January loan switch to Sochaux, where he will work under the tutelage of former Zambia boss Herve Renard, could be a perfect fix.