As the World Cup draws near, international managers begin to finalise the make-up of their squads. The tournament has, over the years, become a fine platform upon which the globe’s finest youngsters can demonstrate their abilities and as the arena within which precocious players can establish their names before an international public.
Africa’s five representatives each possess youngsters with the potential to put on a star turn in Brazil. Some have already represented their national sides, while others are yet to be capped.
This article presents 25 youngsters—five from each of the continent’s sides—who could make a late push for their respective World Cup squad.
All quotes in this piece have been personally sourced by the writer unless otherwise stated.
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Frimpong’s international career was suffering due to a lack of playing time at Arsenal.
Having joined the club as a child, the defensive midfielder learned his trade at the club, but only managed six appearances with the senior side.
Three loan deals, at Wolves, Charlton and Fulham, didn’t quite work out and in the January transfer window he sealed a permanent move to Championship team Barnsley in order to kick-start his flagging club career.
Could it also ignite his international standing with the Black Stars?
A red card on his Tykes debut was an inauspicious start, and the West Africans are stocked with talented central midfielders, but a positive few months in Yorkshire could help him steal a spot in the squad.
Club: Standard Liege
If Stephen Keshi is looking for a bright young thing to add to his impressive stable of fluid, fast strikers, then Imoh Ezekiel could be just the man.
The striker is a raw talent, but already, at only 20, he has demonstrated the potential to suggest that, before too long, he may be Nigeria’s star man up top.
He bagged 16 goals in the 2012-13 season and, remarkably, was Standard Liege’s top scorer despite his slender years. Such consistency helped his side into the qualification places for the Europa League—it’s frightening to think that it will only improve with age.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Ezekiel will commit to the Super Eagles. Belgium have also revealed an intention to recruit the star striker, who could feasibly be tempted by the opportunity to play alongside the likes of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke with the Red Devils.
Club: Zulte Waregem (on loan from Malaga)
Caps: 5 (1 goal)
Having once been touted as the heir apparent to Samuel Eto’o, the figurehead of Cameroon’s attack, Olinga has been tested out in a variety of attacking positions in recent months.
On the right wing his slight frame is less exposed than it is against powerful centre-backs, while the mistakes and misjudgements of youth are far less costly when they reveal themselves in wide positions.
Olinga scored on his national team debut against Cape Verde, during the Indomitable Lions’ ill-fated AFCON qualification campaign, but his impact has tailed off a little subsequently.
He has been present for eight of Cameroon’s 10 games, but has started only one and featured in only four more. He should travel, but still only 17, it’ll likely be more for the experience than to make any major, tangible impact.
Nation: Cote d’Ivoire
Position: Attacking Midfielder/Right Winger
Club: Zulte Waregem (on loan from Malaga)
Bobley Anderson has taken a well-established route into elite football, and looks set to rise to the top of the sport.
He earned his stripes in his home country, finishing runner-up in the Ivorian league, performing in the CAF Champions League, before making a move to North Africa, to Wydad Casablanca.
After a year in Morocco, he signed for Malaga, joining the Spanish club on a five-year deal, choosing the Anchovies ahead of a number of other European outfits.
As the Golden Generation reach the end and the Elephants look to incorporate new talent into their ranks, Anderson may well be at the forefront of the revolution.
Club: Valenciennes (on loan from Spartak Moscow)
Caps: 9 (4 goals)
On form and firing on all cylinders, Majeed Waris goes to Brazil. Recently, however, life hasn’t been going too well.
Things had turned stale for him in Russia, with Spartak Moscow, and with opportunities for first-team action limited, the explosive striker secured a loan move to Ligue 1 side Valenciennes.
Majeed will need to try and rediscover the form that made him such a terrific presence back in Sweden, with BK Hacken.
Waris has started the last four games for Ghana, scoring twice, however, he endured a long spell out of the squad during the early part of 2013—missing the Cup of Nations in the process—and may be in line to suffer a similar fate if he cannot recreate his scoring form.
If he can spark at Valenciennes, however, he should confirm his name among the Black Stars’ 23.
Position: Central midfield
When he was released by his boyhood club, Everton, dropping down the divisions to League Two Crawley Town, it was almost unthinkable that Akpan would return to the top flight so soon.
However, after promotion with Crawley, then-Premier League Reading decided to add him to their fight to stay in the top flight. That didn’t quite work out for the Royals, but Akpan was a revelation—he contributed three assists in his first two performances—before injury curtailed his year.
Now down in the second tier, Akpan is one of few professionals to have experienced all four divisions by such a young age.
Could he be about to add international football to his CV?
Speaking to me back in 2013, he spoke of his intention to feature for the Super Eagles in Brazil. Will Stephen Keshi be tempted by this dynamic box-to-box midfielder?
Dongou is young, only 18, but he has both the pedigree and the profile to be a long-term fixture for the Indomitable Lions.
He is yet to make his debut, however, and the World Cup may well come too soon.
Like his compatriot Olinga, he is a graduate of the Samuel Eto’o Foundation, leaving Cameroon at 13, in 2008, to sign for Barcelona. His power and pace have led to him being given the “new Eto’o” moniker, but as yet, his first-team opportunities have been limited.
The Metro linked him with a loan move to Aston Villa in January, and indeed, had he managed to demonstrate his explosive qualities in the Premier League, a World Cup call-up could have been a distinct possibility.
Without that opportunity, Brazil might come too soon.
Cameroon aren’t short of defensive talent. The Indomitable Lions may lack creative and offensive players, but they can boast one of the most accomplished rearguards in African football.
With the likes of Stephane Mbia, Nicolas N’Koulou, Joel Matip, Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik and even Sebastian Bassong available to fill the centre-back berths in Brazil, but it’s not impossible that someone like Frank Bagnack could break into the team.
The Barcelona B defender has already been invited into the international setup, and although he didn’t feature in the World Cup Qualifier against Tunisia, the recognition was testament to the elevated status he enjoys in the eyes of selectors.
Club: Livorno (on loan from Internazionale)
Unlike some of the other players on this list, Ishak Belfodil shouldn’t have to do too much to get on the plane to Brazil.
Having decided to throw his hat into the ring with Algeria, the striker featured in the last World Cup group stage qualifier against Mali, as well as a friendly against Guinea. He didn’t come off the bench during the play-off double-header against Burkina Faso, but did take his place on the bench for the second leg in Yaounde.
There has been some doubt about his potential World Cup participation, due to his lack of playing time at Internazionale. However, Belfodil has expressed his desire to feature in Brazil and a loan move to Livorno should afford him the minutes required to get on the plane.
Club: Esperance de Tunis
According to Algerian football expert Maher Mezahi, it due to the myriad of talents that Youcef Belaiïli possesses that Tunisian giants Esperance have not missed the “talismanic presence of Youssef Msakni,” who left for Qatar in 2012.
Belaiïli can offer the kind of creativity and versatility that is not currently abundant in the Algeria squad.
Mezahi identifies his dribbling as his finest asset: “the ability to carry the ball at the speed in which he does, as well as possessing strength to hold off defenders while doing it.”
But this isn’t all that the winger brings to the table: “He is also a competent free-kick taker, scoring four of them in the last year”.
While he is yet to be called up to the squad, Belaiïli has the attacking arsenal to ease some of the creative burden on Sofiane Feghouli.
Nation: Cote d’Ivoire
It feels like Souleymane Coulibaly has been waiting to explode onto the scene for some years.
He was signed by Tottenham Hotspur as a youth player, following his exploits at the U-17 World Cup. During this tournament, in which he top-scored, he bagged four goals against Denmark and scored a hat-trick against Brazil.
No player has ever scored more in the tournament, which began in 1985, and only Florent Sinama Pongolle, of France, has equalled Coulibaly’s nine goals.
The striker has worn the tag “The New Drogba” since a young age, but in truth, he is much more of an explosive poacher. Similarities with Jermain Defoe, for example, are much closer to the mark.
Caps: 18 (4 goals)
While Dominic Adiyiah, at 24, is older than the majority of many of the players on this list, his development, his evolution as a player and as an African footballing personality, seems to be stunted.
Due to his failings at club level and his inevitable dawdling towards the peripheries of the international game, it feels like he is forever to be remembered as that explosive, magical player who stole the show at the U-20 World Cup in Egypt in 2009, winning the title, the Golden Shoe and the MVP award at the tournament.
He was present four years ago, at the 2010 tournament, as the Black Stars gallivanted to the quarter-finals, but has slipped from the headlines since then, via Milan, Reggina, Partizan, Turkey, Ukraine and, currently, unemployment.
In a recent interview with Jerry Akaminko, I asked the Ghana centre-back for his thoughts on Adiyiah. While recognising the forward’s decline, Akaminko was optimistic about the prodigy’s future, he said: “Football is full of ups and down and he has to stay positive and when the time comes he will shine.”
Kenneth Otigba is a young defender with a cool head on his young shoulders.
His performances in Holland, with Heerenveen, alerted a number of top sides, including Liverpool, who made a formal offer. Otigba turned it down however, despite a fee being agreed, suggesting that he would be better served learning his trade in the Netherlands, rather than heading to England.
He is another player who is yet to be officially claimed by the Super Eagles. Otigba has represented Hungary at under-21 level, but if Stephen Keshi can waggle the carrot of a World Cup berth before his nose, he may decide to commit his future to the West African giants.
Club: Colorado Rapids
Richard Fleming, the former BBC journalist and current Colorado Rapids play-by-play commentator, described the tangle ahead of Eloundou’s move to the MLS as a “Tug of Love.” This designation alludes to the desire of several different clubs to acquire this talented forward—Charles Eloundou looks destined for great things.
To date, he has bagged eight goals in seven fixtures for the Cameroon under-20 side, and his prowess and performances have led to him being fast-tracked into the national side.
However, since making his debut—a brief half an hour showing against Tanzania in February 2013—he hasn’t been called up again.
It’s nothing a promising start to life in the MLS couldn’t sort out!
Position: Central Midfield
Club: Tottenham Hotspur
Having been promoted to the Spurs first team by Tim Sherwood, Nabil Bentaleb has wasted little time in establishing himself in the Premier League.
The Lille-born midfielder has represented France at under-19 level, but following a meeting with the president of the Algerian FA, Mohamed Raouraoua, in early February has pledged his allegiance to the Desert Foxes.
According to Algerian football expert Maher Mezahi, it is anticipated that Bentaleb will be called up for the side’s next friendly, in early March. He will bring both attacking and defensive qualities to the World Cup squad.
Club: Etoile du Sahel
Baghdad Bounedjah made his debut for the national side back in October 2011. While that invitation came as a shock, few expected that, almost two-and-a-half years later, he wouldn’t have returned back to the fold.
Maher Mezahi describes the player as such: “Bounedjah is the quintessential modern striker. He’s quite strong and keeps a low centre of gravity in spite of his height. His movement is dizzying, his touch soft, and his finishing efficient. You get the feeling that all Bounedjah needs is some accumulated experience and he could be a bona fide superstar.”
Might Vahid Halilhodzic decide to take another look at this talented player ahead of the World Cup?
Mezahi reckons that if the striker can continue with his current form, “He is currently the Tunisian league's most efficient scorer notching 6 goals in 6 appearances”, then he may well be on the plane to Brazil.
Club: Etoile du Sahel
Like one or two of the other Algerian players featured in this article, Benlamri was a part of the talented under-23 side that came so close to qualifying for the London 2012 Olympics.
He has graduated to the senior side since those heady days of 2011 and was invited to a training camp in May 2012, only for injury to disrupt his progress.
Algerian expert Maher Mezahi describes the player as such: “Benlamri is a physical anomaly, not only is he quite tall, but he can also shift gears and use his speed to neutralise other strikers. A versatile defender, he can play in both central defence and as a right-back.”
Nation: Cote d’Ivoire
Club: West Ham United
Abdul Razak has had a stop-start career to date. He joined Crystal Palace’s academy in 2008, before being head-hunted by Manchester City two years later.
Opportunities at the Etihad were, as to be expected, limited and so, in 2013, following four loan moves, he eventually signed permanently with Anzhi Makhachkala.
The timing couldn’t be worse, as the club began their scaled-down reboot, and Abdul Razak—along with the majority of the side’s African contingent—were scattered far and wide.
Razak has now returned to England, with West Ham, and it remains to be seen whether he can assert himself in the relegation-threatened side.
Abdul Razak has been a regular in the Ivorian squad all year but was overlooked for the double-header against Senegal. Four months spent sitting on the bench in East London might not be the best preparation for a World Cup.
Club: SuperSport United
When he made his debut back in 2012, big things were expected of the talented and versatile Edwin Gyimah. He was a precocious talent, but perhaps lacked the polish to forge a place for himself within Ghana’s massed midfield talent.
Rather than see that as problematic, however, the confident Gyimah relished the prospect of playing alongside the likes of Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. In an interview with SuperSport, he described the benefit of being part of the Black Stars squad as such:
“Sulley, Ayew brothers, Essien for me are some of the best players in the world. They have football brains and have made known their quality on the biggest stage. I am surrounded by great players in the national team. Training with and watching what they do and in games playing with them and learning off the best players. For me I can only see one way to go — and that’s for me to improve and become a better player."
The star quality in the Ghana side may squeeze Gyimah out of contention, but he should find a role for himself in future squads, if not in 2014.
Position: Central midfield
One of the key questions Stephen Keshi needs to answer ahead of the World Cup involves the identity of his starting midfielders.
Ogenyi Onazi and John Obi Mikel will definitely feature as two of his (likely) midfield three, but who will join them in this trio in the centre of the park?
The likes of Sunday Mba, Nosa Igiebor and Nnamdi Oduamadi have all, for different reasons and to different degrees, struggled to retain their spot in the team, leaving a place open for some fortunate opportunist.
Lukman Haruna, who was similarly drafted into the side ahead of the last World Cup, might be an option, but a more dynamic pick could be Ramon Azeez, who has been in sterling form for Almeria recently.
According to Lolade Adewuyi, Chief Editor of Goal Nigeria: “Ramon Azeez has quietly worked his way into the consciousness of Nigerians after leading the U-20 squad impressively a few years ago. He's good on the ball and is likely to play in next month's friendly against Mexico.”
Nation: Cote d’Ivoire
Gnabry has begun to find some playing time in the Arsenal first team this season and, on the occasions that he has appeared for Arsene Wenger’s men, has looked like a remarkably accomplished talent.
He is technically competent and appears to have an intuitive sense of anticipation and positioning; he has rarely looked overawed by the altitude of the Premier League.
Having played for Germany through from under-16 to under-19 level, it may seem like Gnabry is destined to continue as one of the Nationalmannschaft’s sublime succession of talented attacking midfielders.
According to the Daily Mail, however, Cote d’Ivoire, the land of his father, are keen to recruit the teenager and are looking to convince the player to commit to them with the promise of a spot in the World Cup in the offing.
Position: Central midfielder
Club: Parma (on loan from Hoffenheim)
Caps: 3 (1 goal)
Alfriyie Acquah may struggle to forge his way into the Black Stars squad. The central midfielder has been out of the picture for sometime, and will have to perform magnificently over the coming months to force his way into Ghana’s midfield roster.
The fact that he has the likes of Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, Kwadwo Asamoah, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Mohammed Rabiu, Prince and Andre Ayew ahead of him in the pecking order, might make this an impossible feat.
Still, Acquah doesn’t lack the qualities to thrive if given the chance. He is a modern creative midfield enforcer, known for his high work ethic and robust tackling.
I once noted the following about the player in a feature on Football.com:
As a youngster, Acquah’s passing was noted as being exemplary – there’s a wonderful story somewhere about him wowing all of these Northern Irish youngsters in Belfast with his exceptional touch and technique. He used to be a bit fragile, but reports suggest that he’s bulked up a bit since then. Good aggression, good agility, good stamina – quite a workhorse in the middle of the park.
Club: Sunshine Stars
Solomon Kwambe has become a regular feature in the Nigeria squad under Stephen Keshi. He impressed in a friendly ahead of the 2013 Cup of Nations, prompting speculation that he might make the cut for the tournament, but didn’t, eventually, make the trip to South Africa.
He has been back however, as a member of the recent CHAN squad, and also travelled with the Super Eagles to Brazil last summer for the Confederations Cup.
He will almost certainly be on the plane to Brazil, where his attacking qualities down the right flank could prove to be a very potent weapon.
Club: Stade Rennais
Having starred for France from under-18 to under-21 level, the sensible money might be on Paul-Georges Ntep appearing for Les Bleus at senior level. However, it is not totally unthinkable to imagine him turning out for the Indomitable Lions.
The Douala-born frontman impressed in Ligue 1 for Auxerre, earning himself a move to Rennes during the January window.
With Cameroon lacking a cutting edge up front and with a place within the star-studded France squad some way off, might Volker Finke be able to convince Ntep to commit his international future to the land of his birth?
Ntep might never get a better chance to find a context and an environment within which to demonstrate his sparkling qualities.
Brice Dja Djedje
Nation: Cote d’Ivoire
After learning his trade at French minnows Evian, Brice Dja Djedje has finally sealed a move to a club that can match his level of ambition and ability. Marseille may not be the force they once were, within the context of French or European football, but they are still a club with a giant following—a following that demand great things of their players.
If he can forge a spot for himself in the OM first team, unseating Rod Fanni in the process, then Dja Djedje might alert Elephants boss Sabri Lamouchi, himself a former Marseille man.
Along with Serge Aurier and 30-year-old Emmanuel Eboue, the Ivorians have a fine variety of options at right-back.