Ranking the Top 20 Africans to Play in the Premier League
This article celebrates the top 20 Africans to have featured in the Premier League. Throughout the last 22 years, many of the continent's stars have graced the English top flight. This feature recognises the cream of the crop.
It is important to note that this feature ranks the best African players to have played, at any point, in the EPL. It does not solely consider performances within the EPL and, indeed, some of those mentioned struggled to make an impact in England despite achieving great things elsewhere.
To compile this list and to confirm an order, I have weighed up a player's ability, their individual recognition and their club and international honours.
Not all of these men made the best impression on the English public, but all of them are rightly considered among the finest and most successful Africans to have ever played the sport.
20. Marc-Vivien Foe
Marc-Vivien Foe’s career in the Premier League could have been so much more than it was. Foe was popular with Manchester City and West Ham United fans during impressive stints at both clubs, but he was originally earmarked by Sir Alex Ferguson as a potential successor to Roy Keane as early as the late '90s.
A move was all but agreed ahead of the 1998 World Cup in France, only for Foe to suffer a broken leg that ruled him out of the tournament and put paid to his chances of joining United.
Had the move gone ahead, Ferguson wouldn’t have needed to have turned to the sub-standard players he did subsequently (Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson). Foe had the ability to become the cornerstone of the United midfield.
Sadly, his career was left unfulfilled as Foe died in 2003 following a heart attack while on international duty with Cameroon.
19. Finidi George
England never saw the best of Finidi as the Nigerian winger was an infamous flop at Ipswich Town and was symptomatic of the Tractor Boys’ decline from European qualification to relegation.
There is a reason, however, why the midfielder was recognised by IFFHS as the 10th-best African player of the 20th century.
Finidi was, for a time, among the finest right wingers in the world, with a dazzling turn of pace, sublime crossing ability and a penchant for long, sinuous dribbles.
He was an African champion with Nigeria in 1994 and won the Champions League with Ajax in 1995.
18. Kolo Toure
His form recently has, admittedly, been as wayward as his clearances, but in a previous incarnation Kolo Toure was one of the Premier League’s finest defenders.
During his time at Arsenal, he was a stopper who had the lot, the complete package with all of the qualities required in an elite defender. It helped that he was paired with the accomplished Sol Campbell, and together the pair were the bedrock upon which Arsenal's "Invincibles" side were constructed.
It is no coincidence that both Liverpool and Manchester City have turned to Toure in attempts to shore up their back line.
The two-time Premier League champion also represents one of the EPL’s all-time great bargains—Arsene Wenger spent only £150,000 to secure his signature from Ivorian side ASEC Mimosas.
17. Noureddine Naybet
Naybet was coming to the end of his career when he was brought to the Premier League by Tottenham Hotspur ahead of the 2004-05 season.
Nonetheless, Spurs fans still saw the composure and magnificent anticipation that had made Naybet, in his prime, a superb defender.
Indeed, when considering the defenders produced by Africa over time, it is hard to find too many who were more accomplished and more consistent than Naybet.
Long before the move to Spurs, the Moroccan had been linked to Manchester United, and while that particular reality will remain a mouth-watering "what might have been." he still enjoyed a fine career in Spain with Deportivo la Coruna.
He won the Liga BBVA title with Depor in 2000.
16. Rigobert Song
Few of us who witnessed some of Rigobert Song’s madder moments during the early portions of his career could have imagined him going on to become the wise old head of Cameroonian football.
That he did is testament not only to a fine defensive ability but also to a strength of character and a force of personality.
His spell in England—with Liverpool—is perhaps remembered primarily for the vicious rivalry with Jamie Carragher, as revealed in the Scouse defender’s autobiography. He also played for West Ham United.
Career highlights include two African titles with the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, including in 2002, when he was the tournament’s MVP. He has represented the Central Africans in four World Cups, although he is one of only two players (the other being Zinedine Zidane) to have been sent off in two tournaments.
15. Mahamadou Diarra
He arrived in the Premier League, with Fulham, late in his career and after injuries had taken their toll, but it was surprising that Diarra wasn’t able to make more of an impact.
It is telling, perhaps, that Dutch coach Martin Jol seemingly regretted his decision to release the player and attempted, belatedly, to bring the Malian back to the club for a second spell.
Diarra’s great achievement in the sport is his consecutive swathe of league titles won during the middle of the last decade. Between 2002 and 2008, with both Lyon and Real Madrid, he won six domestic championships in a row. A magnificent achievement.
14. Daniel Amokachi
In the Premier League, with Everton, Amokachi largely struggled to dislodge the established pairing of Duncan Ferguson and Paul Rideout.
Blues fans did revere the Nigerian frontman following his stunning FA Cup semi-final brace to down Spurs in 1995.
The Toffees went on to lift the cup that year.
Twice Amokachi took the bronze prize in the African Footballer of the Year standings, a nod towards his consistency, and he also won the Olympic Gold and the African crown with Nigeria in the mid-'90s.
13. Lucas Radebe
In the history of the Premier League, there are few defenders who are more beloved, more elegant and more consistent than Lucas Radebe.
The South African travelled from Soweto to Yorkshire and ended his career as both a national hero with Bafana Bafana and a club icon at Leeds United.
His decade at Elland Road began as little more than company for compatriot Phil Masinga, but over the next 10 years, he experienced fierce highs and desperate lows along with the Whites faithful.
He never won the EPL title—although that would surely have changed had he moved to Manchester United when Ferguson came knocking in 2000—and it is a great tragedy that his playing career ended in the ignominy of the second tier following the club’s relegation.
12. Patrick Mboma
Mboma’s time in the Premier League was brief—consisting of little more than nine appearances and one goal on loan at Sunderland during the 2001-02 season—but it is enough to qualify him for this list.
A year previously, in 2000, he was recognised as both the African Footballer of the Year and the BBC African Footballer of the Year.
Over the turn of the century, he established himself as one of the most devastating forwards to emerge from Africa, a powerful and technically-accomplished striker who was capable of almost anything.
He was the figurehead of the Cameroon side that won two AFCON titles and secured the Olympic gold in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, despite being well-suited to the division, he never again returned to the Premier League.
11. Benni McCarthy
Like a few other players featured here, Benni McCarthy and the Premier League didn’t end on the best terms. The South African cut a flabby, disinterested figure as he aimlessly wandered around the field during West Ham’s ill-fated 2010-11 campaign.
It was the last that Europe would see of the Bafana Bafana icon.
In his prime, however, McCarthy was a deadly striker. He arrived in England with Blackburn Rovers and brought his prolific penalty-box skills to the Prem. In his first season with Rovers, he bagged a terrific 18 goals in 36 games.
Previously, he had been a Champions League winner at FC Porto under Jose Mourinho and remains, to this day, South Africa’s highest-ever scorer.
Like Kolo Toure, Lauren was a key figure in Arsenal’s legendary "Invincibles" team that conquered the Premier League over the 2003-04 season.
The Cameroonian player was the nominal right-back in the team that went 22 away league games without defeat and will be remembered, forever, as one of the most-accomplished first XIs in Premier League history.
He featured in the PFA Team of the Year following that campaign.
He twice won the EPL title with the Gunners and was also present, along with another on this list, for Portsmouth’s 2008 FA Cup victory.
At international level, Lauren played in a more advanced role, often marshalling the right flank for Cameroon, claiming Olympic gold and two Cup of Nations victories.
9. Bruce Grobbelaar
He was past his peak by 1992, when the Premier League came into creation, but Grobbelaar still played for several seasons in the newly-branded top flight.
Between 1992 and 1994, he made 34 league appearances for Liverpool; he then starred for Southampton, playing 32 times over two seasons in the EPL during the mid-'90s.
He left the Saints in 1996 to continue his career down in the lower reaches of the English football pyramid, with Plymouth, Oldham, Bury and Lincoln City.
In his prime, Grobbelaar was a fine stopper. He was a key man in one of Liverpool’s greatest-ever teams and claimed six league titles and three domestic cups while at Anfield. The pinnacle of his career, however, came in the 1984 European Cup final.
He may have been squeezed out by the waves of riches that flooded into Chelsea, but Geremi deserves acknowledgement for a career riddled with fine achievement.
He carved out a niche for himself at clubs such as Real Madrid, Chelsea and later Newcastle as a versatile right-sider who was a capable performer with a devastating poise from set-piece situations.
He was a two-time Champions League winner with Real and, beyond that, also picked up three major league titles, two minor league titles and a whole swathe of further honours.
As part of the fine Cameroon side that dominated Africa at the turn of the century, Geremi won Olympic Gold in 2000 as well as a pair of AFCON titles.
7. Yaya Toure
Like so many other Ivorians of Yaya Toure's "Golden Generation," their career legacies threaten to be undermined by chronic failure in the international and continental arena.
Despite being a key component of one of, if not the most accomplished national sides in African history, Toure’s experience of World Cups and African Championships has been largely undermined by disappointment.
The same cannot be said, however, for his club career.
A league and European Cup winner with Barcelona, Toure has taken his game to another level since arriving at Manchester City in 2010. The West African was the outstanding individual as the Citizens claimed their first domestic championship in half a century and demonstrated his match-winning prowess once again in City’s recent League Cup final triumph over Sunderland.
6. Jay-Jay Okocha
Few players in the history of the game have been capable of the artistry and majesty of Jay-Jay Okocha.
The Nigerian playmaker is recognised to this day as one of the game’s purest magicians, and many who saw him in action will remain touched by his sublime technical ability.
He was twice BBC African Footballer of the Year and was also named by Pele as one of the 125 greatest players in history.
His Premier League contributions came in the fairly unglamorous confines of Bolton’s Reebok Stadium; thus, it is in his twinkling toes rather than his club honours that one evaluates Okocha’s enchanting spell in England.
5. Michael Essien
The ravages of injuries have robbed the world of the opportunity of seeing Michael Essien mature into one of the sport’s most-enduring midfielders.
The Ghanaian has endured great misfortune, but his recent failings ought not take away from the quality he offered earlier in his career.
I once argued that Michael Essien was football's "most impressive specimen of the last 10 years," and my opinion has not been swayed since. In his prime, the box-to-box midfielder was an unstoppable force, a dynamic figure who won his individual battles and controlled the centre of the park for both Chelsea and Lyon.
With Chelsea, under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho, he won two Premier League titles, four FA Cups and was also present for the 2012 Champions League victory.
His time in the Premier League may have ended on a low note, with Portsmouth’s FA Cup failure and subsequent relegation in 2010, but history will surely remember Kanu for his achievements and his character rather than this bleak episode.
The Nigerian won the Premier League title and FA Cup twice with Arsenal and also won the domestic cup in Portsmouth’s colours in 2008—a key player in a fine team.
Despite missing an open goal during the 2004-05 season, he was also a major inspiration for West Bromwich Albion as the Black Country side achieved the unthinkable, avoiding relegation despite having been in 20th place on Christmas Day.
Outside of England, the innovative Kanu won an Olympic gold medal with Nigeria, the Champions League with Ajax and the UEFA Cup with Internazionale.
3. Didier Drogba
Others on this list may have achieved more throughout their careers, may have earned more individual honours or have climbed to the heights of continental competition, but in terms of Africans to flourish within the Premier League, no one can top Drogba.
The Ivorian, who was voted Chelsea’s greatest-ever player in 2012, has been one of the key figures in the Blues’ recent, trophy-laden history.
He was the primary protagonist in the Pensioners’ Champions League triumph—the first by any London club—and has also accrued a haul of Premier League titles.
There is a chance that he may yet add to this tally; Rumours linking the Elephant with a return to Stamford Bridge never seem to dissipate.
2. George Weah
George Weah arrived in England at the tail-end of his career. Initially on loan at Chelsea, he won the FA Cup in 1999 and then returned for a permanent (eight-game) stint with Manchester City.
It was hardly the ideal introduction for the Premier League public, but anyone wishing to understand Weah’s talent requires only two points of reference.
The first is the incredible, mesmeric goal he scored for Milan against Verona. There are few finer examples of individual creativity and inspiration than this magnificent effort.
The second is his terrific haul of individual honours. IFFHS identified Weah as the greatest African player of the last century, he is a three-time African Footballer of the Year and remains, to this day, the only one of the continent’s stars to win the Ballon d’Or.
1. Samuel Eto'o
It has become quite hard to evaluate Samuel Eto’o’s time in the Premier League. The striker arrived with little expectation and seemed to be heading towards the exit door at the season’s end almost immediately after his debut.
The goals haven’t flown in at Chelsea, but any Premier League observer who remains unconvinced by Eto’o’s credentials need only look at his resume.
The striker is a four-time African Footballer of the Year and a three-time Champions League winner. Unlike others on this list, however, he did not just amble along for the ride but was a chief protagonist in European Cup victories for both Barcelona and Internazionale.
On the international stage, he was a key figure in the Cameroon side that dominated Africa in the early part of the last decade. Eto’o and his compatriots claimed two Cup of Nations titles, as well as the Olympic gold.
Brazil 2014 will be his fourth World Cup as part of the Indomitable Lions squad.