Unheralded Africans Who Can Break Out at the World Cup
Extensive coverage ahead of the 2014 World Cup focuses on the stars of the African game; the Yaya Toures, Samuel Eto’os and Didier Drogbas of the sport.
There is, however, a whole strata of less-celebrated players who do not receive the media’s recognition but who are also capable of starring in Brazil.
This article profiles 11 of these players. Not all of them will make the trip to Brazil, several of them might not even make it on to the pitch, but those who do possess the talent and, in some cases, the momentum to make a big impact on the global stage.
All stats courtesy of whoscored.com
There’s no telling how important Cameroon’s full-backs could be this summer. While the side have excellent defensive strength and boast an excellent roster of tough, dynamic defensive midfielders, they lack creativity through the middle.
One way of compensating for this is by loading the wide areas and stretching the play. Here attacking full-backs become very important.
On one wing, Benoit Assou-Ekotto will look to adopt the advanced positions he once took with such regularity at Spurs, while, on the right, Allan Nyom has the potential to be one of the stars of Group A.
In the recent friendly against Portugal, Nyom demonstrated his capabilities. He kept a lid on Cristiano Ronaldo for large portions of the match (before the Indomitable Lions capitulated) and made regular overlapping runs, giving Fabio Coentrao something to think about throughout.
With Nigeria struggling for goals and manager Stephen Keshi seemingly losing faith with the players who served him so well throughout 2013, new players were assessed for the recent friendly against Mexico—the Super Eagles’ first game of 2014.
One of these was Belgium-based Imoh Ezekiel.
For a while now, the young Standard Liege frontman has looked like the future of the Nigerian attack. Keshi’s decision to turn to him ahead of more established talents such as Peter Odemwingie, Sone Aluko and Victor Anichebe is telling.
Ezekiel may not make the cut for the 2014 event, but if he does travel, he could be an effective, explosive option for the Super Eagles off the bench. He is in form and would add a more direct dimension to the forward line.
Sofiane Feghouli tends to take key creative duties for the Algeria national side and, considering the Valencia man’s form this season, he could be a key figure in Brazil. The Desert Foxes do, however, possess another player capable of unlocking defences.
Yacine Brahimi was once celebrated as the future of French club Stade Rennais, but things didn’t quite work out in France, and he made the move to Granada in 2013, following on from a successful loan deal.
The playmaker should travel to Brazil—he has been present for six of the last nine Algeria matches—and could ignite Group H if Vahid Halilhodzic requires some late inspiration.
Brahimi, like so many of the current Desert Foxes squad, is a former France youth international.
Despite not being one of the most celebrated players in the Ghana squad at the last Cup of Nations, Wakaso was arguably the team’s star man.
During the tournament, he demonstrated both calmness under pressure and a propensity to thrive in the big matches. During the Black Stars’ ill-fated sojourn to South Africa, the then-Espanyol man scored four times (three from the penalty spot) and also contributed an assist in the 2-2 draw with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
There is a genuine danger that the return of the national team’s superstars (Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Andre Ayew) ahead of the World Cup might push Wakaso out of the side.
His versatility should see him on to the plane, but he was, worryingly, dropped for both of the Black Stars’ play-off battles against Egypt.
Expect the Rubin Kazan midfielder to make the most of any opportunity that comes his way in Brazil.
It wasn’t just Imoh Ezekiel who represented the Belgian Jupiler League in Nigeria’s recent friendly with Mexico.
Michael Uchebo, a much-less celebrated competitor than his compatriot, also got the nod. Surprisingly, it was Uchebo, and not Ezekiel, who started the match.
This came as a surprise to those watching, but, it soon became apparent that Uchebo was seen as a key figure by Keshi, who was trialling a new 4-4-1-1 formation.
His performance was, to be critical, high on endeavour but a little lacking in efficacy; however, Uchebo might have done enough, playing off the striker, to book himself a place in Brazil.
Goal Nigeria’s Solace Chukwu summarised his impact as follows:
A special mention should go to the debutante Uchebo. He only played 45 minutes, but was excellent. Though his passes were sloppy on occasion, some of his movement was sublime. His biggest contribution to the team was, however, in the defensive phase.
He constantly got goal side of Juan Carlos Medina, El Tri’s deepest midfielder, preventing easy passes being played into him. This meant that Mexico found it hard to build moves through the middle, and when they tried to force the issue on a few occasions, the giant was on hand to intercept and launch quick counters. The most notable, on 11 minutes, led to the game’s best chance and drew a fine save from Guillermo Ochoa.
Much of the pre- and post-match analysis of Algeria’s recent victory over Slovenia focused on Nabil Bentaleb’s decision to turn out for the land of his ancestors. Despite being born in France and representing Les Bleus at youth level, Bentaleb chose to throw his hat into the ring with the Desert Foxes.
He wasn’t the only one to do so, but as much of the attention went on the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder, Aissa Mandi slipped beneath the radar.
The Reims man is a versatile defender who can play across the back line but is most comfortable at right-back. Along with the likes of Bentaleb and young Napoli left-back Faouzi Ghoulam, he represents an exciting future for the North Africans.
In Ligue 1, Vincent Aboubakar has struggled to maintain his glittering early-season form.
Between late November and early February, for example, during the course of 10 games, he scored seven, assisted three and was named man of the match on two occasions.
Lorient’s form has faltered a little since then, however, and he has only scored once in the club’s last seven games.
Nonetheless, his explosive and determined forward play should serve Cameroon well this summer. He scored an equaliser against Portugal in the Indomitable Lions’ recent friendly and will look to keep opposition defenders busy this summer.
If he can strike up an understanding with Samuel Eto’o, then the Central Africans might be able to forge a potent forward line.
Few, if any, African forwards are in as electric form as Waris at the moment.
Since arriving at Valenciennes from Spartak Moscow on loan during the January window, the Black Stars hitman has almost single-handedly spearheaded the club’s fight against Ligue 1 relegation.
On his debut, against Bastia, he both scored and set up a goal in a 3-2 victory.
In the last seven games, he has scored seven, assisted two and been named man of the match on three separate occasions.
It’s not immediately evident how Kwesi Appiah can configure the Black Stars to get the most out of both Waris and national team legend Asamoah Gyan in Brazil, particularly considering the strength of their opponents.
Unlike Imoh Ezekiel and Michael Uchebo, Godfrey Oboabona isn’t a newcomer to the squad but is, rather, a long-term Keshi favourite.
The centre-back was in stunning form during the 2013 Cup of Nations, playing alongside youngster Kenneth Omeruo. He was outstanding, particularly in the quarter-final against the Cote d’Ivoire, when he silenced Didier Drogba.
A major move beckoned, but while Arsenal were linked, Oboabona ended up signing for Turkish relegation battlers Caykur Rizespor.
Despite his modest confines, the defender is one of Africa’s finest in his position and is surely destined for a major European league some time soon.
While the tenacious Serey Die occasionally performs offensively for club side FC Basel, for the Cote d’Ivoire, he is purely a gnashing presence in the heart of the park.
This summer, expect the Elephants to line up in a 4-3-3 formation, with a forward line of Gervinho, Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou supported by Yaya Toure, Serey Die and Chieck Tiote.
Die and Tiote will be required to protect a defence that has looked less than sturdy over the last 18 months.
Few players will demonstrate the aggressiveness and urgency that Die will in Brazil; he is likely to be a key component of the Elephants’ side, protecting those behind him and feeding Yaya Toure.
Afriyie Acquah might be the "flavour of the month" of African football, following a recent BBC Sport feature about his unlikely rise to the top, but those who have followed the continent’s sport extensively will already have been well aware of his qualities.
Despite taking up a conservative position in the Parma midfield, Acquah possesses the composure and ball control to be an offensive threat for a side, as well as a steady influence. He loves charging forward through the heart of the pitch but is also versatile enough to contribute in other areas of the team.
In truth, Acquah is an outside bet for the World Cup, due mainly to the Black Stars' myriad midfield options.
If Kwesi Appiah does turn to him, however, he will find a player more mobile than Michael Essien, more disciplined than Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and fresher than Mohammed Rabiu or Anthony Annan.