Ranking the Top 20 Africans to Play in La Liga
La Liga doesn’t quite have a tradition of African players like the Premier League or Ligue 1 for example, however, several of the continent’s favourite sons have starred in the Spanish top flight.
This feature runs down the Top 20 African players to have played in La Liga. Largely, those mentioned are no longer playing in Spain, but there are a few that do and some who may be in line to make a return.
This article ranks players based on their contributions and achievements in Spain, rather than beyond. Therefore, star players such as Michael Essien—who made his name in foreign lands before arriving in Spain—have not been considered.
20. Arouna Kone
What a disastrous campaign it’s been for Arouna Kone at Everton. Ruled out for the entire season, the Goodison Park faithful have only had five league games in which to glimpse the talent of their summer acquisition.
Any Blues fans keen for a better look at their man may want to invest in the Levante 2011-12 season review.
During that campaign, while on loan at the club from Sevilla, Kone averaged somewhere close to a goal every other game and helped the side qualify for the Europa League for the first time.
Kone also scored the only goal of the game in a 1-0 victory over Real Madrid.
19. Mutiu Adepoju
This Nigerian never made the grade at Real Madrid, despite being one of the top performers in the Castilla and the B Team, but still went on to enjoy a fine career in La Liga.
He thrived in Spain, with Racing Santander, Real Sociedad and Salamanca, playing 175 times in La Liga and scoring 22 goals in the process.
He helped Racing to promotion to the top flight and played an influential role in keeping them up, often saving the day with a well-placed header or an effective late run into the box.
18. Ike Uche
Nigerian hitman Ike Uche has spent 12 years in Spanish football. Having moved to Racing Ferrol as a teenager, he has never left the nation’s sporting pyramid and featured for six different clubs.
Highlights haven’t always been forthcoming.
A purple period at Recreativo that brought 50 goals in 133 games resulted in the Segunda title and a subsequent eighth-place finish in La Liga, but, conversely, a move to Zaragoza didn’t work out.
Injuries plagued his stay at the club, which included separate spells of over six months each on the sidelines.
Following Villarreal’s relegation two years ago, Uche received an opportunity to join the Yellow Submarine. He was the team’s key striker in the Segunda and, proving he is no flat-track bully, has continued his form in the top flight this season.
In January he scored his first professional hat-trick and, to date, has scored 12 goals in 17 starts in the top flight this season.
17. Mustapha Hadji
Hadji’s star truly shone in the Premier League, with Coventry City and then, a little dimmer, with Aston Villa.
However, his defining contribution to the world game will always be his stunning individual performance and goal against Norway at the 1998 World Cup.
It was a dribble and a finish that showed off all of his key attributes: agility, balance, innovation, creativity and imagination.
At the time of that goal, he was starring with Deportivo La Coruna in Spain, and later returned to the country to play for Espanyol.
16. Badou Ezzaki
Ezzaki is one of many African players whose aura and abilities didn’t quite generate into tangible honours.
He was a fine shot-stopper who starred for Morocco during a strong era for the Maghreb region.
He also enjoyed a six year stint with Real Mallorca, making 161 appearances in the process. He was present in 1987 when the side finished 6th—at the time their highest-ever position in the top flight—and was with the club during their run to the Copa del Rey final in 1991.
15. Didier Zokora
After being deemed surplus to requirements at Tottenham Hotspur in 2009, Didier Zokora signed for Sevilla—adding the Spanish league to his previous experiences in England, France, Belgium and his homeland, the Cote d’Ivoire.
His spell in La Liga was brief—he amassed just a half-century of appearances—but he did manage to help the club to the Copa del Rey final.
Zokora played the full 90 minutes in the heart of the midfield as Los Palanganas beat Atletico Madrid 2-0.
The club haven’t won an honour since.
14. Salif Keita
Salif Keita, the uncle of namesake Seydou, was arguably Mali’s first footballing superstar. The striker received his first call-up at the age of 16 and helped the Eagles to second place in the 1972 African Cup of Nations.
While his finest domestic achievements came in France or, to a lesser extent, Mali or Portugal, he also enjoyed a fine three-year spell with Valencia.
He joined the club just after their fourth La Liga title win, and while they were largely a mid-table side during his stay, he managed an admirable scoring return and overcame initial racism to earn the nickname La Perla Negra de Mali.
13. Finidi George
Nigerian winger Findi George was, for a time at least, one of the finest right wingers in the world.
He burst onto the scene with Ajax, winning three Dutch titles and the Champions League before moving to Spain in 1996.
Originally, Real Madrid was his intended destination, but when that move fell through, he signed for Real Betis.
He enjoyed a terrific scoring rate with the club and was present as the Andalusian side made it to the Copa del Rey final, before being beaten by Barcelona after extra time.
Finidi was one of Betis’s star players as they managed to claim fourth place in La Liga and remained loyal to the club following their relegation in 2000.
Before moving to Arsenal and becoming a key member of the Invincibles side, Lauren Etame Mayer spent the early portion of his career in Spain.
He was raised in Seville and, before moving to England in 2000, turned out for Utrera, Sevilla’s reserve side, Levante and Mallorca. He returned to the country in 2010 for a brief cameo at Cordoba before retirement.
During his two years and 63 league performances for Mallorca, he operated in a more advanced role than the one he assumed at Arsenal and helped the club to third in the table in 1999.
He also picked up a Supercopa de Espana with the islanders.
11. Pierre Achille Webo
The Fenerbahce forward enjoyed eight fine years in Spain before moving to Turkey, initially with Istanbul BB, in 2011.
After a stint in Uruguay he was picked up by CD Leganes in 2003. However, after being palpably too good for the second division, he was snapped up by Osasuna later that year.
The highlight of his time with the club was the 2005-06 season, when they claimed fourth-place in La Liga, advancing to the Champions League play-off round in the process.
Putting that achievement into context, neither before nor since have Osasuna ever been higher than fourth in the league.
He also helped the club to the final of the Copa del Rey.
Webo spent a further four years at Mallorca, becoming a key player for Los Bermellones in the process.
His La Liga record is 47 goals in 227 appearances.
10. Thomas N'Kono
While N’Kono, in the context of the Cameroon national side, often had to compete with Joseph-Antoine Bell for a starting berth, he was the undisputed starter at Espanyol for almost a decade.
During that time he played over 300 times for the side—241 of which came in the league—and established himself as one of Spain’s finest stoppers in the process.
Such was his influence in the late eighties and early nineties that it was N’Kono who influenced a young Gianluigi Buffon to pursue a career in net.
9. Mohamed Sissoko
It is fair to say that Mohamed Sissoko has lost his way a little bit. After coming through the prestigious Auxerre academy and being picked up by Valencia in 2003, we expected great things. His is a career that has, too often, flattered to deceive.
Now 29 and nominally in his prime, Sissoko is back in La Liga, but now playing for lowly Levante—a club that lacks the prestige of his previous employers Liverpool, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.
It is unlikely that Sissoko will repeat the La Liga triumph he enjoyed with Valencia back in 2004. Then, under the tutelage of Rafael Benitez, he was part of a fantastic generation that also won the UEFA Cup and the Super Cup.
8. Jacques Songo'o
Despite a fine history of African goalkeepers in La Liga, only one of them has ever won the prestigious Zamora trophy.
Jacques Songo’o, who won 46 caps for Cameroon, won the award—which is given to the keeper with the lowest goals-to-games ratio of the season—in 1997.
In doing so, he became only the second non-Spaniard to win the title, and the first-ever non-European to do so. Putting this into context, his triumph came after 44 consecutive years of Spanish dominance.
He also won La Liga with Deportivo in 2000 and represented Cameroon at four different World Cups between 1990 and 2002.
7. Frederic Kanoute
Kanoute will be remembered as a superb goal-scorer and the first non-African born player to win the African Footballer of the Year award.
Despite being born near Lyon and playing for France’s U-21 side, he enjoyed an international career with Mali.
He may never have won a major league title or the Champions League, but his seven years at Sevilla saw him bag an impressive 89 goals in 209 outings and win two UEFA Cups, two Copa del Reys, the UEFA Super Cup and the Spanish Super Cup.
6. Noureddine Naybet
For eight years, Noureddine Naybet represented Deportivo La Coruna with consistent excellence. During this period he established himself as one of Africa’s finest ever defenders and, toward the end of the nineties, one of Europe’s most-accomplished centre-backs.
The highlight of his time in Galicia was Depor’s magical La Liga triumph of 2000—to date the club’s only league title.
He was linked with a move to Manchester United, but eventually opted to see out his best years in Spain before moving to the Premier League with Spurs in 2006.
5. Mahamadou Diarra
Between 2002 and 2008 Mahamadou Diarra won six consecutive league championships.
Four of these came in France, with Lyon, and following his transfer to Spain in 2006, he won a further two more at the heart of the Real Madrid midfield.
He also picked up the Supercopa de Espana in 2008 and the Copa del Rey in 2011, before his departure to Monaco.
The Mali captain brought aggression, fine positioning, tough tackling and impressive energy to the Madrid midfield.
You may be surprised to learn how, in 2007, Vicente Del Bosque named Geremi and Steve McManaman as the two men who “hacian equipo”—made the team—at Real Madrid. While the Galacticos policy forged great imbalances at the club, it was the Englishman and the Cameroonian who, according to Del Bosque, kept things ticking along.
Geremi made 45 league appearances for Real Madrid during four contracted years, and while he was never a consistent first-team player, he was nominated for the Ballon d’Or in 2000.
He was a two-time Champions League winner at the club, a one-time La Liga champion and, on one occasion, won the Supercopa de Espana.
3. Yaya Toure
Yaya Toure’s narrative seems to suggest that the Ivorian has taken his game to another level at Manchester City, in the Premier League, under the tutelage of Roberto Mancini.
This may all be true, but to me it often seems to overlook or denigrate the midfielder’s fine career in Spain.
It’s true that Toure wasn’t afforded such a dynamic, dominant, offensive role in Catalonia but, nonetheless, he was an important figure in two La Liga triumphs at the club and won the Champions League in 2009.
2. Seydou Keita
Despite never consistently holding down a first-team spot at Barcelona, Keita amassed over 100 league appearances for the club and won a hatful of honours in Catalonia.
Having been one of Pep Guardiola’s first signings following his arrival in the summer of 2008, Keita quickly made himself one of the manager’s favourites. During six years at the club he proved himself to be wholly selfless and admirably team-centric.
He was a key man during the club’s glory years and picked up three La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues and a whole host of other domestic and continental honours.
He is currently back in the division with Valencia and previously won the Supercopa de Espana with Sevilla.
1. Samuel Eto'o
Really, could anyone else have topped this list?
For two consecutive seasons, 2004-05 and 2005-06, Samuel Eto’o was the top scorer in La Liga.
Before that, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo di Stefano, Mario Kempes and Hugo Sanchez were the only foreign players to have retained the prestigious honour.
That’s some company to be keeping!
Among the all-time top scorers in La Liga history, Samuel Eto’o’s goals-to-games ratio is comfortably in the Top 15, and only 14 players have scored more than him.
Here is a man whose goals have translated into achievements as well: with Mallorca he won the Copa del Rey, while at Barcelona his immense trophy haul includes three La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues and a whole host of other domestic honours.
He remains Mallorca’s all-time top scorer.
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