Ranking the Top 20 African Players in La Liga History

Ed Dove@EddydoveContributor IIIJuly 22, 2014

Ranking the Top 20 African Players in La Liga History

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    It is fair to say that African players haven’t made the same kind of impact in La Liga as they have in other major leagues across Europe.

    Regardless, a number of the continent’s stars have made valuable contributions to the Spanish top flight.

    This list celebrates the top 20 players to have made an impact in Spain’s top division. We acknowledge those who have won titles, those who have broken records and, perhaps most importantly, those who have stolen the hearts of fans and observers alike.

20. Arouna Kone

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    When thinking of Arouna Kone, do not consider the injury-stricken veteran who has had a disastrous time since moving to Everton a year ago. The fans at Goodison Park have only seen the Ivorian hitman in fits and starts and are yet to truly appreciate his explosive pace and fine finishing.

    Supporters of Levante, however, are much more acutely aware of his abilities.

    The West African spent the 2011-12 campaign on loan at the club from Sevilla and managed almost a goal every other game with the Frogs.

    His superb forward play helped the team into the Europa League (following a sixth-place finish), and he also managed to score the winning goal in a rare 1-0 victory over Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid.

19. Lassad

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    In the 2008-09 season, the LFP Awards recognised Lassad Nouioui as runner-up (to Sergio Busquets) for Breakthrough Player of the campaign.

    The youngster had finally earned some playing time in the Deportivo La Coruna first team and bagged a handful of important goals, notably a penalty in a 1-1 draw away against RCD Mallorca.

    He managed two further goals in his first campaign but unfortunately was largely unable to build on his exciting early showings. Seven more La Liga goals followed over the next two campaigns before he perhaps found his level in 2011-12 in the second tier.

    Injuries unfortunately took their toll, and Lassad drifted away from the central narratives of European (and Tunisian) football.

18. Ike Uche

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    It was a surprising move when Nigeria manager Stephen Keshi chose to omit Ike Uche from his 30-man provisional World Cup squad. The Super Eagles aren’t blessed with magnificent offensive resources, and the Villarreal striker was coming off the back of a 14-goal season.

    In fact, the forward bagged 14 goals in only 19 top-flight starts—a terrific record. Only 13 players scored more, and none of them started as few games or achieved a better shots-per-goal ratio (1.5 attempts per match), per WhoScored.com.

    If there was any doubt before this season, there isn't now: Uche is a poacher who deserves recognition.

    Now that the Nigerian (the perennial flat-track bully in the Segunda) has overcome his injuries and transferred his goalscoring talents to the top flight, he is finally delivering on his early career promise.

    It’s just unfortunate that the Super Eagles are turning a blind eye.

17. Yacine Brahimi

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    Playmaker Yacine Brahimi largely struggled to realise his potential in France with Stade Rennais. He arrived at the club and was heralded as its future but was eventually sold to Spanish side Granada after a season-long loan.

    Over two campaigns in Spain, Brahimi made 64 appearances. Again, consistency hasn’t always been his forte, but the games when the Algerian has shined have been hard to forget.

    Last season there were goals in 1-0 victories over Elche and eventual champions Barcelona, while he also contributed two assists in the 3-1 victory over Malaga back in November 2013.

    Such showings and his exciting appearances for the Desert Foxes at the World Cup have generated extensive interest in his signature this summer. John Cross of the Daily Mirror acknowledged that Roma, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur were all interested in the player.

16. Carlos Kameni

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    While African goalkeepers often face stereotypical dismissal across Europe, you’re unlikely to find as much close-mindedness in Spain. La Liga has been a home for a number of superb African stoppers, and they in turn have thrived in Iberia.

    Many are celebrated in this list, but the first is Cameroon keeper Idriss Carlos Kameni.

    After spending time with Le Havre and Saint-Etienne, the 6-footer joined Espanyol in 2004. Over the next eight years he went on to make over 200 appearances for the club.

    He arrived as a raw 20-year-old and two seasons later claimed the starting berth from Gorka Iraizoz. Things turned sour as the club’s fortunes changed, but Kameni at least broke his compatriot Thomas N’Kono’s record for minutes played without conceding.

    The stopper also won the Copa del Rey with the Catalan side.

    He left for Malaga in early 2012 after losing the faith of Mauricio Pochettino. After playing second fiddle to Willy Caballero for a couple of seasons, the Argentine’s departure gives Kameni an opportunity to reignite a career that has stalled badly.

15. Salif Keita

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    Seydou Keita, the former Barcelona midfielder, features later in this list. His uncle, Salif, was arguably Mali’s first footballing superstar.

    He certainly blazed a trail for compatriots like Frederic Kanoute, Mahamadou Diarra and Momo Sissoko to follow.

    He managed 23 goals in 74 appearances for Valencia during a three-year stay, and while this was not a period of great success for club or (relatively) for player, he still left an impression on the Valencians.

    Evidence for this can be found in the fact that he overcame initial racism to earn the fond nickname La Perla Negra de Mali.

    The 1970 African Footballer of the Year could have thrived even more in Spain had he been played in the right position.

14. Finidi George

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    For a nation that has produced so much sublime footballing talent, Nigerians have made a relatively small impact in La Liga. While Malians and Cameroonians have thrived in Spain, Nigerians and Ghanaians have tended to gravitate to other major European leagues.

    Finidi George found fame elsewhere as well, namely in the Netherlands with Ajax, where he won three Dutch titles and a Champions League, but he spent some of his peak years in Spain.

    Initially, he had intended to move to Real Madrid, but when that didn’t work out he headed to Real Betis.

    Many a fine winger has floundered in Andalusia (see de Oliveira, Denilson) but Finidi did not.

    He scored an admirable 38 goals in 130 league appearances for the club and helped the Seville-based side to a Copa del Rey final and to fourth place in La Liga.

    He also stuck with the side following their 2000 relegation.

    In truth, regardless of the honours or the statistics, it’s hard not to make an impact if you can dribble and move as well as Finidi.

13. Lauren

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    Cameroon star Lauren helped Mallorca finish third in La Liga in 1999—it was an impressive achievement, as the islanders have only finished inside the top three in the division on one other occasion in their history.

    During his time in Spain (the Central African also featured for Levante) he was a much more attacking player than the one English fans became accustomed to during his celebrated time in North London.

    It was on the right wing where the Olympian, who was raised in Seville, made his name.

    He spent two years at Mallorca, making 63 league appearances in the process and winning a Supercopa de Espana.

    The real glory, however, would come under Arsene Wenger over the next six years.

12. Pierre Achille Webo

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    In eight years in La Liga, Pierre Achille Webo made 227 appearances and scored 47 goals. Not bad for a striker who typically turned out for some of the division’s lesser lights.

    He moved to Osasuna (from CD Leganes) in 2003 after only a few months in Spain and helped the Little Red Ones to fourth place in La Liga in the 2005-06 season.

    To put that achievement into context, the club haven’t finished higher than seventh since and have never achieved a higher place in La Liga.

    The performance in the top flight earned Osasuna a spot in the Champions League play-offs, though they would eventually come unstuck against HSV Hamburg, but Webo himself would have other occasions to play in the continent’s top club competition.

    After helping Osasuna to the final of the Copa del Rey he would go on to spend four years at Mallorca, becoming a distinguished figure at the club in the process.

11. Badou Ezzaki

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    Current Morocco coach Badou Ezzaki was, in his day, one of the finest goalkeepers in African football—he will surely go down in history as one of the continent’s greatest ever in his position.

    The beginning and end of his career was spent in his homeland with AS Sale, Wydad Casablanca and FUS Rabat; for six years from 1986, however, he starred in La Liga for Mallorca.

    The club has a fine tradition of promoting African players, but before the relative highs brought about by Cameroonians such as Samuel Eto’o, Lauren and Pierre Webo, it was Ezzaki who was a pioneering figure at the club.

    The excellent shot-stopper made 161 appearances for the islanders and helped the club to sixth in La Liga in 1987, which was then their highest-ever position in the top flight..

    He also helped the club to the Copa del Ray final in 1991 before departing a year later.

10. Thomas N'Kono

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    The footballing world has Thomas N’Kono to thank for the magnificence that is Gianluigi Buffon. It was the Cameroonian international stopper who inspired the Italian World Cup winner to take up a career between the sticks.

    Perhaps N’Kono didn’t quite reach the levels of the Azzuri great, but nevertheless he was one of Africa’s greatest stoppers and an accomplished La Liga custodian.

    He made over 300 appearances for Espanyol, 241 of which came in the Spanish top flight, and was one of the country’s most fearsome goalkeepers for almost a decade.

    Unfortunately, despite his years of excellent service, N’Kono was unable to prevent the side’s relegation in 1989.

9. Mohamed Sissoko

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    The fine Valencia generation appearing in the middle of the last decade has been a little overshadowed by the Spanish successes that have followed it. Nevertheless, the double-title-winning side forged by Rafael Benitez was a special collection of players who deserved their day in the sun.

    Mohamed Sissoko may have arrived a little late to the party, coming two seasons after the team’s second Champions League final, but the Malian midfielder deserves recognition for his contribution.

    He won the La Liga title in 2004 and picked up both the UEFA Cup and the Super Cup while with Los Che.

    His career since then has unfortunately largely flattered to deceive. He is currently back in Spain with Levante but at 29 isn’t quite at the level many had expected of him.

8. Jacques Songo'o

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    Cameroon keeper Jacques Songo’o was one of the key figures in the 1999-2000 season, when Deportivo La Coruna picked up their first and (to date) only La Liga title.

    This triumph came three seasons after he won the prestigious Zamora Trophy, the award given to the best keeper in the league. In winning this honour, Songo’o became only the second non-Spaniard to earn such recognition and the first-ever non-European to do so.

    Putting this achievement into context, Songo’o's award came after 44 consecutive seasons of exclusively Spanish goalkeepers topping the clean-sheet charts.

    The stopper also represented Cameroon at four World Cups and picked up 46 caps.

7. Frederic Kanoute

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    Unlike some of the other players on this list, Kanoute’s goals didn’t quite translate into honours. Nevertheless, he was a ferocious goalscorer who, in Spain at least, could be relied upon to hit the net with unflinching reliability. In 209 appearances for Sevilla, he scored 89 goals.

    The Champions League trophy and Premier League or La Liga titles may have eluded him, but two UEFA Cups, two Copa del Reys, the UEFA Super Cup and the Spanish Super Cup is a decent haul.

    Beyond Spain, in 2007 Kanoute became the first non-African-born player to win the African Footballer of the Year award, and after playing 16 times (and scoring 11 goals) for the French U21s he featured in three African Cup of Nations tournaments with Mali.

6. Noureddine Naybet

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    It’s intriguing to imagine what Noureddine Naybet’s career might have been like had rumours of a move to Manchester United actually resulted in a switch to Old Trafford and the Premier League, as per The Independent. Perhaps the Moroccan would have become one of the most celebrated defenders of a generation—he certainly had the quality.

    Instead, Naybet stayed at Deportivo La Coruna, where he represented the club with consistent excellence for eight years.

    The highlight of his stay in Galicia was surely the club’s magical La Liga triumph in 2000. It was the first time that Deportivo had claimed the domestic title, and they haven’t been back since.

    During Naybet’s time in Spain he established himself as one of Africa’s finest-ever defenders and, for a time at least, one of Europe’s best in his position.

    He did eventually move to the Premier League, joining Tottenham Hotspur in 2006. By then, however, his best years were behind him.

5. Mahamadou Diarra

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    Things may have tailed off in recent years as the ravages of time and injury have taken their toll, but when people look back at Mahamadou Diarra’s career, one key fact will stand out.

    Between 2002 and 2008, the Mali international won six consecutive league titles. Few players can claim this, least of all in two of Europe’s major leagues.

    The first quartet were won with Olympique Lyonnais before he moved to the Real Madrid in 2006.

    By winning the La Liga title in his first season, Diarra helped the Spanish giants to end a four-year trophy drought.

    Diarra brought the kind of fine positioning, astute tackling, energy and aggression that the Madrid midfield had been lacking and crucially contributed the kind of stable presence that had been absent since the departure of Claude Makelele in 2003.

4. Geremi

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    Admittedly, Geremi was no Galactico, but while that policy brought a whole host of superstars to the club, the Cameroonian was the ballast.

    Vicente del Bosque admitted as much in 2007, describing Geremi and England international Steve McManaman to Futbol AS as the two men who “hacian equipo”, i.e. “made the team.” The two selfless players kept things ticking over and provided the support for their more celebrated teammates.

    But that’s not to say that Geremi couldn’t play.

    He was a versatile operator who played up and down the right flank but was also capable of controlling a game from the base of midfield.

    He may have been a utility player, but Geremi still picked up a La Liga winner’s medal, two Champions League titles and the Spanish Supercopa.

    Tellingly, for those who denigrate his talent, he was also nominated for the Ballon d’Or in 2000.

3. Yaya Toure

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    Kolo Toure once said that his younger brother was a better player than him. People laughed and praised his modesty.

    By the time Yaya Toure signed for Barcelona in the summer of 2007, people were beginning to suspect that Kolo had been right all along.

    While at Manchester City, the younger Toure has imposed himself by advancing up the pitch, taking offensive roles and driving his team forward often from a No. 10 position. At Barcelona, it was the opposite.

    There, the former Monaco man demonstrated his versatility by occasionally dropping deep into the back line and playing as a central defender. He took such a role in the triumphant 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United before being replaced altogether by a combination of Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano.

    Before leaving, he was an important figure in two La Liga triumphs.

2. Seydou Keita

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    Malian Seydou Keita was one of Pep Guardiola’s first signings upon his assumption of the Barcelona hot seat in the summer of 2008.

    The West African quickly earned the trust and respect of the manager, and while he never became a key first-team regular at Barcelona he was a crucial component in one of the greatest teams of all time. Keita’s selfless, team-centric qualities were exactly what the Catalonians needed within their dressing room of stars.

    The midfielder made over 100 league appearances for the club (to go alongside 31 for Sevilla and 11 for Valencia) and contributed to three La Liga triumphs.

    Beyond that, he also picked up two Copa del Reys, four Spanish Supercopas and, of course, two Champions League-winner’s medals. Tellingly, he featured in both of Barcelona’s victorious finals.

    He recently signed for Roma.

1. Samuel Eto'o

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    No African player past or present can compete with the impact made by Samuel Eto’o during his time in Spain.

    First of all, there were the goals.

    The legendary Cameroon hitman won the Pichichi Trophy for La Liga top scorer in 2005-06 and was only one goal behind Diego Forlan the season before.

    Only 14 players have scored more than the current free agent in the league’s history, while Eto’o has scored more than Ferenc Puskas despite having played 120 games less in the top flight. His goals-to-games ratio comfortably puts him in the top 15 ahead of David Villa and Raul.

    No Mallorca player has ever scored more.

    Finally, his goals translated into silverware.

    Eto’o’s excellent forward play has contributed to three La Liga title victories for Barcelona, while beyond that he also won two Champions League titles, the Copa del Rey (both with Barca and Mallorca) and two Spanish Supercopas in Catalonia.