As long football has been played on an international level, the sport has been dominated by South America and Europe. So much so that only two teams have ever finished in the top four outside of those continents (the US finished 3rd in 1930 and South Korea finished 4th in 2002). The reasons behind these trends are deeply rooted in the culture, economics, and politics of regions and are much too vast to begin to parse out here.
But as of late there have been more newcomers to the game that are making their presence felt at every international tournament. Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia have been constant threats out of Asia; Australia has improved the game of Oceania; and the rivalry between the US and Mexico has become one of the most compelling ones in the game.
However, no region has seen the level of talent rise so dramatically in the past three decades as Africa.
The world's second-largest continent has had the sport since European settlers brought it to them. It became a favorite of the indigenous people. In the contemporary setting of civil war, mass poverty, and widespread disease, the game has become much more than a means of entertainment. It is a way to a better life for individuals and their families.
Again the reasons for this rise are complex, but nonetheless there are few top teams in Europe that do not have an African player dawning their colors. Africa has become one of the most highly-scouted regions by the best of clubs around the world.
With the African Cup of Nations underway, I figure it was time to look back at the great footballers who have graced our presence already.
This list is a look back at the history of African football, by putting together an all African-Team. The best eleven players from the continent to ever lace up a pair of cleats. The criteria is based on not only what you did they did for their country, but how they played for their club as well.
I am sure there will be disputes, which I always encourage, so please let me know your two cents as there is a good argument for many more who did not make the list.
Carlos Kameni—Cameroon, GK: The current Malaga keeper was the youngest footballer to ever win and Olympic gold medal at age 16 in the 2000 games.
Michael Essien—Ghana, MID: The Chelsea holding midfielder has been a staple of the club ever since he arrived at West London in 2005. He won the BBC African Footballer of the year in 2006.
Hossam Hassan- Egypt, FW: Hassan is the most capped African of all time for a national side, making 169 appearances and scoring 69 goals in his 21-year career.
Nwanko Kanu—Nigeria, FW: The Portsmouth striker has one of the most impressive European resumes of any African — a Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, and Intercontinental Cup.
Geremi—Cameroon, MID: A shutdown and versatile player was always a major contributor for whatever team he was on. Also had 166 caps for the Indomitable Lions.
Roger Milla—Cameroon, FW: In a continent dominated by forwards, he is one of the most prolific scorers ever. In 2006 the CAF voted him the best African Player of the last century.
Steven Pienaar—South Africa, MID: One of the best South Africans to ever play the game, he was instrumental in making sure that one of the lowest-seeded teams ever in a World Cup was not embarrassed.
Emmanuel Eboue—Ivory Coast, DF: The strong and stout Ivorian has been a fan favorite at Arsenal since his arrival in 2005, getting them to the Champions League final in his first year.
Yaya Toure—Ivory Coast, DF/MID: The younger brother of Kolo has won nearly everything there is to win in his time at Barcelona.
When you look at African teams, more often than not the biggest weakness is always standing between the pipes. However, if you played Cameroon between 1976 and 1994 that would not have been the case.
The almost two-decade career of one of the most prolific goalies in African history saw unprecedented domination by a single African side.
He would represent Cameroon in the 1982, 1990, and 1994 World Cups, with his best showing in 1990. After winning their group that year, they would go on to beat Colombia in the first knock-out round to meet England in the quarterfinals. That game would go into extra time on a late penalty goal from England. In the extra time. England would be rewarded another penalty that proved to be the game winner.
At age 27 he would make the move to Europe for the Spanish side Espanyol. In nine years for the Catalan side, he would play in 241 games. In 1988 he would help guide his team to the 1988 UEFA Cup final.
Back in Africa, in the Cameroon colors, Nkono gave his national team their first ever Africa Nations Cup in 1984. He would win the award for African Footballer of the Year that same season to accompany his first, which he won in 1979.
Though he would retire in 1996, he was not quite ready to leave the game behind. Today he has become one the most prominent names in Cameroonian youth development.
Defense has not always be a strong point in African football, but for South Africa they can find their biggest star on the back line.
Lucas Radebe grew up in one of the most tumultuos times in the nation's history. The Apartheid era of the 1980's was a dangerous time to be black in South Africa. The future star was sent to Buphuthatswana by his parents to avoid the violence. It was there that he learned to play soccer.
In 1989 the countrie's giant club Kaiser Chiefs signed Radebe. In his 5 years in Soweto, he would win the MTN 8 Cup (the oldest cup in South African football) every year he was there.
His success caught the attention of the English club Leeds United, who singed him in 1994. He was an instant fan favorite as his absolute dominance on defense helped the club experience its most successful stint in its history.
As captain of the team they would finish fourth once and third another time in the league. Both positions put them into European competitions and make it all the way to the Champions League semifinals in 2000.
His play was noticed by nearly every big club in the world. Many managers, including Alex Ferguson and Fabio Capello, remarked on the South African's defensive skills, but Radebe was too loyal to Leeds to even consider leaving for one Europe's super clubs.
However, he would not be able to escape the financial implosion that would devastate the club in 2001. He was sold off in liquidation.
To this day, Radebe remains one of the most loved and praised names around Elland Road. His play and devotion to the club, even through the tough times, was a true depiction of his character.
His testimonial game was one of the largest in team history, with a crowd of over 37,000 fans and some of the biggest stars, past and present, playing.
He would also represent South Africa in 70 games and captain the team that would win the 1996 Africa Nations Cup, as well as the World Cup teams of 1998 and 2002.
Post-playing days he would become one of the most charitable men in South Africa. He works closely with his good friend Nelson Mandela and FIFA to help rid the football world of racism.
With a player like Radebe, it's difficult to tell whether he was more important on the field winning games or off the field making the world a better place.
Many of the great African players establish themselves in their home nation or work their way up through the ranks before joining a big-time club. This was not the case for Samuel Kuffour.
At age 15, Kuffour was bought by Torino F.C. Two years later he would be sold to Bayern Munich, where he would spend the next 12 years of his incredible career, winning more European silverware than any African had to date.
After a season on loan to F.C. Nuremburg, he would return to Munich in 1996 and at the age of 18 become a regular sight on the German giant's back line. That same season he would become the youngest defender to ever score in a Champions League match. His 60 plus appearances in Europe's greatest competition is also the most by any African player.
That would be the first accomplishment in a long line of highlights. In his 12 seasons for Bayern, Kuffor would win the German Cup four times (1997–98, 1999–2000, 2002–03, 2004–05), the League Cup five times (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004), the Bundesliga six times (1996–97, 1998–99, 1999–2000, 2000–01, 2002–03, 2004–05), and Champions League once (2000-01).
However, the moment that many Bayern fans remember Kuffour best for is the iconic image of the Ghanian breaking down in tears after their epic injury time implosion to Manchester United in the 1999 Champions League Final. The sight made him highly regarded by the fans, that such a young player with a bright future would take losing to heart.
In 2005 he left Bayern on a free transfer to Roma. He would bounce around on different loan spells in Italy, but never regain the form he saw in Germany. He would retire from professional football in 2009.
Kuffour's international career began even earlier than his days at Bayern. In 1991, at only 13 years of age, he would win the U-17 World championship and would be runner-up in 1993. At the 1992 Olympics, just before he turned 16, he was on the Ghana team that would get a bronze medal.
At age 17 he would begin his 13 year career with the senior team and by the age of 23 he was captaining the Black Stars. He would also play in the 2006 World Cup, which would be his last appearance for his national side.
His physical power that dominated the world's best forwards earned him multiple individual awards, including Ghana's Footballer of the Year in 1998, 1999, 2001 and African Footballer of the Year in 1999 and 2001.
In his prime, Kuffour was one of the best defenders in the world. Though he would never enjoy much success with his national side, his contribution to Bayern Munich has made him legendary for the German juggernauts.
Every sport has their bloodlines. Football has the Mannings, baseball has the Boones, hockey has the Hulls, and soccer has the Toures. The Ivorian family has produced three professional players, but at age 30 the eldest, Kolo, is the only one to earn a starting spot on his team.
Kolo moved from his native club ASEC Mimosas to Premier League giant Arsenal in the winter of 2002. The following season he would make his debut in a Gunners uniform—what would begin a seven year stay in North London.
Originally signed to be a midfield utility player, Arsene Wenger moved him to the back line where he would be partnered with central defender Sol Campbell. The two men would form amazing chemistry on the field and help guide Arsenal to the Premier League crown in 2003-04 season, completing a feat that hadn't been accomplished in 115 years by a top flight English team—an undefeated season.
By the start of the 2005-06 season Kolo established himself as one of the premier center backs in the world. His dominance would help Arsenal reach the finals of the Champions League that season. For a team that featured an attack with Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, and Fredrik Ljungberg, it was the defense that got them there setting a Champions League record of 10 consecutive clean sheets.
In the summer of 2009 Kolo was one of the first signings in the overhaul taking place at Manchester City. In his first season he would captain the Citizens to a fifth-place finish.
In March of the following year, the Ivorian's career would take a turn as he failed a drug test. He is currently serving a six-month ban during the investigation.
He began playing for his national side at the age of 19. Ever since then he has been a regular on the Elephants back line, making 85 appearances in the last 11 years. He also has been on the only two teams the Ivory Coast has ever had in the World Cup, and was the starting center back on the runner-up team at the 2006 African Cup of Nations.
His dominating defense was also matched by an equal eagerness to advance the ball. He often would carry the ball down three-quarters of the field if given the space and aggressively attacked the net on set pieces. This offensive awareness made him a duel threat that is rare in a center back of his quality.
Resilient and long-lasting are two adjectives that best describe the lanky Cameroonian defender. Over his long, proud career, which covers a span of 15 years, he accomplished more than many African players ever have, featuring in four World Cups between 1994 and 2010.
He began his professional career in Cameroon before moving on to Metz in France. He became a starter there immediately and helped the team to the Coupe de la Ligue in 1996, giving them their first trophy in almost a decade.
From there he had an unsuccessful stint with Italian side Salernitana before moving to Liverpool. Again, he became an instant hit and won over fans with strong physical play that characterized the Anfield mentality. However, he lost his starting spot at the beginning of the 2000-01 campaign after a previous season in which he missed three months of the campaign due to international call-ups.
After bouncing between West Ham, Köln and Lens, Song eventually found himself in Turkey, where he played for both Galatasaray and Trabzonspor. His personality and play won over the fans instantly and he was always a strong figure in the club until his retirement in 2010.
In all his club career saw him winning three league titles in Turkey and two league cups in addition to the French trophy.
However, his real legacy lies in his national team play. Always proud of his country, he never turned down a call-up and even argued with club managers for the right to play for his Indomitable Lions. He holds the prestigious records of being the most capped Cameroonian of all-time (137) and most featured in four World Cups. He also helped guide them to two straight Africa Cup of Nations (2000 and 2002).
But more importantly, for over a decade he remained the face of Cameroonian football. As captain for much of his career (and even when he was dropped in 2009), he was the personality that the world identified with the hard-playing and aggressive Lions, which were a constant contender at competitions in the early part of the millennium.
Much of the African talent gets funneled through France. This has to do mostly with colonial factors of Africa’s west coast, where many of the continent's best players hail from. It makes for an easier transition for the players aboard as they are somewhat familiar with the customs and language, but none may have been as comfortable as Abedi “Pele”.
He earned the name Pele after he drew comparisons to the great Brazilian for his incredibly innovative technical ability on the ball.
For nearly a decade, Ayew bounced around the world, playing on teams from the Mideast and across Europe until he finally landed at Marseille in 1990. There he spent three seasons as an integral part of a midfield that won four straight French championships and appeared in 2 Champions League finals. In 1991 and 1992 he was also a high-finishing finalist for the FIFA World Player of the Year, one of the first times an African had ever received such recognition.
As a Black Star, he scored a record 33 goals in his career, helping them to an Africa Cup of Nations in 1982. At the 1992 tournament he turned in what is considered one of the best performances by an individual at a tournament ever, as he led his country with three goals and to the finals, where they fell to the Ivory Coast in a shootout.
However, Ayew is best remembered today as one of the great ambassadors of the game. No African player has ever participated in more FIFA-organized charity matches than the Ghanaian, and he has used his on-field success to help his native country and others. He was awarded the country’s highest honor as a civil servant, the Order of the Volta, the first ever given to an athlete.
What he did on the field inspired millions of Africans to pick up a ball and play the game. But what he did off it will resonate much longer throughout the region.
Africa has long been known for producing some of the best strikers in the game, but those talismen would be nothing without effective midfield play to get them the ball. Lakhdar Belloumi was one of these players.
The midfielder is widely regarded as one of the greatest African players ever and arguably the greatest Algerian. He is said to have invented the blind pass that so many superstars are keen on using in today's game. He is also the only player on this list that never left Africa for Europe; not for a lack of offers, but rather for devotion to his continent.
He began his professional career in 1976 for his home club GC Mascara and MC Oran. He would spend his entire career bouncing back and forth between the two clubs (aside from a short stint for MC Alger while serving mandatory military service and one season playing in Qatar).
He would win two league championships in his career: one in 1984 with GC Mascara and one in 1988 with MC Oran.
His international career began in 1978. Two years later he would represent Algeria in the 1980 Olympic games, where they would finish second in their group and lose to Yugoslavia in the first knockout round.
He would go on to be on the 1982 and 1986 World Cup teams and score the winning goal in an upset 2-1 victory over star-studded West Germany.
He would end his career with 147 caps and 37 goals for the Desert Foxes in 1989.
In his 23-year career he won awards such as Best Forward at the African Nations Cup (1980), Best Scorer African Nations Cup 1988, African Footballer of the Year (1981), and was voted the fourth-best African Footballer of the last century by the IFFHS.
The fact that Belloumi never made his way across the Mediterranean to Europe kept him in relative obscurity in his time. The world was only exposed to him every four years at the World Cup. But when they did, he was often compared to the great contemporaries of his time, such as Pele and Maradona.
Before there was Messi, there was Maradona. But sandwiched between the two was the best attacking midfielder in African history: Jay-Jay Okocha.
The Nigerian possessed a technical level of skill unseen before in the continent. His dribbles became legendary wherever he played and his shots rocketed off both his left and right foot. Though he did not score much, it was brilliant when he did.
Okocha had a typical childhood in the large West African country. He enjoyed the game of football, playing at any chance he had, and mostly with a makeshift ball in the streets.
After playing with the local club Enugu Rangers, German third division side Borussia Neunkirchen would sign him.
After two seasons he had made enough waves to be picked up by the first division team Eintracht Frankfurt in 1992. Once arriving he would almost immediately become a club favorite. His creative play in the midfield helped the team finish third in the league in his first season.
In 1995 the club would be relegated and Okocha would leave to join Fenerbahce. Again, success came quickly, as he would score 30 goals in 63 games during his stay in Istanbul.
At the end of the 1997-98 season, Okocha was sold to PSG for $24 million, making him the highest-priced African player at that time. After a short tenure there, where he would help finish runners-up in the league and win the domestic cup, he would join Bolton on a free transfer.
At Bolton his play had made him so delightful amongst the fans they gave him the nickname "Jay-Jay, so good they named him twice." In 124 games he would score only 14 goals, but for a team that is constantly in relegation battles they were all meaningful and many spectacular.
In 2005 he contributed to the best season in club history, finishing sixth in the league. That would be enough to put them in European competition for the first time in their history, in the UEFA Cup.
He would end his career with Hull City in 2008, the year they gained there first-ever promotion to the Premier League. However, injuires limited him to only 18 games before he ultimately decided to retire.
Okocha made his international debut in 1993 at the age of 20. The following year he would be a part of the Super Eagle squad that would win the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations and advance to the second round of the 1994 World Cup in the US.
In 1996 he would have his greatest tournament, with his nation being a member of the Olympic "dream team" that would take the gold in Atlanta.
Jay-Jay Okocha was one of the most skilled players to ever hail from Africa. His abilities on the ball made him a fan favorite on the pitch and his affable personality made him loved off of it.
For all the great talent that has come out of Africa there is perhaps none better than Liberian George Weah. He holds many distinctions that give him this honor, including being voted the best African player of the century, five league titles, and, most importantly, the first and only African to ever win the FIFA World Player of the year.
Weah began his career in Cameroon before moving on to Arsene Wenger’s Monaco team in 1988. After establishing himself there, he moved on to PSG, where he was an instant success as the top scorer in the 1994-95 Champions League and won the league the season beforehand.
Milan purchased the striker in the summer of 1995 and the season the calendar year he put together between the two sides was enough to earn him awards for European Footballer of the Year, African Footballer of the Year and FIFA World Player of the Year, beating out the likes of Paulo Maldini and Jurgen Klinsmann.
Though his success in Europe is undeniable, he was always left out in the cold when it came to international matches. His native Liberia never had the team around him to support his supreme talent, despite his best efforts to raise their level of play. He did everything from play, to coach, to even financing their trips (spending $2 million) in desperation to have them not only play great, but provide a pillar of hope for the wartorn nation of Liberia. But in the end it was never enough and it give him the bitter distinction of being the only FIFA World Player to never play in a World Cup.
After retiring in 2003, Weah became heavily involved in humanitarian projects for his native land and won the 2004 Arthur Ashe Courage award at the ESPY’s, an award he called “the greatest achievement in my life.” After unsuccessfully running for president in 2005, he has continued to attempt to improve the unsettled nation he calls home through charities and awareness events.
Weah had one of the most successful individual careers any African has ever had. He has gained fame and fortune that few will ever know. But in the end we must assume that something is left to be wanted as a man that was so invested in his roots was never able to showcase them on the world's stage.
For all the accomplishments of Weah on an individual level, he does not approach anywhere what Eto’o provided on ever team he played for. More appearances than any other African in La Liga, scoring in two separate Champions League finals and the only player to ever win two trebles with two different teams make him the most accomplished African in the history of the game.
After initially being plucked from his native Cameroon by Real Madrid, he was sold to Mallorca in 2000. For the next four years he would score 69 goals in 163 matches, becoming the club’s all-time domestic leading scorer and attracting the interest of Madrid rivals Barcelona.
In five seasons at Barcelona, Eto’o became one of the most accomplished African players of all time. He would score 130 goals in 200 appearances, win three La Ligas, two Champions Leagues and various individual awards, including being part of UEFA’s team of the year twice.
During the summer of 2009, Eto’o was sold off to Inter where he continued his winning ways. His first season in Milan saw him help the team to a Serie A title, Coppa Italia and Champions League trophy, making him the first and only player to ever win two trebles with two different teams.
In the summer of 2011, Russian upstart Anzhi Makhachkala offered the striker an egregious amount of money, €20 million after tax per season, to play for them. He accepted, making him the highest-paid player in the world, far exceeding the likes of Messi and Ronaldo.
For his native Cameroon he enjoyed just as much success, winning the Olympics in 2000 and two Africa Cup of Nations titles (2000 and 2002). On an individual level he holds records for most African Nations Cup goals (18) and being awarded African Footballer of the Year more than any other player (4).
Whether they be African, South American or European, every footballer in the world would die for the resume Eto’o has achieved over his amazing career.
Many of the African forwards are pure goal scorers, relying on speed and skill to find the net. Didier Drogba has the speed, skill, size and strength to make him one of the best all-around forwards to ever play the game.
The Ivorian was first brought to Europe by way of Le Mans, where he was effective but never able to truly make himself great. However, this did not stop Ligue 1 side Guingamp from seeing potential in such a large and strong player. He did not impress right away, but soon found his form and was able to help guide the side to a best-ever seventh place finish, scoring 17 goals in 34 appearences.
Marseille became interested in the striker and purchased him in the summer of 2003. Building on his success, this time in Europe, attracted the attention of new Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, who purchased him in the summer of 2004.
Over the next eight years, Drogba established himself as a wrecking ball in the English Premier League. His incredible speed combined with a strength that challenged the biggest of center backs made him a nightmare of a matchup. He could just as easily blow past you as spin you on his back.
He has 219 points in 363 matches in blue, been named to the PFA Team of the year, won the Golden Boot twice and was Chelsea’s player of the year in 2007. This all helped the club to three EPL titles, three FA cups and a Champions League final, but most importantly established Chelsea as an English world powerhouse.
For his native Ivory Coast, his 52 goals is an all-time record and it helped guide them to their first ever World Cup in 2006 and again in 2010. He also was named African Footballer of the Year in 2006 and 2009.
But for all his impressive ability on the field, Drogba will best be remembered as one of the most influential people in African history for his humanitarian work.
Understanding the luxuries that come with fame, he has always been an activist in his native community and respected by both sides of the warring nation. He even helped in peace negotiations, asking for a stop to the violence so the nation can get together behind the ’06 World Cup squad.
In 2010 he was named to TIME’s Top 100 list as an important person for his contributions to the continent and, in a poll of Africans, was listed as one of the most recognizable African faces, along with Nelson Mandela.