With the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations less than two months away, the eyes of world football gently turn to Africa – where a continent’s talent prepare to fight for their place to perform in South Africa.
This article identifies the continent’s ten hottest talents. Whilst not all of these men are in line to be competing at the tournament – every single one is guaranteed to generate headlines over the next few months.
10. Mohamed Salah
The last 18 months have been devastating for both Egypt, and the nation’s football; in a country where politics and sport are almost inextricably connected, this has made for a period of ruinous despair. It has been hard to write about Egyptian football without referring to the tragedies of Port Said or the civil upheaval of the Arab Spring, let alone the desperate performances of the Egyptian national team.
Beyond Al Ahly’s Champions League victory on Saturday evening against Espérance of Tunisia, the other positive has been Mohamed Salah.
Not a name familiar to many, the young Basle striker has proved himself to be one of Africa’s finest prospects. The player is a very special talent, particularly revered in his native Egypt, he is pencilled in to be the next Egyptian superstar. Currently impressing in the confines of the Swiss league, it may not be long before this bright young forward is gracing one of Europe’s top divisions.
9. Dieumerci Mbokani
Another striker flourishing in one of Europe’s less-heralded leagues is Congolese forward Dieumerci Mbokani. The former Zaire has a great tradition of producing top quality talent, and Mbokani is the latest in a line that stretches back to Shabani Nonda and the great Ndaye Mulamba before him.
The fallen giants of African football have been out of the spotlight in recent times, and thus were seeded in pot 4 for the Afcon draw, still, nobody wanted to come up against the Leopards, due in no part to their devastating frontman. Despite traipsing through a number of footballing outposts in his career to date, Mbokani combines power, guile, pace and commitment to offer a permanent menace.
For now, he is tormenting centrebacks in the Belgian league with Anderlecht, but it may not be long before one of Europe’s top side’s come calling for a player who seemingly guarantees goals.
8. Stephan El Shaarawy
Despite choosing to represent Italy at international level, El Shaarawy’s Egyptian heritage is no secret, and whilst Il Faraone is Egypt’s loss, he is most certainly Italy’s gain. The youngster made his Azzuri debut in August of this year, making a seamless transition to international duty with a cameo against England, before scoring his first goal for the national side against France three months later.
Growing up in Savona, in the Liguria region of the North West of Italy, it wasn’t long before El Shaarawy was snapped up for the area’s capital club, Genoa. The son of an Italian mother and an Egyptian father didn’t hesitate to make an impact, and after an impressive loan spell at Padova, caught the attention of Milan.
Whilst Italian football traditionally has a reputation for erring on the side of caution when it comes to introducing young talent to the fray, these are strange times, and with the Rossoneri undergoing a revolution of sorts under Massimiliano Allegri, the likes of El Shaarawy are being employed to fill the gaps left by the departure of veterans such as Clarence Seedorf, Mark van Bommel et al.
7. Kwadwo Asamoah
Combining pace, power and creativity, as well as a sublime footballing technique, Kwadwo Asamoah is somewhere close to the complete midfielder. Destined for the top since his early days at Liberty Professionals in his native Ghana, the youngster seems to have finally arrived, after a deal brought him to Italian champions Juventus this summer.
Still only 23, Asamoah has impressed to date as part of Juve’s fluid midfield. Dreams of playing with Andrea Pirlo have finally been realised, and Asamoah, along with Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio form the crux of one of the country’s finest midfields. Despite being asked to demonstrate his versatility on the flanks this term, Asamoah has taken well to the step up, and the Ghanian can hope to add a string of future honours to the Supercoppa he has already won with La Vecchia Signora.
After their Semi Final disappointment last term, the Black Stars of Ghana will head to the 2013 Afcon hoping to improve on their display in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. With Michael Essien recently rejecting overtures to coax him back into the national setup, the onus will once more be on the likes of ‘Asa’ to navigate the Black Stars through to the pinnacle of the continent’s competition.
6. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
One of the enduring images of this year’s African nations cup was the sight of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s tears after his missed penalty cost hosts Gabon a place in the Semi Final. Seemingly, the young striker has managed to put that tragic day in Libreville behind him, and has gone from strength to strength over the rest of 2012.
The son of a Gabonese international, Aubameyang has finally settled at a club after former side Milan had sent him out on numerous loan deals. It was almost inevitable that France was to be the destination, and the youngster found his way to the banks of the Loire, where Saint Etienne has begun to feel like home.
Les Stéphanois currently sit in fifth place after an impressive start to the season, due in no small part to Aubameyang’s goals – the striker is behind only Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the scoring charts. 8 goals in 7 appearances to date is no mean feat, and a nomination for African Player of the Year is no more than this talented youngster deserves.
5. Peter Odemwingie
Sometimes things just fit: jam and bread, tea and toast, honey and lemon, sweet and sour…Peter Odemwingie and West Bromwich Albion. There’s something so right about it, something so ineffably comfortable, it just works. Maligned during his time in Russia, Odemwingie was welcomed with open arms into the West Midlands, and ever since his arrival, has been repaying The Albion’s faith in him.
West Brom are enjoying their best start to a league season in decades, and whilst the team oozes quality, their success is due, in no small part, to Odemwingie’s goals; a brace against Southampton the other week being a primary example. The striker has been on fire ever since his arrival, becoming both the first Albion player to hit double figures in consecutive Premier League seasons, as well as the first to score in four back-to-back Premier League games.
The Soviet-born striker’s international future had been the subject of some scrutiny until a recent press release by Super Eagles boss Stephen Keshi revealed that Odemwingie was still very much a part of his plans. With Nigeria’s attacking line brimming with talent, expect West Brom’s hero to be among the goals at the Afcon.
4. Victor Wanyama
One of the main beneficiaries of Celtic’s pair of stunning performances against Barcelona has been Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama, who has seen his stock rise dramatically. Bought last year for less than a million pounds, the midfield dynamo has recently been valued by his club at £25,000,000. Quite the investment!
Whilst that sum seems astronomical, it’s hard not to marvel at the ease with which Wanyama has slipped into the refined surroundings of the Champions League. Celtic are in a good position to qualify from a tricky group, and that is due, in no small part, to Wanyama’s excellent performances. A midfield dynamo in the truest sense, Wanyama has combined good all-round technical ability with athletic physical qualities to cement his place in the heart of Celtic’s midfield.
Kenya have a poor record in qualifying for both the World Cup and the African Cup of Nations, missing out again this time around. With talent in the ilk of Wanyama, and Internazionale midfielder McDonald Mariga, they may be optimistic of an increased impact on the continental stage sometime soon.
3. Marouane Fellaini
In my weekly column looking at the Best and Worst of Africa from the Premier League, Marouane Fellaini has been a near-constant inclusion, testament to his impact to date. The Belgian international, son of a Moroccan footballing father and Moroccan mother, has been, arguably, one of the stand-out performers in the Prem this season. What’s changed this season? Well, it appears that in the absence of Tim Cahill, Fellaini’s attacking responsibilities have increased, and acting as a buttress behind Nikica Jelavic the marauding midfielder has had licence to contribute more to Everton’s goalscoring.
He hasn’t disappointed. A goal against Manchester United in the season’s opening game set the tone, and the towering Belgian has been near-unstoppable ever since. Despite only earning a point against Fulham at Craven Cottage some weeks ago, Fellaini was the game’s star performer, and could have won the match late on. Against Sunderland, subsequently, he was a match winner – silencing the travelling Mackem fans with another impressive finish.
Despite not heading to the Afcon in January, Fellaini is likely to adorn the back pages in a different guise – as fodder for the transfer gossip columnists. Rumours have suggested that Fellaini will soon be departing Merseyside, and while the midfielder has attempted to dispel these suggestions, the clever money might be on a move elsewhere – Chelsea and City are on standby.
2. Younès Belhanda
Another to be honoured in the final list of nominees for the African Footballer of the Year award, Younès Belhanda is enjoying an electric 18 months. A key figure in Montpellier’s dramatic, and unexpected, maiden Ligue 1 triumph last season, Belhanda has been wowing the locals at La Mosson since his debut in 2009.
With creative flair, vision that belies his young years, and a knack for being in the right place at the right time, Belhanda has been one of the French league’s star performers for sometime. Things haven’t been going so well for Montpellier this term however, and as last year’s team begin to disintegrate, many suggest that Belhanda could be set for bigger and better things – the galacticos of PSG could well have a spot reserved for the talented Moroccan.
Few have suggested that Maroc could challenge for the Afcon this coming year, but with players as talented as Oussama Assaidi, Adel Taarabt, and of course, Belhanda himself, don’t bet against the Atlas Lions making some waves in South Africa.
1. Victor Moses
Currently the darling of African football, Victor Moses hasn’t hesitating in showing why Chelsea were so keen to acquire his services. I was one of several pundits that suggested that the talented Nigerian may have been premature in moving to the capital after only a season and a half in the EPL. How wrong I have been.
Offering a more direct option to compliment the creative talents of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, and Oscar, Moses has often been devastating, and he can identify points he has earned singlehandedly for the club. After being named Man of the Match in the Blues’ 5-4 victory over Manchester United in the Capital One Cup in October, Moses went on to score against Swansea in the Premier League and then, four days later, a winner against Shakhtar Donetsk in a crunch Champions League tie. Failure to win the game could have seen Chelsea struggle to emerge from a tricky group, but Moses’s late, late winner ensured that the Pensioners’ fate still remains in their own hands.
Not content to settle some scores for his club side, Moses has also been quick to confirm his credentials for the Nigerian national side after being handed his debut by Stephen Keshi. His two goals against Liberia contributed to the Super Eagles’ win and their subsequent qualification for 2013’s African showcase – expect Moses to make another massive contribution in South Africa.