Africa's next generation
In the absence of traditional African superpowers Egypt, Nigeria and Cameroon, the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations presented an opportunity for the next generation of African stars to grab the limelight. So which Africans are in line to fill the boots of Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto'o and Michael Essien as the next big names of European football?
Below, I have chosen eight of the most exciting footballers aged 23 or under to have played in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon - with the notable exception for Rainford Kalaba, 25, whose Nations Cup displays may prompt a European team to take a chance on him again.
Emmanuel Mayuka, 21, Young Boys (Switzerland): Even before the Nations Cup began, this young and pacy striker was attracting the attention of top European sides - Newcastle United and Fulham figuring prominently among them. So his three goals at the finals - a tally shared by six other players - will only have increased the 21-year-old's prospects of leaving Young Boys. The best of the bunch came against Ghana in the semi-final when he scored a goal out of nothing, curling home from the edge of the box, to settle a tight game. With a keen eye for goal and a willingness to take people on, Mayuka's talents were first spotted by Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv, who brought him over to European football when just 17. A move to Switzerland followed in 2010.
Emmanuel Mayuka was named by the Confederation of African Football as the Africa Cup of Nations' Golden Boot winner - despite finishing level with six other players on goals - thanks to an extra assist
Alain Traore, 23, Auxerre (France): For my money, Burkina Faso were very unlucky to lose all their games at the Nations Cup. Despite some attractive build-up, they suffered from the lack of a quality striker - as exemplified when Moumouni Dagano headed against the crossbar when trailing Ivory Coast 1-0 late on. The Stallions only scored two Nations Cup goals and it was no surprise that Traore netted one of them - a low bending free-kick that zipped into the Angolan net. Just 23, the attacking central midfielder seems to have the necessary attributes to make it to the top of the game: excellent vision, a wide range of passing and a thunderbolt shot - all supplied by his wand of a left foot. He may not be the tallest but this goalscoring midfielder is surely destined for the very highest level. Has also been linked with a move to England in the past.
Younes Belhanda, 21, Montpellier (France): Skilful number 10 with good creativity, an eye for a pass and good strength. Just 5ft 7in, the stocky Belhanda was at the heart of most of Morocco's best moves and, alongside captain Houssine Kharja, was a rare bright spot for the Atlas Lions. Fielded deep in the opening game against Tunisia, Belhanda gradually advanced up the pitch throughout the tournament - creating one of Morocco's goals in the 3-2 defeat by Gabon before scoring the matchwinner against Niger. A key player in Montpellier's fine form this season, the French club welcomed him back with open arms as they chase a first Ligue 1 title (with Belhanda scoring in Sunday's top-of-the-table draw at PSG) - while Germans Borussia Dortmund are known to be interested in the services of this former France youth international.
Youssef Msakni, 21, Esperance (Tunisia): The sensible money would be lumped on the impossibility of Msakni still being an Esperance player by the time the next European season kicks off. A playmaker with terrific close control and fine dribbling skills, Msakni single-handedly made Tunisia look an exciting proposition whenever he was on the ball. After scoring a fine individual goal against Morocco in the opening 2-1 win, the man known as 'Tunisia's Lionel Messi' was one of the brightest stars at the finals. This followed on from impressive displays for Esperance as they won the African Champions League last year, with Msakni also shining at the Fifa Club World Cup despite the team's poor overall performance. "Truth be told, he's got the potential to become the kind of star Tunisia has never seen before," club colleague Yannick Ndjeng has previously said. Linked with Arsenal in recent days.
Youssef Msakni (right) was one of the 2012 Nations Cup's most exciting players, illuminating spectators with his close control, mazy runs and spectacular goals
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, 22, St Etienne (France): Aubameyang has been on an upward curve in French football, where a man who can play out wide or up front had already bagged six goals prior to leaving for the Nations Cup. But it was on home soil that the son of a former Gabon captain truly announced his arrival in the international arena, as the 23-year-old scored three goals in four games. Another to boast good pace, control and shooting skills, Aubameyang also showed great composure while converting his goals - ably handling the pressure as an entire nation looked to him to deliver. So it was a cruel return when his missed penalty in the shoot-out against quarter-final opponents Mali eliminated the co-hosts from the tournament.
Moussa Maazou, 23, Le Mans (France): Big, strong and a powerful runner, Niger's frontman failed to score at the finals - but showed his qualities nonetheless. Tunisia centre-back Karim Hagui is an experienced customer, with plenty of years in the top leagues of France and Germany, but the 2004 African Nations winner can seldom have endured such a torrid afternoon as when he faced Maazou. The latter may not have scored but Hagui was on the back foot all day, beaten all ends up on regular occasions, and was fortunate not to concede a penalty when hauling Maazou down. The 6ft 1in striker had a hand in Niger's first ever Nations Cup goal, as his muscular presence unsettled Tunisia's goalkeeper, as he stretched their defence with his runs. Though quieter against Morocco, Maazou thumped the bar with a sumptuous volley as he displayed some of the ability that has persuaded Monaco, Bordeaux and CSKA Moscow to employ him in the past. Disciplinary problems have prompted CSKA to loan him out to French second division side Le Mans, so he needs to start thinking if he is to fully harness his potential.
Ibrahima Traore, 23, VfB Stuttgart (Germany): Guinea's progress at the Nations Cup was derailed in their opening game by defeat to a Mali side who eventually finished third, but whether the Malians were that superior to a Guinean team that exited in the group stages is a moot point - and you can bet your bottom dollar that Stuttgart midfielder Traore would have been at the heart of the Syli Nationale's best moments had they gone further. Playing out wide, despite lacking the width of a natural winger, the bustling Traore was a constant menace to opposition defences - full of running and endeavour as the France-born 23-year-old showed a refreshing willingness to take people on. He may not have the skills of a Msakni, say, but a player based in Germany since he was 18 makes up for this with his drive and mental attitude. On the other flanks, former France youth international Abdou Razzagui Camara also caught the eye - so suggesting that Guinea have the capacity to replace Pascal Feindouno when he finally retires.
Rainford Kalaba, 25, TP Mazembe (DR Congo): Ok, so he may not be the newest face on the block but this was the tournament where Kalaba came of age. A slip of a player, standing just 5ft 9in, the Zambian displayed all of his qualities at the Nations Cup with a series of man of the match displays. A ball player with an ability to finish, as he showed against Senegal, what this midfielder lacks in strength he makes up for with his football brain. During the finals, coach Herve Renard revealed that a man he says is among Africa's best 15 footballers is nicknamed 'Master' by his colleagues. Previous stints in European football, firstly in France and then Portugal, ended without success but the 25-year-old is surely worth another chance - with the Iberian game seemingly best suited for his slight build.