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Africa's next generation

Piers Edwards | 12:31 UK time, Monday, 20 February 2012

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    O.K. Piers a question.
    Who was the first African superstar ?

  • Comment number 2.

    No one from Zambia even though they eventually won? Didn't see much of ACN so I'm guess there is a reason e.g. they were older players or they played as a team rather than having a stand out.

    Are there any Zambian players who you think could make it at a top level club?

  • Comment number 3.

    Another player I thought stood out was Burkina Faso's Jonathan Pitroipa. He's 25 and is playing for Rennes but should be at a much bigger club. He plays in a similar style to Sunderland's Stephane Sessegnon running from midfield and linking play intelligently.

  • Comment number 4.

    2. At 19:19 20th Feb 2012, RedDevilHornetTommy wrote:
    No one from Zambia even though they eventually won? Didn't see much of ACN so I'm guess there is a reason e.g. they were older players or they played as a team rather than having a stand out.

    Are there any Zambian players who you think could make it at a top level club?


    Emmanuel Mayuka is Zambian, the top scorer in the tournament and the first player on this list!

  • Comment number 5.

    @2. Emmanuel Mayuka and Rainford Kalaba are both Zambians

  • Comment number 6.

    Did you take notice of Ghana's best defender by a mile John Boye? I think he was exceptional in all the matches he played in except for a momentary lapse that allowed Mayuka enough space to pick his spot in the match against Ghana.

  • Comment number 7.

    Zambia were without their one of their main goal scorers for the ACN triumph, Jacob Mulenga, who plays for FC Utrecht in the Netherlands but is currently recovering from a 2nd ACL injury. If he comes back healthy (a big if) then he is a strong English style No. 9 - although 27 he would be a good player for a top championship side or a long ball style premier league team.

  • Comment number 8.

    Really good article. I was also very impressed by Stophila Sunzu of Zambia. He was very solid at the back and showed lots of natural ability. Had a bit that Vidic air about him. The absence of Egypt and the other "traditional" power houses will go a long way in improving the tournament as it highlights no one team has the birthright to be there or win it.

  • Comment number 9.

    Good blog, but the subheading for each player should include the national team they play for as well as the club team.

    Would avoid confusion such as @2 (as would actually reading the article properly).

  • Comment number 10.

    I can understand why the article concentrates on attack minded players, however I have to agree with no. 8. Stopila Sunzu was the player of the tournament for me. He was immense in every sense, and very fitting that he scored the winning penalty. Would love or see him at Southampton F.C.

  • Comment number 11.

    Did anybody notice a total first in my 50 years of playing and watching football: the Zambian players singing through the whole shootout... not only the bench guys, and the huddle in midfield, but also the shooters!!! Has anyone seen anything like it?

  • Comment number 12.

    I thought loads of the Zambians stood out considering all of them apart from Mayuka play in China or Africa. Chansa and the two Katongo brothers were very good players. Also the CB, he played in the final and had a blinder. He scored the winning penalty too (May be Sunzu, cant remember)

  • Comment number 13.

    11-The singing obviously helped to overcome nerves and bonded the team together but couldn't singing be classed as ungentlemanly conduct?

  • Comment number 14.

    "was attracting the attention of top European sides - Newcastle United and Fulham figuring prominently among them"

    Lol. Watch out Barca!

  • Comment number 15.

    I would include the 21yr old Zambian, Nathan Sinkala who made Yaya toure and Tioti a shodow of themselves. what a talent the boy played all the games and looked solid in attack and defensive...

  • Comment number 16.

    I couldn't agree more with #15! As a Zambian, I would say our real find and revelation at the AfCoN 2012 was young Nathan Sinkala. Kalaba may be baby-faced but he's already a veteran of 3 AfCoNs now, while Mayuka's just come of age on his second outing. As for young Sinkala, he's just a 'baby'! I'm talking about a player who never played a single minute in the qualifying matches and only made his senior team debut in November or December of last year! Yet at the tournament, the young man gave good account of himself by playing every single minute of the Chipolopolo's campaign! He was so confortable in the middle of the park that you woudn't think he was just a debutant. He made Yaya and Zokora look ordinary they had to be hauled off to spare them further embarassment! He displayed great vision, a couple of defence splitting passes and was willing to have pop at goal. He struck Zambia's first shot at goal against the Ivory Coast in the 2nd minute! And when it came to the crunch, the boy struck the sweetest, fierciest penalty I've ever seen (I've been following football for more than 20 years)! To date, that shot still sends shivers down my spine! It was as ferocious as it was sweet! I blinked and missed seeing it cross the line! For once I thought he had missed it, until I saw the net bulge! On replay, Ivorian keeper Barry just shook his head in despair as he watched the ball nestle in the top corner. This boy is a talent that won't take much to nurture into a quality midfielder! He'll looks by far the best central midfield player Zambia has produced since Charly Musonda!

  • Comment number 17.

    I agree about mayuka; the goal he scored against Ghana confirmed an amazin eye for the goal.

  • Comment number 18.

    yeah sinkala is a talent,considering he was not allowed to be bullied by so called big players.wonder wats next for him?

  • Comment number 19.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 20.

    i liked the look of the zambian keeper Mweene i thought he had a good tournament only conseeding 3 goals two of which were in dreadful conditions against libya. i also liked Christopher Katongo i thought he had a great tournament same as Chamanga .i thought Boubacar Barry needs a mention for going the entire tournament without conseding a goal with some great saves including the one in the sudan game.manucho ,randy and Juvenal had good tournaments however mayuka was easy the best player in the tournament

  • Comment number 21.

    Hi. Firstly, like #9 suggests, it would have been a good idea to list the countries that these guys play for. Pretty basic stuff so I apologise for that omission.

    As for some of the other points raised, I have always liked the look of Pitroipa but - Kalaba aside - I had tried to focus on the younger generation which appears to be coming through. That said, the Burkinabe is one of the players I most enjoy watching, even if his end product does not always match the dribbling skills that precede it.

    As for Ghana's John Boye, I have watched him play in the past for his French club and was unimpressed but I certainly agree that he came on in leaps and bounds at these finals. So much so that Isaac Vorsah was sometimes left on the bench, which is a measure of how well Boye played. So too Zambia's Stoppila Sunzu - another centre-back to have impressed and who is now being heavily linked with a move to Europe. That said, the defender I deemed to be the most impressive at the finals was a golden oldie, 32-year-old Cedric Kante, who - somehow - failed to make Caf's list of the tournament's top 22 players (Best XI and subs). For me, the Mali captain was simply outstanding - reading the game superbly well to compensate for his limited pace - and I'm not sure the Eagles would have progressed so far without him.

    Anyway, just to restate, the main thrust of this piece was to focus on players aged 23 or under (Kalaba aside), hence the omission of the likes of Mweene, Chris Katongo, Barry - and various others (e.g. David 'Kily' Alvarez of Equatorial Guinea)...

  • Comment number 22.

    On this evidence I assume that the goalkeeping/defending at the African Nations Cup was abysmal?

  • Comment number 23.

    I would add Stophira Sunzu(22), the Zambian Centre Back. He was my player of the tournament, was solid at the back, keeping Gyan, Ayew, Drogba, Demba Ba quiet, scoring a goal against Sudan in the quarters and holding his nerve to score the winning penalty in the finals.

  • Comment number 24.

    Stophira Sunzu certainly deserves to play his trade in a top european league. But I must agree with number 16, Nathan Sinkala was just revelational at age 19! He played every minute of every game plus scored a brilliant goal in the final. Thats why Herve Renard is a great coach. He has an eye for talent and doesnt play names. He intrusts confidence in 'little' players and brings out their untapped talent. And to think Nathan Sinkala only made his debut in november, 2011. Amazing!! The boy was tough tackling, stable on the ball, had an eagles eye when passing and only went forward when necessary. World class football. I really miss the AFCON! That was stuff of dreams.....

  • Comment number 25.

    Scored a wonderful penalty in the final**** [my bad]

  • Comment number 26.

    I think Nathan Sinkala will be the best player Zambia has ever prduced if he contnes to play like he did. And he will end up being Zambia captain...Mayuka is good and so is Chisamba Lugu and Sunzu...I also liked the young Ayew Jordan,the boy id calss!!

  • Comment number 27.

    I feel Piers has hit the nail on the head by adding Rainford Kalaba to the list despite his age . Although a lot of pundits said Zambia won the tournament because they played as a team but personally deep down as a Zambian I feel Zambia could not have won this tounament without the brilliance ,skill on the ball and vision of K Kalaba .The boy had 3 assists ( including katongos penalty) and one goal out Zambia`s nine goals .Thats how good the boy was that every time Zambia threatened to score he was involved in one way or another .I feel he has the capabilty of getting into a side like arsenal and feeling nasri`s boots easy. Forgive me am now ranting as an arsenal fan .But seriously speaking any team that will buy Kalaba in Europe will not regret it.

  • Comment number 28.

    Any list with no Ivorians or Ghanaians on it is a fake list. Most of these players would not sit on the Bench of both of those countries.

  • Comment number 29.

    I think you are taking the African cup too seriously. The African cup is tournament of poor officiating which unnecessarily favors players in Africa by giving them over 1 month of extra preparation time. Notice how most of the recent winners have a good number of their players in Africa. The world cup qualifications on the other hand is a different beast and the best team always qualifies because everyone has the same preparation time. Algeria vs. Egypt 2 years ago demonstrates this. With the same amount of preparation time Algeria was able to beat Egypt when it counted but, in the African cup when Egypt had all that extra preparation time they beat Algeria 4-0!

    Until the playing field is even no serious minded person will take the tournament too seriously as an indication of anything.

  • Comment number 30.

    There is a lot of talent in Zambia and Southern Africa in general, but players from this region find it hard to break into major European leagues as compared to West Africans. West African players easily go though France are easily in other European countries and are spotted by major Clubs. Otherwise the world witnesses how the likes of Demba Ba, Gyan, Didier, tolo brother to mention but a few were out classifed at AFCON 2012 by the Zambian team

  • Comment number 31.

    For me, Nathan Sinkala was the player! Not only for Zambia but the whole tournament. Only 21, he made Yaya Toure to be substuted. I am surprised BBC did not mention this boy. The boy is very close to Charles Musonda in terms of skill and football intelligence.And the future Zambia National Team will be built around this boy, including the likes of Emmanuel Mayuka, Chisamba Lungu, Stoppila Sunzu.
    Talking about West African palyers in Europe, most of these chaps are overrated--- players like Gyan, Demba Ba, Cisse, Song etc are nowhere close to, Chris Katongo, Mayuka, Nathan Sinkala or Rainford Kalaba. What makes these Weest African players easily break European football markets is the perception created in Europe that West African are good. For examle, we coaches like Arsene Wenger who can only sign African players fron French speaking countries. And the result of such a perception is what Arsenal is gpng through.

  • Comment number 32.

    Zambian players are not good. Most scouts have watched them and none will try to sign them to Europe because they don't have the talent. It is easy to look good with a lot of preparation but, put them agaist any serious team without the extra preparation and they will be lit up and humiliated. A team like Senegal is superior regardless of their results at the African cup. Take a team like Senegal to the World cup and they would do well because their players are good.

    Look at Egypt they won 3 straight times but, when put in conditions when the playing field was even they were dead last in their group in the confederations cup. The African cup favors home based players but, those players are not good and not european class. If you don't believe me just watch none of the so called Zambian players will be signed by any credible European team. The scouts know a good player when they see one. They saw these same players at the Club World cup and made no effort to sign them for a reason then!

  • Comment number 33.

    Hi Jacob Chanda, you also noticed that, right?! Nathan Sinkala`s penalty -----even the EuroSport commentator said the level of confidence in the boy was amazing! What a boy!!!!!!!! As Denis Liwewe would say!

  • Comment number 34.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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