The annual ceremony for the award of Best African Footballer of the Year is upon us again.
How quickly time flies. Was it not ‘yesterday’ that Yaya Toure angered a lot of people by raising unwanted dust by discrediting the process of last year’s selection (the same process that made him a winner an unprecedented four consecutive times) when Pierre Aubameyang of Borussia Dortmund FC and Gabon was selected ahead of him?
For this year’s event that will come up in January 2017 in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, the Confederation of African Football, CAF, has released a preliminary list of 30 African players for the award.
That number will be pruned down through nominations and voting by all the national team coaches of the member federations in Africa.
The eventual winner will only be revealed during the award ceremony supervised by CAF officials and an international verification agency.
The event has become an annual feast of the best of African entertainment on a platform that provides opportunity for camaraderie and networking for all African football stakeholders.
Every year it has become an exciting game for analysts, pundits and commentators predicting who will win the most prestigious individual trophy in African football.
There is usually no problem when the final choice matches the majority choice of football followers. But the occasional ‘disagreement’ occurs to stir up some controversy, as was the case last year when Yaya Toure added salt to injury by accusing CAF of bias and poor judgment in the choice of Aubameyang ahead of him.
Yaya’s reaction will definitely influence this year’s event as the process will be more meticulous than ever before, particularly in the apparent absence of one clearly outstanding player.
Indeed, in 2016 there has been a dearth of one truly exceptionally gifted and consistently performing player in the mold of Samuel Eto Fils, George Opong Weah, Yaya Toure and Abedi Pele, when they won the event. Everyone I have looked at closely attracts a little comma.
Looking again through the 30-man list this year reveals the following:
Yaya Toure’s era has come to a resounding halt with the conspicuous absence of his name; last year’s winner, Pierre, is an unlikely winner because Gabon has not played enough matches in 2016 (they automatically qualify as host of the 2017 African Cup of Nations) and Borussia Dortmund have been struggling this season; the winner will come from Europe once again; and the winner will most likely be new.
So, in looking into the list, only a few players’ names are popping up on my radar as a possible winner. Permit me go through a few.
If there is any doubt about the paucity of top players this year, the name of one player in the list clearly confirms it. 35-year old Samuel Eto'O Fils now playing in the relative obscurity of the Turkish league for a team rooted to the bottom this season is in the list. That speaks volumes.
Another surprise is that three Nigerian players are listed. Mikel Obi is well past his prime, Ahmed Musa is struggling for form, and Kelechi Iheanacho is still at the dawn of a very promising career.
We must recall that the period in consideration is 2016, which covers the latter part of the last season and the early part of the present one.
Towards the end of last season Mikel was a regular feature in the heart of the Chelsea midfield. This season, under new manager, Antonio Conte, he has been ‘retired’ permanently to the bench! At the same time though, he has been given a new role and a new lease of life in the Nigerian national team, one that has seen him leading the country to win an unlikely Bronze Medal at the Olympic Games in Rio this past summer. But surely with the Super Eagles struggling to climb up the rungs of African football again, this cannot be the platform to produce Africa’s best player?
As for Ahmed Musa, his performances put together do not add up to the level of those before him that won the award. He did well in his Russian club last season but he has not done enough for either Nigeria or his new club most of this new season.
The exciting name out of Nigeria is that of Kelechi Iheneacho, the extremely talented youngster beginning to create ripples this season in Europe. That is the challenge – he has only just started an authentic march to the top of African football. It is still a bit too early for him to mount the coveted podium. Should he sustain the momentum he has started with Manchester City and the Super Eagles, he will surely be an authentic contender in the very near future. He is the complete package – exquisite skills, clinical scoring ability, pace, power and a great vision.
We have to look outside Nigeria once again for the likely winner.
A quick scan of the football landscape reveals only very few other faces.
There are two names from Algeria considered the best team in the continent currently. The fleet and left footed master dribbler playing on the right side of the team that won the EPL last season is a serious contender. He has helped his national team also to qualify for the AFCON next year. His performances for Leicester City FC in 2016 earned him the title of the Premier league’s Players’ player of the year, the first African to achieve that feat.
His performances may have been indifferent in the EPL this new season but, surely, they have been stellar in the European Champions league, his goals ensuring that Leicester City FC move closer to the group stage.
Without doubt, Riyad Mahrez can be the winner this year. He has done just about enough to deserve it.
The other player also listed and in the hunt for the African award also plays for both Leicester City FC and Algeria. He is Islam Slimani.
Bought by Leicester City FC this season, he has been combining effectively with Mahrez in leading Leicester City FC along the path to another possible fairy tale in the European Champions League.
He has also been a key figure in the Algerian national team in the last two African Cup of Nations and the last World Cup. He was named Algeria’s best player of 2015 and is his country’s fifth highest goal scorer of all time. All of this at age 28!
I have a feeling that he too stands a chance, padded by his previous achievements particularly with the Algerian national team, to win the African award this time around.
Andre Ayew is probably Ghana’s best football export presently. He is the only Ghanaian listed. He has been around for some time. These past two seasons he featured for Swansea FC (played very well) and now (rather sparingly) for West Ham United FC.
In 2016, the season in contention, he helped Ghana to qualify for the 2017 African Cup of Nations but is struggling to lift West Ham United FC from the lower rung of the Premiership.
Sadio Mane of Liverpool and Senegal presents very exciting credentials. He is a player to watch closely. His story in various clubs has been encouraging, a truly remarkable list of goal scoring exploits that would excite any manager. His upward movement this season from Southampton FC, where he recorded the fastest hat trick of 2 minutes 56 seconds against Aston Villa in Premier league history, to Liverpool FC is a clear testimony of his awesome quality.
Now playing in the Premiership’s current most exciting team under Jurgen Klopp, the pacy striker is set for greater things. Not only is he a very permanent fixture in the team, his darting attacking runs have become a strong part of the Liverpool resurgence with their potential of becoming champions this season. Mane is also an integral part of the emerging new Senegalese national team to be tested in January in Gabon.
Outside of North, West and Central Africa, it has been a while since any player from the other regions won the African award. They may still have to wait and watch from the sidelines as the 2016 awards approach!