There is nothing that captures the interest of a football fan more than a round-table debate over who is the finest or the greatest. While many of these contests are inconclusive, open-to-doubt and rarely produce a unanimous verdict among fans, they certainly spawn a great topic of discussion.
Their skill and approach to the beautiful game is incredible, their dominance and ascendancy on and off the pitch is so bewitched to accomplish that often you end up screaming, “How on earth did he do that?”
1. George Oppong Weah (Liberia)
For everything good football, George Weah was Africa’s frontiersman!
This list, surely, must be George Weah and nine others. When you’ve got him, it’s his team. Named the greatest African player of all-time, George Weah is the very characterization of footballing myth. In an era when footballers are as often on the front page of newspapers as the back, when they have become as well known for their spendthrift pay packets as their playmaking, when they are more liable to be modeling clothes than muddying them, there is at least one celebrated exception to football’s yob rule – George Weah. A worthy example on how to ball in Africa. He had speed, power and great shooting ability. He terrorized the defenders with his blistering pace and sheer presence. However, Weah served sleepless nights to Serie A defenders not because of his powerful body but because of his tremendous technical ability. He had sudden acceleration, great variation in his dodging ability, unbelievable shooting power and pinpoint accuracy.
Laurels: Won an FA Cup with Chelsea, 2 Serie A titles with AC Milan and the French Ligue 1 title with Paris Saint-Germain. Named World Player of the Year in 1995 by FIFA. Won CAF’s Player of the Year 3 times (1989, 1994, 1995), Onze d’Or (Onze Mondial European Footballer of the Year) and Ballon d’Or awards in 1995, UEFA Champions League top scorers (1994-95) and scored 194 goals in his goal-poaching line of business. And here, the pick of the bunch: “African Player of the Century” in 1996.
Stats that surely tell us what our eyes once saw: Weah is Africa’s best.
2. Samuel Eto’o Fils (Cameroon)
Samuel Eto’o, far left, shared the same stage with some of the world’s finest!
There are those that believe Eto’o Fils lives in the world of soccer’s greats on his day. And few with dispute the obvious truth. Fancy trickery and step-overs aren’t in truth his style. Nor is breaching through defences with utter brute muscle. But the one thing African footballer Samuel Eto’o does in good health: score goals. His gift to turn games and never-say-die attitude has lifted the striker to idolatry status in the eyes of the fanatical Cameroonian support. He’s a committed player, whose hunger for goals never gets in the way of his desire to do the best for his team. Eto’o is fast footed and capable of leaving his markers flailing behind him. He possesses a howitzer of a right foot, can link play beautifully and has also learned to hold the ball up more effectively. Thumping drives, delicate chips, jinking runs, audacious back-heels, even the odd header – the Cameroonian had a myriad of ways to find the net. As football became increasingly big business, Eto’o became the African ‘brand’. This attractive, enigmatic figurehead was now a comprehensive superstar, admired by all and feared by opponents.
Club: Mallorca: Copa del Rey (1): 2003, Barcelona (La Liga (3): 2004–05, 2005–06, 2008–09, Copa del Rey (1): 2009, Supercopa de España (3): 2005, 2006, UEFA Champions League (2): 2005–06, 2008–09) Internazionale: Serie A (1): 2009–10, Coppa Italia (2): 2010, 2011, Supercoppa Italiana (1): 2010, UEFA Champions League (1): 2009–10, FIFA Club World Cup (1): 2010
Cameroon: African Cup of Nations (2): 2000, 2002, Cameroon Olympic Team, Olympic Gold Medal (1): 2000
Honours: Young African Player of the Year: 2000, African Player of the Year: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2010, FIFPro World XI: 2005, 2006, UEFA Team of the Year: 2005, 2006, African Cup of Nations Top Scorer: 2006, 2008, UEFA Champions League Best Forward: 2006, La Liga Top Scorer: 2006, African Cup of Nations All-Time Top Scorer, RCD Mallorca All-Time Top Scorer, Cameroon All-Time Top Scorer, 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year Third, UEFA Champions League Final Man of the Match 2006, FIFA Club World Cup – Golden Ball 2010, CAF Starting XI in the Africa Cup of Nations Egypt 2006
3. Abedi Ayew Pele (Ghana)
With Abedi’s every touch, he was hailed as one of the finest to have ever kicked the ball.
Brash. Skilful. Tricky. An uninhibited playmaker. Abedi Ayew Pele stands tall in the annals of football history in Africa. His enormous giving to football growth in Ghana and Africa are insuperable. Throw up an “African Best Player List” out to the watching public and the name Abedi Pele perpetually will make, even, the most elite list. His dexterous skills and elegant athleticism makes him one of Africa’s most successful exports and one of its most fêted sons. The only Ghanaian this far named in Pele’s ‘FIFA 100’ list of the greatest players in history, Ayew’s most important contribution to African football could be as inspiration to the next generations of African footballers that grew up watching him play against the best in the world. He wielded a perfect combination of aggression, passion and off-the-chain skill. His legacy can be seen at the uppermost levels on Europe’s pitches today, weighed down as they are with talent from Africa.People love Abedi because he embodies the soul of the sport rather than the science.
National team: 67 caps (33 goals)
Honours: Africa Cup of Nations winner (1982), Africa Cup of Nations Best Player (1992), African Player of the Year (1991, 1992, 1993), European Champions League winner (1993), French Ligue 1 champion (1989, 1990, 1991, 1992), French Cup winner (1989), Prince of Qatar Cup winner (1983) and UAE Cup winner (1999).
4. Nwankwo Kanu (Nigeria)
Kanu’s gift to the game earned him audience with greats as seen here with the Queen!
The most decorated player in African football history. That answers it. So, forget the poor lifestyle choices. Forget his health battles. Forget his slow pass of the ball. For years Kanu was the best player in Africa and a remarkable talent. Some of the world’s best defenders, although not admitting it publically, lived in fear of him. One of greatest ever, without doubt. There’s only one Nwankwo Kanu. A legend in his own time, Nwankwo Kanu is both the most successful and most consistent Nigerian international of his generation. He scored spectacular goals, terrorized defenders with his aggression and grit and went over the top when the boots were flying. As a forward he combined brute force and subtle skill to a devastating effect, which made him at his peak the majority of top-flight central defenders’ most-feared opponent. His head was always up, bless his lanky stature. He was constantly surveying the field, looking for his teammates, knew where his nearest opponents were, and you could tell he was always thinking three moves ahead. He had great ball control and his dribbling art in tight quarters was awesome-superb.
Honours: 1993 U-17 FIFA World Cup Winner. African Footballer of the Year: 1996 & 1999. African Cup of Nations : 1994 (Nigeria); Barclays Premier League : 2002, 2004 (Arsenal); Community Shield : 1999, 2000, 2003 (Arsenal); Eredivisie : 1994, 1995, 1996 (Ajax); European Super Cup : 1996 (Ajax); FA Cup : 2002, 2003 (Arsenal), 2008 (Portsmouth); FIFA Club World Cup : 1996 (Ajax); UEFA Champions League : 1995 (Ajax); UEFA Europa League : 1998 (Internazionale)
5. Roger Milla (Cameroon)
Roger Milla hit higher heights and here is seen playing football during the 1Goal launch of the Qatar FA project ‘Education at Your Feet’ at the Wanderers in Illovo.
For most players, the mid-thirties are a time of career flux. Having gone through their apprenticeship and learnt the ropes, thirty-something’s usually become frail components of the clubs and country’s they work for. But for Mr. Milla the reverse is true and the closer he edged to his forties, the more he hogged the limelight and became the poster boy of Cameroonian football. Roger Milla who won the best African footballer of the half century award is often ascribed as the encouragement behind modern African football and without doubt a major actor behind Cameroon’s football success story. The heart, soul and essence of the Cameroon sides of the ’80s and ’90s, Milla went on to be named the African Footballer of the 20th Century. Lofty heights for a man, especially considering that the award was earned based on his achievements after reaching the age of 38! As a player, the pedigree and that enviable bit of class was there, but the muse and inspiration was to come much later; at the end, as a matter of truth. Take a moment to mull over the odds of achieving what he did, despite living in and in lieu of a third world nation on the global stage and you’d arrive at the point where you realize Milla has indeed set the standards. At an age where very few can even lace up their boots for one more match, Milla actually dominated the play in an arena where most, if not all, of his teammates and adversaries were at least 10 years his junior…and that stage was the prevalent and biggest of them all. The memories “Sir” Milla left will take far longer to fade. His performance can only be attributed to passion and desire. To this day, the post-goal merriment of his days of glory in Italy is still mimicked. When a celebrant boogies around the corner flag, think of Mr. Milla. Age catches us all, and the last spiteful twist of fate for Roger Milla was that as his career was in its dusk; his country was emerging as a force to be reckoned with in international football. As his footballing aspirations were rising, his abilities to take dribbles at defenders were fading: but his heroics will be forever celebrated as coming in his final days while he was riding off into the sunset. Some footballers are great goalscorers. Others are scorers of great goals. Roger Milla was both.
Club honours: 1972 and 1973 Cameroon League and Cup Champion. 1975 African Cup Winners Cup. 1980 and 1981 French Cup winner. 1987 French second-division champion
Individual: FIFA 100 Best Players. CAF Best African Player of the last 50 years: 2007. African Footballer of the Year: 1976, 1990. CAF Africa Cup of Nations joint-top scorer: 1984 (four goals), 1986 (four goals). CAF Africa Cup of Nations best player: 1986.
National Honours: CAF Africa Cup of Nations winner: 1984, 1988.
6. Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria)
Jay Jay Okocha was Africa’s answer to Lionel Messi.
This was a man who brought fame even to the defenders who took the rather hangdog act of marking him. When Jay-Jay Okocha was on the ball, sticking out that torso, body quivering, dancing on the balls of his feet, there was something devastatingly epic about the way he moved opponents in times of yore. It would sap your strength out wondering how one man could craft so many ridiculously good touches. He would make you swear and not worry as if swearing was OK because you had used up every other word and nothing else reasonably hit the spot. He would make you chuckle, express amusement, sniff your sins away, shake your head and then swear some more. He scored the kind of goals you would normally see only tried on a computer game. Okocha did not do tap-ins. What the Nigerian did was drop his shoulder, slalom through the often hostile opposition defence, accelerate, go sluggishly down with his dribbles, pick up the pace again, go round the goalkeeper and put a good finish to a move so sweet. Nobody ever attacked a defence more thrillingly, with such relentless, brilliant fury. Nobody left so many opposition fans staring with such horrified admiration. Bet against Okocha inventing the art of dribbling but he took it to its highest level; the height that many of his peers and the next generation were and are finding hard to imitate.
Honours: African Football of the Year runner-up in 1998 and 2004. Two-time winner of BBC Footballer of the Year awards in 2003 and 2004. Names in Pele’s list of 125 greatest footballers. Oberliga Südwest: 1991, Saarland Cup: 1990, 1992, Fuji-Cup: 1992, Chancellor Cup: 1998, Atatürk Cup: 1998, Trophée des Champions: 1998, UEFA Intertoto Cup: 2001, Football League Cup: Runner-Up: 2004, Premier League Asia Trophy: 2005, Football League Championship play-off: 2008, African Cup of Nations: 1994, Afro-Asian Cup of Nations: 1995, Olympic Games: 1996, 2005 Bolton Wanderers footballer of the year. Nigerian footballer of the year: 1995, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005.
7. Samuel Osei-Kuffuor (Ghana)
Samuel Osei-Kuffour defended with his heart and pride!
Whichever yardstick you use in measuring the greatness of Osei-Kuffour, you’d always arrive at the same one-word conclusion – legend. Heart and passion. No other defender in Africa had those qualities in him in the amounts that the former Munich demigod had. Every tackle he dived into, every header he elevated towards, he got into with full force, and usually won it, first to get up when the dust cleared. He’s was not immuned to a sporadic blunder or mistake but he made up for them with his non-stop effort during the whole 90 minutes, and despite all the flashy names Africa churned out, Osei Kuffour was and is the heart & soul in defending. Kuffour was always reliable to clear the ball in his area and also full of bravery, leadership and concentration on his game. It has rarely been a mistake of his. The Ghanaian was admired for his reading of the game and ability to anticipate opposition movement and had uncanny intuitive sense for where the ball was headed. His timing in the tackle was unmatched, and he was rarely off of his feet while winning the ball back for his team. Kuffour’s place among Africa’s legendary defenders is without doubt – the only question is whether he is the greatest of them all.
Club Honours: Bayern Munich: UEFA Champions League: 2000–01; Runner-up 1998–99, Intercontinental Cup: 2001, German League: 1996–97, 1998–99, 1999–2000, 2000–01, 2002–03, 2004–05, German Cup: 1997–98, 1999–2000, 2002–03, 2004–05; Runner-up 1998–99, German League Cup: 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, Italian Cup Runner-up 2005–06 (Roma)
Country honours: FIFA U-17 World Championship: 1991; Runner-up 1993, Summer Olympic Games: Bronze medal 1992, FIFA U-20 World Cup: Runner-up 1993
Individual honours: African Footballer of the Year: Runner-up 1999, 2001, Ballon d’Or Nomination 2001, FIFA All-Star defender, Top 30 Best African Players of All-Time: Member, BBC African Footballer of the Year: 2001, Ghana Footballer of the Year: 1998, 1999, 2001, Youngest Olympic Football Champion of all-time (15 years, 11 months, 4 days), Youngest defender of all-time to score in the UEFA Champions League: Bayern 2–2 Spartak Moscow, on 02.11.1994 (18 years, 61 days), Most appearances by an African player in the UEFA Champions League, Ghana Athlete of the Year: 2001.
8. Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast)
Talk striking class in Africa, talk Didier Drogba!
There have been few, if any, healthier goal-poachers in Africa’s footballing history either than Didier Drogba. With his work ethic, rate of knots, muscle, capacity to win headers and readiness to run at defenders with the ball, Drogba poses the sort of danger that has defenders revising their defensive lesson notes after every game. You judge a striker by his goals. You judge Drogba by Drogba. That simple. Going solo is one of his trademarks, sometimes to the irritation and frustration of his team mates, though more often to their joyfulness, as he would often win a game all on his own. His aggression was matched by hardly any and whenever he received the ball with his back to the goal he immediately turned and attempted a “Goal of the Week” hit. His pure will and determination mixed with his marvellous abilities to hit the back of the net made him a true inspiration for his team mates and a fan-favorite wherever he would play. Deceptively quick and able to shoot with little waste motion were his noble joy. And by Christ, was he a saint at that. Drogba was a nightmare and lurid for opposing goalkeepers, was the forerunner, whom given the slightest chance, could often find a way to put the ball in the goal that cluded other strikers’ abilities. He never fits the conventional idea of a great footballer, but he holds the lethal acceleration over short distances, an extraordinary aerial game, and an uncanny goalscoring instinct. The Ivorian was one-of-kind player that was great in bulk force; he was a force of nature without anyone capable of stopping his tremendous physical power. Not only he was strong, he had a strapping shooting knotted with making goalies make a misery out of their careers in the last 30 metres. All his team mates have to do is nit a pass to Drogba. The rest of the story leaves fans thronging out of stadiums with never-ending smiles.
Club Honours: Premier League: 2004–05, 2005–06, 2009–10: Football League Cup: 2004–05, 2006–07: FA Cup: 2006–07, 2008–09, 2009–10: FA Community Shield: 2005, 2009
Individual honours: Onze d’Or: 2004, UEFA Cup Top Scorer: 2004, Ligue 1 Goal of the Year: 2004, Ligue 1 Team of the Year: 2004, Ligue 1 Player of the Year: 2004, Ivorian Footballer of the Year: 2006, 2007, African Footballer of the Year: 2006, 2009, Chelsea Players’ Player of the Year: 2007, Premier League Golden Boot: 2007, 2010, PFA Team of the Year: 2007, 2010, UEFA Team of the Year: 2007, ESM Team of the Year: 2007, FIFPro World XI: 2007, BBC African Footballer of the Year: 2009, West African Footballer of the Year : 2010, Chelsea Player of the Year: 2010, Time Top 100: 2010, Côte d’Ivoire all-time Top Scorer.
9. Kalusha Bwalya (Zambia)
Former Golden Ball Award winner Oliver Kahn of Germany and FIFA technical Study Group member Kalusha Bwalya. Bwalya paid his due to African football in style!
Make an “African Best Players Ever” list. Leave out Kalusha Bwalya. That’s sacrilege. That’s blasphemy. Down the line of which, you’d omission will be judged a sin. He was the centre of attention at all times. It was as if he and the ball were on first-name terms. The ability to play a pass has always been a form of mitigation in football. And, boy could Bwalya play a pass. He made you realize that seeing the pass, having that vision and knowing where the ball should go, at the precise angle and with the perfect weight, was every bit as beautiful as seeing someone score from 30 yards. The Zambian was the perfect No11 in that sense; the man who set the tempo and the pitch of play. He was a schemer with a foot that worked as football’s equivalent of a tin-opener. Bwalya was two foots grace with close control, quick on the turn and excellent in getting his shots-on-target. The Zambian legend always found a way to find the net, whether it required a sumptuous 30-yard chip or a toe-poke from two yards. All his mates had to do was screw the ball to Kalusha. The rest? Hold your chin-in-check to see a rare moment in footballing history. Then, once inside the penalty area, he didn’t like to wallop his shots at goal. His art was more subtle. He would stick out his toe and poke the ball into the corner.
Honours: Two-time Eredivisie (Dutch League) Winner: 1990-91, 1991-92, KNVB Cup (Dutch Cup): 1989-90, Johan Cruijff schaal (Dutch Super Cup): 1991-92, Two-time Pop Poll d’Echte Cercle Brugge K.S.V.: Player of the Year: 1986-87 & 1987-88, African Footballer of the Year: 1988, Two-time Cercle Brugge top scorer: 1987 & 1988.
10. Rabah Madjer (Algeria)
With his every touch, Madjer won more fans!
The rule book is here. To earn a cult-hero status down in Africa, tis simple; play like Rabah Madjer. For generations to follow, it will serve their egos and careers a breathe of life they played halve the kind of football Madjer played. He was constantly on the prowl. Constantly cursing the soul out of defenders for picking the wrong career path. He kept an air of danger about him that left pundits lost for superlatives to describe his immense talent and never let defenders settle. Talk Rabah Madjer. Talk his magnificent goal in Porto’s 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich in the final match of Champions League 1986-87, the first Champions League triumph for Porto. The skill, the nerve, the gut and the soul to kick the ball was simply breathtaking. He was an archetypal striker, had the technique and cottage to score many goals from all angles in the penalty box. Everything sparkling Algerian football now, pass the praise, the tribute to Rabah. And then go into raptures over Madjer. His class is permanent!
Club honours: Algerian Cup: 1978–79, European Cup: 1986–87, UEFA Super Cup: 1987, Intercontinental Cup: 1987, Portuguese League: 1985–86, 1987–88, 1990–91, Portuguese Cup: 1987–88, 1990–91, Portuguese Supercup: 1986, 1991
Country honours: Africa Cup of Nations: 1990; Runner-up 1980, Afro-Asian Cup of Nations: 1991
Individual honours: African Footballer of the Year: 1987 Arab Footballer of the 20th Century: 2004, Algerian Footballer of the 20th Century: 2009 (with Lakhdar Belloumi), Algerian Footballer of the Year: Several awards, African Footballer of the 20th Century: Fifth place.
Let the round-table debate begin. In the pubs. Bars. Parking Lots. Facebook. Twitter!
For all the fame each one of these players has received, I must now admit my favorite. He made life unbearable for defenders and made me thank God that my father was not one. He feared no team and was feared by whoever he faced. The could dribble, score wonder goals, and was just a joy to watch. By now you should know who that is.
Jay Jay Okocha, how football misses him. He was an absolute joy to watch.