Africa has produced some of the world’s best players over the years and that trend has not stopped. With the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez, Mohamed Salah, Victor Osimhen, Nicolas Pepe and many more thriving in the top leagues in European football, Africa just does not simply represent football, it is a continent that has been a huge ambassador for the game. If the trend is anything to go by then African football is in great hands as players continue to grow coming out of the region and moving to the biggest teams around the world.
The question that arises, however, is who is the greatest to ever play the beautiful game from the African nations. A lot of names come to mind since the inception of professional football. Here is a list of the top African players to date.
#11 – Mohamed Salah
Mohamed Salah is currently one of the best players in European football and arguably, one of the best in the world. Just 28 years of age, Mo Salah has become one of the most sought-after attacking players. His goalscoring ability and dribbling make him a threat for any defence.
Salah made his breakthrough with FC Basel in Switzerland and was then signed by Chelsea who sent him out on loan to Fiorentina where he made 26 appearances. He managed to score 9 goals and 4 assists during this time before moving to AS Roma on loan as well. It was at Roma when people started taking notice of just how good a player Salah is.
While on loan with Roma, the forward managed to score 15 goals and rack up 7 assists in 42 games. His impressive performance got him a transfer to the Italian club the following season from Chelsea. He continued to improve as he had an impressive 19 goals and 14 assists in 39 games in 2016/17.
Liverpool quickly swooped in as Jurgen Klopp was determined to have the Egyptian at Merseyside. Salah signed with the Reds on 22 June 2017 for a club-record transfer fee at the time. He had an amazing first season as he notched up 32 goals in just 36 Premier League games along with 11 assists! Salah also had an amazing first season in the UEFA Champions League with Liverpool as he scored 10 goals and assisted 5 in 13 games. He ended up winning the golden boot and followed
Salah has been key to Liverpool’s success since that first season. In 2018/19, Liverpool won the UEFA Champions League once again, the first since 2005, as Salah won the Golden Boot once again in the Premier League with 22 goals and helped them finish 2nd in the league, just behind Manchester City. The 2019/20 season was outstanding for the Egyptian as well. He had 19 goals and 10 assists in the league as Liverpool went on to win their first Premier League title of the modern era.
Salah’s outstanding consistent performances have made him become Liverpool’s, key man. He has also been the leader of his nation. Mo Salah managed to lead Egypt to the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations as they lost to Cameroon in 2017. He is the highest-scoring Egyptian in Serie A history with 35 goals. He is also Egypt’s all-time highest scorer in FIFA World Cup history and even in the African Cup of Nations. Salah is already the holder of these records and he is only 28. We may never see another Egyptian as great as Mohamed Salah again and rightfully deserves to be called one of Africa’s greatest ever players.
#10 – Riyad Mahrez
Algeria has produced some phenomenal talent over the years in football. Some of the biggest Algerian names in the past have been Rabah Madjer who had 29 goals for the nation, Lakhdar Belloumi who had 27, Abdelhafid Tasfaout, who had 35 goals and 79 caps and Djamel Manad who had 25 goals along with 81 caps for the country.
None of these, however, have managed to achieve what Riyad Mahrez has domestically. He helped Leicester City get promoted from England’s second division (the Championship) to the Premier League back in 2014. Mahrez alongside Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante, was a crucial member of the Foxes as they went on to create one of the biggest upsets ever in sport as they won the Premier League in the 2015/16 season. Mahrez was so good back then that he was awarded the Algerian Footballer of the Year, the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, and was a part of the Premier League Team of the Year. From a stats perspective, Mahrez had 48 goals and 38 assists for Leicester City in 179 appearances. He had 17 goals and 10 assists in the season the Foxes won the league.
Mahrez was then swooped in by Manchester City following his continuous run of strong performances with Leicester, in 2018. He won the Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup, all in his first season in Manchester. He has become a regular starter for Pep Guardiola’s side and will be hoping to win the UEFA Champions League with City.
The right-winger was a member of the Algeria squad that won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2019. Mahrez is a two-time Algerian Footballer of the Year, BBC African Football of the Year in 2016, El Heddaf Arab Footballer of the Year, Lion d’Or African Footballer of the Year and CAF African Footballer of the Year. He has made the CAF Team of the Year on 3 occasions so far and expect that count to increase in seasons to come.
Riyad Mahrez is the most talented Algerian to ever play the game and can go down in history as the greatest player of his nation.
#9 – Michael Essien
Michael Essien was born in Accra, Ghana and played for some of the biggest clubs in Europe. Essien signed for Olympique Lyonnais in 2003 and made 96 appearances for the club over 2 seasons before signing for Chelsea in August 2005, where he had the best stint of his professional career.
He won the Premier League in his first season and was a key figure for the London club during its most decorated period. Essien won the FA Cup with Chelsea on 4 occasions between 2006 to 2012. He also won a 2nd Premier League title in 2009/10, after Manchester United won three back-to-back. Michael Essien was also part of Chelsea’s UEFA Champions League-winning squad in 2011/12, completing his tally of all domestic trophies with the Stamford Bridge team.
Essien had a small stint with Real Madrid too, on loan from Chelsea. The Ghanaian signed for AC Milan from Chelsea where he spent a season before moving to Greece’s Panathinaikos.
The former Chelsea star had a good international career as well, making over 50 appearances for Ghana. He was a part of the Ghana squad that finished 3rd in the African Cup of Nations in 2008 and runners-up in 2010.
He made the Ligue 1 Team of the Year with Lyon in 2002/03 and 2004/05. He was also the Ligue 1 Player of the year in 2004/05! Essien featured in the CAF Team of the Year 4 times between 2005 and 2009. The midfielder won the BBC African Footballer of the Year award in 2006, Ghanaian Player of the Year in 2007, the same year he won Chelsea’s Player of the Year award. His outstanding performance in the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations earned him a place in the Team of the Tournament.
Michael Essien was the perfect central midfielder and one of the best players in the world at his prime.
#8 – Abedi Pele
Abedi Ayew, famously known as Abedi Pele, is one of Ghana’s greatest ever football players. He was simply terrific. The father of current Crystal Palace star striker, Jordan Ayew and Swansea City FC midfielder, Andre Ayew, was better than his sons back in the day.
He was one of the first African players to have a successful club career in Europe with Olympique Marseille. He made 147 appearances for the French club over 5 seasons, contributing with 30 goals and 9 assists. He was part of the squad that won back-to-back Ligue 1 titles in 1990/91 and 1991/92. He was also a part of the UEFA Champions League-winning team in 1992/93.
Ayew was a part of the Ghana squad that won the African Cup of Nations in 1982 and was also in the team when they finished as runners-up 10 years later. He won the West African Nations Cup with the national team for 3 consecutive years from 1982 to 1984. Abedi Pele was awarded the BBC African Footballer of the Year award in 1991, CAF’s African Footballer of the Year for 3 consecutive seasons from 1991 to 1993. He also won the Golden Ball at the African Nations Cup in 1992! He ended up finishing 9th for the FIFA World Player of the Year award that season. He was also a part of the FIFA 100, a list that was released in 2004 to commemorate the 100 greatest players up till that point, to have played the game of football.
His son, Jordan Ayew, is a fantastic player in his own right but he has some big shoes to fill to carry on the legacy of being Ghana’s finest.
#7 – Yaya Toure
Yaya Toure from Cote d’Ivoire is one of the most dynamic midfielders to ever play football. The Ivorian began his professional career in 2001 with Belgian club Beveren but his big break came after he moved to Olympiacos in 2005 where he won the Greek Championship and Greek Cup. After one season in Piraeus, Greece, Toure moved to AS Monaco in Ligue 1 where we made 27 appearances. His consistent performances in central midfield caught Barcelona’s eye as the Catalans signed him in August 2007 for £6.7 million.
Toure made 118 appearances for Barcelona over three seasons and won the Spanish Cup in 2008/09, Spanish Super Cup, as well as the UEFA Super Cup in 2009/10. He also ended up winning two La Liga titles and a UEFA Champions League when Barcelona won the Treble under Pep Guardiola back in 2008/09.
After contributing to Barcelona’s success, Yaya Toure moved to the blue part of Manchester as he joined Manchester City in 2010. This is where we saw the best of the man from the Ivory Coast. Yaya Toure made 316 appearances for City, scored 79 goals, and had 50 assists. He was a centrepiece in Roberto Mancini’s success as manager when they went on to win their first-ever Premier League title. He also helped the team win the FA Cup in 2011.
Yaya Toure was not short of success at Manchester City. He won three League Cups with the club and followed up their first-ever league title with two more in 2014 and 2018. He also won the Community Shield with the Citizens in 2013.
Wherever Yaya Toure went, success followed. He was a strong central midfielder who read the game so well. Manchester City unlocked his real potential as he was given the complete freedom to attack. A testament to this was his season in 2013/14 as he ended the Premier League season with 20 goals and 9 assists in 35 appearances.
The Ivorian won the African Footballer of the Year award 4 consecutive times from 2011 to 2014! Toure won the African Cup with his country in 2015 and was named to the CAF Team of the Tournament on 7 occasions. He made 101 appearances for his nation and had 19 goals. He was the BBC African Footballer of the Year in 2013 and 2015. Yaya Toure has done it all and is one of the most successful footballers to come out of Cote d’Ivoire.
#6 – Nwankwo Kanu
Nwankwo Kanu is hands down, one of the greatest players in African football history. The former Nigerian striker has won it all at the domestic level. The star forward spent 20 years playing professional football at the highest level. He hit the ground running back in 1992 when he had 15 goals in just 25 games for Iwuanyanwu Nationale before transferring to Dutch giants, Ajax Amsterdam.
Kanu was terrific for Ajax. He ended up winning the UEFA Champions League with the team in 1994/95, along with the League title. During his time at Ajax, he won 3 Dutch league titles, 1 Dutch Super Cup, the Intercontinental Cup in 1995 and the UEFA Super Cup in 1994/95. He had 25 goals in 53 games for the club before moving to the Serie A’s premier team, Internazionale (Inter Milan). The Nigerian had a torrid time in Italy and only featured for the club on 20 occasions and just scored 1 goal. But he did end up winning the UEFA Cup in 1997/98. Nwankwo Kanu was then picked up by Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side and that was his second calling. The forward spent 6 seasons at North London as he did please the Highbury faithful.
Arsenal fans loved the Nigerian and he was accepted with open arms. He was known for his footwork and the one match that is etched in all those fans’ memories, who watched the game back in 1999, was the comeback against Chelsea. Kanu became the ultimate hero for the North Londoners. The Gunners were 2-0 down in 75 minutes and it was then Kanu’s hattrick that brought them back to win the game.
He was never going to be the main man at Arsenal with Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry being there but he accepted his role and brought elegance to his game. Nwankwo Kanu was a genius on the pitch and had incredible skill.
Kanu was so adored by the Arsenal fans that he was voted 13th on the list of Arsenal’s greatest ever players and that speaks volumes of his ability. Kanu won 2 Premier League titles, 2 FA Cups and 1 Community Shield with the Gunners making it a successful tenure in North London.
The Nigerian star moved to West Bromwich Albion where he managed to rack up 9 goals in 55 games before being signed by Portsmouth on a free transfer. Kanu won the FA Cup in 2008 with Portsmouth and made 168 appearances for the club. He scored 28 goals and had 16 assists during his time at the club.
Nwankwo Kanu is also an Olympic gold medalist as Nigeria won the men’s football tournament in 1996 in the USA. He was also part of the squad that won the FIFA U-17 World Cup back in 1993. Kanu has won the African Footballer of the Year and BBC African Footballer of the Year, twice.
Kanu’s stats may not seem that impressive but he did much more for the team and brought a lot more to the game than just goals and Arsenal fans can back this up. He won everything at the domestic level and represented his nation at the highest level too. Nwankwo Kanu will always be remembered as one of Nigeria’s and Africa’s greatest.
#5 – Didier Drogba
Some people do not need an introduction and Didier Drogba is certainly one of those players who do not. The best player to come from Ivory Coast, Drogba was a goal machine. Everywhere he went, he scored goals and that too, lots of them. Drogba had 300 goals and 124 assists in 686 competitive games over 20 years.
The forward had his most amazing time at Chelsea. He had 164 goals and 84 assists in just 381 appearances. He was voted as Chelsea’s greatest ever player by the official club magazine. He is the first African to have reached the 100-digit mark for Premier League goals scored.
Drogba won the African Footballer of the Year award twice, in 2006 and 2009, during his time with Chelsea. He is a two-time Premier League golden boot winner, 4-time Premier League winner, 4-time FA Cup winner, 3-time League Cup winner and a UEFA Champions League winner.
The Ivorian’s record for his country is very impressive too. He had 105 caps and 65 goals but never won any major team honours with the national side. Didier Drogba made the Africa Cup of Nations Team of the Tournament thrice. He was the African Footballer of the Year twice. Drogba also made the shortlist for the Ballon d’Or 8 times and he finished 4th in 2007! He won the BBC African Footballer of the Year award in 2009.
He also made the CAF Team of the Year on 5 occasions. During his time at Chelsea, Drogba was breaking all sorts of records. He was a big match player and a game-winner. It was this “never give up” attitude that has given him so much success. Drogba is one of the best players ever to grace the Premier League.
#4 – Ahmed Hassan
Ahmed Hassan is a remarkably familiar name in African football. He is the most successful Egyptian footballer and has been an integral part of the nation’s success in international football. His versatility and dynamism were his two strongest attributes. He could play anywhere in midfield and attack but majorly played the role of a central attacking midfielder.
Ahmed Hassan played over 100 games for Besiktas JK and scored 30 goals along with 15 assists, which is impressive. He also featured in 85 games for El Ahly Cairo where he had 18 goals and 10 assists. He had a good spell at RSC Anderlecht too, the first-tier Belgian side, where he scored 25 goals along with 10 assists in 83 appearances. He won the league title, cup, and super cup at Anderlecht.
However, Ahmed Hassan’s greatest contribution is to his country. He is a 4-time Africa Cup of Nations winner with Egypt and represented them 8 times! He has the most caps for his country with 184 and scored 33 goals. He won the Africa Cup of Nations Best Player Award in 2006 and then again in 2010.
Hassan represented Egypt for 17 years from 1995-2012. An amazing feat for an amazing player. There is no doubt that very few players would be able to emulate Ahmed Hassan’s longevity and success in Africa.
#3 – George Weah
George Weah is the President of Liberia, yes, but he was a prolific football player and one of the best to ever lace up their boots in world football. Weah was signed by Arsene Wenger in 1988 for AS Monaco, which came as a surprise to many as no one particularly knew about the African forward. It did not take long for people to start noticing just how good the Liberian was.
In his first season itself with Monaco, Weah had 16 goals in just 29 games. This amazing showing in his debut year earned him Africa’s Footballer of the Year award for the first time. The ace started honing his skills under Arsene Wenger but unfortunately only managed to feature in 17 games in the 1989/90 Ligue 1 season. He was impressive in the UEFA Cup, however, netting 3 goals in 5 games. Weah spent four seasons with Monaco, featured in 135 games, bagging 65 goals. He ended up winning the French Cup with the club in the 1990/91 season.
After Monaco, George Weah joined Paris Saint-Germain for three seasons, and he had a good run with PSG as well. The African represented the Parisians in 127 games and scored 49 times. He contributed to the club’s 2 French Cup titles, 1 league title and 1 league cup trophy. During his PSG spell, Weah won the African Footballer of the Year award twice, taking his total tally to 3.
However, it was the 1994/95 season when we saw Weah at his best. He had 8 goals in 11 UEFA Champions League games, which made him the top scorer in the competition and proved to be decisive in him winning the FIFA Best award and the Ballon d’Or in 1995. He was the world’s best player then!
After the Ballon d’Or winning season, George Weah moved to Italy’s AC Milan. Weah spent four and a half seasons at the San Siro where he enjoyed another good spell in his already successful career. He scored 58 goals and had 39 assists in 147 games for Milan.
Weah then joined Chelsea in London in midway through the 1999/00 season where he won the FA Cup. He only made 14 appearances and scored 4 times before then moving to Manchester City for the start of the 2000/01 season but only featured in 7 games, netting once. The Liberian finally moved back to France to join Olympique Marseille where he managed 5 goals and 2 assists in 20 games, which was the last we saw of the Liberian in Europe.
George Weah has 182 goals in 450 appearances in Europe’s major competitions. He had 22 goals for his country in 61 appearances and was awarded the IFFHS African Player of the Century in 1996. He is officially a part of AC Milan’s Hall of Fame and that speaks volumes about how great a player President Weah was.
#2 – Roger Milla
Albert Roger Miller, popularly known as Roger Milla, is said to be Africa’s greatest ever player. The Cameroonian was one of the first Africans to become a star in international football. He became famous for his standout showing at the 1990 FIFA World Cup as he scored 4 goals and became the oldest goal-scorer in the competition.
Roger Milla led Cameroon to the FIFA World Cup quarterfinals, the first African team to do so. He outdid himself by featuring in the 1994 FIFA World Cup as well, now aged 42, as he went on to score against Russia to beat his record of the oldest to score a goal in the competition, a record that stands till today and may never be broken.
Milla had 28 goals for Cameroon along with 102 caps. He played football from 1967 to 1996 (29 years)! He had 405 goals in 666 appearances during this time in domestic competitions. His outstanding goalscoring record helped him maintain his spot in the Cameroonian side from 1973 to 1994. Milla was a part of the Cameroon squad that won the Africa Cup of Nations twice, in 1984 and 1988. He won African Footballer of the Year twice and the Africa Cup of Nations Best Player once. He top-scored in the CAF in 1986 and 1988. He also won the FIFA World Cup Bronze Boot in 1990, aged 38 and made the All-Star Team! He was recognized as the CAF Best African Player of the last 50 years in 2007.
There is no doubt that Roger Milla’s longevity and goalscoring ability making him one of the best of all-time.
#1 – Samuel Eto’o
This man was one of a kind. We may never see a better striker in African football than Samuel Eto’o. The Cameroonian has achieved the unthinkable and has been spoiled for success wherever he has gone. He is the only player in football history to have won the UEFA Champions League back-to-back, with two different clubs. What is most special about it is that they were both, treble-winning seasons!
A product of the Real Madrid youth academy, Eto’o was highly rated. He was lucky enough to be a part of the squad after making only 3 appearances for the senior team as they won the UEFA Champions League in 1999/00, his first of four. It is only during his loan term in the year 2000 at Mallorca, that he started turning heads with his performances. He had 6 goals in 13 appearances before being signed by the club. He featured in 155 games and scored 67 goals for the team over a little more than 4 seasons. He left the team as the club’s all-time leading goal-scorer in domestic competitions. His goalscoring ability led Mallorca to the Spanish Cup in 2002/03, the only trophy he won with the team before being called up by Barcelona. The rest is history.
Eto’o spent 5 seasons at the Camp Nou, which was Barcelona’s most successful phase in the club’s history. He had 199 appearances and scored an astounding 130 goals along with 40 assists! He was prolific in every sense and never failed to deliver in big games. During his time with the Catalans, Eto’o won the La Liga 3 times, the Spanish Cup once, the Spanish Super Cup twice, the UEFA Champions League twice and the Copa Catalunya twice as well. In 2008/09, he was part of the treble-winning squad of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona as they won the La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League.
After winning it all with Barcelona, Eto’o signed for Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan for the 2009/10 season. He spent two seasons at the San Siro where he made 102 appearances, scored 53 goals, and notched up 25 assists. The Cameroonian won the Italian Cup in both his seasons with Inter, the Italian Super Cup in 2010/11, the Serie A title in 2009/10, the FIFA Club World Cup and the coveted UEFA Champions League title as well making it consecutive trebles.
Samuel Eto’o also had 44 goals and 14 assists for Anzhi Makhachkala, in Russia, in 77 appearances. He then moved to Chelsea for a short while. He had 12 goals and 7 assists in 35 games for the Blues, before moving to Everton where he featured in 20 games and scored 4 times. Eto’o’s career peaked with Inter Milan but it was not due to him dropping in talent. He chose to play elsewhere as he did not have anything left to achieve really.
Eto’o represented Cameroon 118 times, scoring 56 goals. He was a squad member when the nation won the Olympic Gold medal in 2000 and won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2000 and 2002. Eto’o has not only achieved almost everything there is with his teams but also has won several individual accolades. He won the Young African Player of the Year in 2000. He was African Player of the Year 4 times including three in a row from 2003 to 2005. He was the African Cup of Nations top scorer in 2006 and 2008, made the UEFA Team of the Year twice, in 2005 and 2006, and made the CAF Team of the Year on 6 occasions.
Samuel Eto’o still holds the records as the all-time leading goal scorer for RCD Mallorca, Cameroon and in the African Cup of Nations. Mohamed Salah is the only active African player who could potentially emulate Samuel Eto’o but it remains to be seen how much success the Liverpool forward can have over the next few years.