Once every 4 years, the World Cup reminds us, in a way unlike any other, of the uniting power of football as tens of thousands of people travel across the globe to support their own live at the host country and millions more gather round in their homes or viewing centres to watch the sport.
While Africa has been typically underrepresented in the tournament – with only 4 countries representing the continent this year – our players’ contribution to the sport is inarguably immense. Over the years, African players have gone on to play remarkably, even smashing records, for some of the world’s top football clubs.
Here are 7 of the most iconic African football players of all time:
1. George Weah (Liberia)
Before he hung up his boots in 2003 to enter politics and eventually become the president of Liberia, George Weah had a prolific 18-year football career which earned him IFFS’s recognition as the greatest African player of the 20th century. He remains the only African player to have won the prestigious Ballon d’Or, in 1995. That same year, he was named the European Footballer of the Year and FIFA World Player of the Year. Alongside his two Serie A titles with AC Milan, Weah also won the FA Cup with Chelsea and Ligue 1 with Paris Saint-Germain.
Widely regarded as the greatest footballer to have never played the World Cup, George Weah’s legacy on African football is undisputable. Thankfully, Weah will be able to live that moment through his son Tim Weah, who will be representing the US tomorrow.
2. Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon)
The retired Cameroonian player and current president of the Cameroonian Football Federation was regarded as one of the best strikers in the world during his time. Alongside Côte d’Ivoire’s Yaya Toure, Samuel Eto’o won the CAF African Footballer of the Year award a record four times – George Weah follows behind closely with 3 wins.
His other achievements include an Olympic Gold medal in the year 2000; 3 Champions League titles, 2 with Barcelona and 1 with Inter Milan; Man of the Match award in the 2006 Champions League final; 2 AFCON wins; and title of highest goal scorer of all time in AFCON’s and Cameroon’s history.
3. Didier Drogba (Côte d’Ivoire)
Didier Drogba was a star of Chelsea’s golden generation, which featured other remarkable players like Frank Lampard, John Terry and Petr Cech. Drogba was voted Chelsea’s greatest player in 2012, the same year he scored the winning penalty against Bayern Munich in the memorable 2012 Champions League Final and was named UEFA Man of the Match. He also won 4 Premier League titles with Chelsea and was highest goal scorer in the 2006/07 and 2009/10 Premier League seasons. The club’s fourth highest goal scorer of all time, Drogba scored more goals than any other foreign player in the club’s history.
On a national and continental level, Drogba remains Côte d’Ivoire’s highest goal scorer of all time and made the most appearances (9) in the CAF African Player of the Year top 3, only securing 2 wins. He led his national team to the World Cup in 2006 – marking their first appearance at the tournament.
4. Mohamed Salah (Egypt)
Still at the peak of his career, Mohamed Salah is regarded as one of the world’s greatest football players. Since his senior career debut in 2010, Salah has played for, most notably, Chelsea, AS Roma and currently Liverpool. However, his most remarkable run has been with the latter. In his first season with the club in 2017/18, he set the record for most Premier League goals with 32 goals scored in a 38-game season. With Liverpool, he has won the Premier League and Champions League.
His individual accolades include 2 PFA Players’ Player of the Year awards, 2 CAF African Player of the Year awards, BBC African Player of the Year twice, 3 Premier League Golden Boots and Premier League Player of the season. He is currently the captain of the Egypt national team.
5. Sadio Mané (Senegal)
The remarkable Senegalese footballer plays as a forward for Bayern Munich and his national team. Before Bayern, Mané played alongside Salah in Liverpool and was instrumental to their Champions League win in 2019, ending the club’s 30-year League title drought. He also won the Golden Boot that year alongside Salah. At Southampton prior to Liverpool, he set the record for the fastest hat-trick, scored in 176 seconds.
Mané is Senegal’s all-time highest goal scorer and has won the CAF African Player of the Year award twice. He scored the winning goals which led Senegal to victory in both 2021 and 2022 – the 2021 win being the country’s first ever. Mané represented Cameroon in the 2018 World Cup but will unfortunately be unable to at this year’s tournament due to a leg injury.
6. Roger Milla (Cameroon)
Perhaps most popularly remembered for his signature goal celebration of running to the corner flag to dance, Roger Milla was a household name in African football in the 80’s and even till today, in pop culture. At 38 years old, an age when most players retire, the former forward scored 4 goals at the 1990 World Cup, becoming the oldest goal scorer in the World Cup. That year, he led Cameroon to become the first African team to reach the World Cup quarter-finals. Four years later, he beat his own record with a goal against Russia at 42 years old, at the 1994 World Cup.
He won the CAF African Player of the Year award twice and in 2007, was named by CAF as the best African player of the past half century, while IFFHS dubbed him the second greatest African player in the past century. In 2004, he was part of Pelé’s FIFA 100 list of the world’s greatest living players.
7. Nwankwo Kanu (Nigeria)
The former Nigerian forward represented his national team at 3 World Cups and played for Ajax, Inter Milan, Arsenal, West Bromwich and Portsmouth before the latter got relegated in 2012. He won the Champions League with Ajax once and was part of the 2003-2004 Arsenal squad which were dubbed “The Invincibles” due to their incredible run at the time.
Kanu is one of few players to have won the Champions League, Premier League (twice), the UEFA Cup, the FA Cup (3 times) and an Olympic gold medal. He won CAF African player of the year twice and made the third most substitute appearances (113) in Premier League history.
Sources: BBC Sport, Bleacher Report.