The Greatest African Footballers of all-time
Legendary Liberian striker George Weah at Milan in 1995.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
No.15 Lakhdar Belloumi
A wonderfully gifted attacking midfielder, Lakhdar Belloumi is widely regarded as the greatest Algerian footballer of all-time, and one of the greatest African players of all-time.
Belloumi's probably not as well known as many other great players of his era because Algeria had a law at the time that forbade any player from leaving the country before the age of 27. So, despite interest in 1981 from a number of huge European clubs, including Barcelona, Belloumi had to reman in his homeland, playing for GCR Mascara. Whilst that ruling meant that we missed out on seeing him grace European football competitions, we were lucky enough to see him at Espana’82, immediately wondering who on earth this player was, and why we’d never heard of him before. Forming a fine attacking trident along with Salah Assad and Rabah Madjer they would have gone through the group stages if it wasn't for the events at the last match between West Germany and Austria, which became known as the Disgrace of Gijón.
No.14 Salif Keïta
The first ever winner of the African Footballer of the Year Award, Salif Keïta was a fantastic forward who was a prolific goalscorer throughout his career but particularly his six years in France, most famously with Saint-Étienne, and then with Marseille. He would win three Ligue 1 titles with Les Verts, his goals helping the side become the strongest side in France, and helping to set them on the course to becoming one of the most feared sides in Europe.
No.13 Nwankwo Kanu
Given his size (6 ft 6), one would have expected that Nwankwo Kanu's role as a forward should have been as a target man, but his style was quite the opposite. With quick feet and great technical skills, Kanu was a fantastic dribbler, capable of moments of magic that would quickly open up opportunities for himself or teammates. Ajax had snapped Kanu up as a 17 year old after he'd helped Nigeria to win the 1993 U-17 World Championships and three fantastic seasons in Amsterdam saw him claim three Eredivisie titles, a Champions league victory (and runners-up) and an Intercontinental Cup. By 1996 Kanu was rated as one of football's hottest properties, was named African Footballer of the Year Award and was signed by Serie A giants Inter. However, his time at the San Siro was affected by a serious heart defect that was discovered in his first season there. Thankfully he was able to undergo successful surgery and got his career back on track with a move to Arsenal in early 1999. Despite being unable to dislodge the prolific partnership of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, Kanu would become something of a cult hero at Highbury with some of his performances, particularly as a substitute.
No.12 Rabah Madjer
One of Algeria's greatest ever players, Rabah Madjer made his name in the mid 1980s with Racing Club Paris before transferring to Porto in 1985. The striker would enjoy a successful six year spell with the Portuguese club, scoring one of the greatest goals in a European Cup final, with his famous back-heeled finish in the 1987 final against Bayern Munich. The goal was so iconic that it would have its own name as a signature skill in France, with the term "La Madjer" being used to describe a back-heeled goal.
No.11 Riyad Mahrez
The first Algerian footballer to win the Premier League, Riyad Mahrez came to prominence after Leicester City secured his signing from that French hotbed of young talent, Le Havre. He would go on to become the Foxes creative lynchpin as the club stunned the footballing world with their 2016 triumph, his skill on the wing providing countless assists and goals along the way. His performances prompted a £60m move to Manchester City in 2018, becoming the most expensive African footballer ever as well City's record transfer fee at the time. Whilst other players may have taken most of the plaudits since his move there, Mahrez has remained one of the club's most consistent and effective players, continuing to wreak havoc down the wing and delivering match-winning performances just when they needed it.
No.10 Michael Essien
A brilliant midfielder whose status would have been even higher if it wasn’t for the number of serious injuries that he sadly suffered in the second half of his career.
Michael Essien was still playing with his local side as a 16 year old when he had scouts across Europe suddenly scrambling for his signature following a number of stellar performances at the World U17 Championships, helping Ghana to finish in a fantastic third place. Manchester United tried to sign him but had his work permit refused and Essien ended up in France at Bastia. Having started out in a number of defensive roles, a move into midfield would see Essien establish himself in Ligue 1 and it wasn’t long before Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon were battling it out for his services, Essien opting for Lyon and immediately forming a fantastic midfield partnership with Juninho Pernambucano, the Brazilian’s playmaking skills complimenting Essien’s relentless box-to-box energy. Essien would win the Ligue 1 title in both his seasons at the Stade de Gerland.
José Mourinho’s big-spending Chelsea was the next stop for Michael Essien in 2005, the Stamford Bridge outfit splashing out £24.4m on him, breaking the record they’d paid out the previous summer for Didier Drogba.
No.9 Jay-Jay Okocha
If you were going to name the Greatest African footballer on talent alone, then Jay-Jay Okocha would probably be number one in the list. The Nigerian midfielder was outragously talented, right up there with the likes of Ronaldinho when it came to producing moments of magic with the ball that seemed to defy belief However, despite his talent Okacha never actually won the African Footballer of the Year Award and his list of honours is disappointingly thin, but one thing's for sure - Jay-Jay Okocha will be remembered by football fans across the globe for the sheer joy he brought to everyone who witnessed his incredible skills.
On Jay-Jay Okocha’s birthday, a reminder of the time he robbed Oliver Kahn and the entire Karlsruhe defence of their dignity.— A Funny Old Game (@sid_lambert) August 14, 2021
Have a heart, pal. Those men had families.pic.twitter.com/QqfsqwYogp
No.8 Roger Milla
Something of an icon of the World Cup in the 1990s, Roger Milla may not have played at the very highest level of domestic football in Europe, but he certainly came to the fore when he donned the shirts of the Indomitable Lions at football’s biggest event. His iconic goal celebrations at Italia'90 became one of the tournament's most memorable moments, whilst four years later at USA'94 he smashed his own record as he became the oldest goalscorer at a World Cup tournament when he scored against Russia as a 42 year-old.
No.7 Sadio Mané
With his pace, work-rate and all-action style, it's no wonder that Sadio Mané's became such a huge fan-favourite during his six years with Liverpool. Usually found on the left side of a front three, where he could use his pace and directness to great effect, Mane was also adaptable enough to play down the centre if need be, and his energy and pressing were ideally suited to Jürgen Klopp's tactics. When he left Anfield for Bayern Munich in the summer of 2022 Mane had won one medal for every trophy going, whilst internationally he helped Senegal to Africa Cup of Nations glory in 2022 with victory over his Liverpool team-mate Mo Salah's Egyptian side.
No.6 Abédi Pelé
Fantastic attacking midfielder who really came to prominence in the early 1990s as part of that exciting Marseille team who wowed fans across France and Europe with their swashbuckling brand of football. Making up Le Trio Magique alongside Jean-Pierre Papin and Chris Waddle, Abédi Pelé would be the only one of the three still at the club when it won the inaugural Champions League in 1993.
No.5 Mo Salah
Quick, agile, skillfull, clever, and with the sort of tight dribbling style where the ball appears to be stuck to his boots, Mo Salah is undoubtedly one of the greatest footballing talents of recent years.
Playing either on the right wing and cutting onto his favoured left foot, or down the middle, the Egyptian started out as a creator of goals but in the second half of his career also became a great goal-scorer, his stats with Roma, Liverpool and the Egyptian national team at a scale that most specialist centre-forwards would be envious of.
No.4 Yaya Touré
A fantastic all-round player who was good enough to function brilliantly in a variety of roles, including centre-back (he won the 2009 Champions League playing there with Barcelona) and as a holding midfielder, but it's Yaya Touré's lungbursting surges up and down the pitch as a box-to-box midfielder for which we remember him most fondly. Having also won two La Liga titles during his three year spell at the Camp Nou, Manchester City made him one of their first really high-profile signings in 2010, teaming him up with older brother Kolo as they looked to break the grip that Manchester United and Chelsea had on the Premier League. It would prove to be an inspired signing as eight years later, when Toure departed the club, he did so with three Premier league winners medals, and he'd played a huge part in all of them. His form during his time at the Etihad would also see him win the African Footballer of the Year Award four years in a row, from 2011 to 2014, a feat that hadn't been done before, or since. And it wasn't just domestic glory that Toure would achieve, in 2015 he captained the Ivory Coast to only their second Africa Cup of Nations triumph, Les Éléphants beating Ghana on penalties.
No.3 Didier Drogba
With his strength, power, pace and determination, Didier Drogba was an absolute warrior of a player, and an absolute nightmare for the majority of defenders who had to lineup against him. His football story is slightly unusual for a player with such an esteemed career, as he was late to the professional game and completely missed out on the daily training regime of a football academy as a youngster. However, having eventually signed a pro-contract with Le Mans he quickly stepped up the French league ladder with moves to Guingamp and Marseille. Impressive single seasons with both would result in interest from a number of clubs across Europe but it was José Mourinho’s Chelsea who won the race to sign him, paying £24m to bring him to Stamford Bridge. It was a huge fee at the time but over the course of the next eight seasons he would more than pay back it back with 100 Premier League goals and a number of fantastic big-match performances that would see him become a talismanic figure for the club.
No.2 Samuel Eto'o
With a deadly blend of pace, power and finishing, Samuel Eto'o was one of the world's greatest strikers of the 2000s. His goalscoring exploits with Barcelona and then Inter would help both clubs to a series of titles, including three Champions League winners medals, three La Liga titles and a Scudetto, and his achievements would see him named African Footballer of the Year Award four times. at USA'94 he smashed his own record as he became the oldest goalscorer at a World Cup tournament when he scored against Russia as a 42 year-old.
No.1 George Weah
What a player. The great Liberian striker remains the only African footballer to win the Ballon d'Or, a feat he achieved back in 1995 during his spell with Milan. It says something about George Weah's standing in his own country that he has subsequently gone on to become the country’s president, winning the 2017 election.