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Tom Hancock

The best African footballers ever

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Mohamed Salah of Liverpool looks on during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and AFC Bournemouth at Anfield on August 19, 2023 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images).

Football-mad Africa has a rich history in the game, so it goes without saying that the continent has produced some very special players.

From trailblazers in the 70s and 80s to modern-day greats, our ranking of the best African footballers of all time takes in stars from all areas of the pitch – who have shone for club and country alike.

Let's get stuck straight in, shall we?

32. Benni McCarthy

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Benni McCarthy’s prolific form for Cape Town club Seven Stars in the mid-90s earned him a big move to Europe – where he continued to bang in the goals for Ajax, Porto and Blackburn Rovers.

Arguably South Africa’s greatest striker of all time, McCarthy played and scored for Bafana Bafana at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.

31. Essam El Hadary

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Essam El Hadary seemed to go on forever: the goalkeeper made his professional debut in 1993 and didn’t hang up his gloves until 2020, earning 159 caps for Egypt along the way.

A four-time AFCON champion, El Hadary broke the record for the oldest player in World Cup history when he lined up between the sticks at the 2018 tournament aged 45.

30. Lucas Radebe

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An integral member of South Africa’s 1996 Africa Cup of Nations-winning team, and captain come the 1998 World Cup, Lucas Radebe is one of the best defenders ever to emerge from the continent.

Radebe also wore the armband at Leeds, where he earned such legendary status that local indie band Kaiser Chiefs took their name from his former club: Kaizer Chiefs of Johannesburg.

29. Asamoah Gyan

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Asamoah Gyan won over 100 caps and scored more than 50 goals for Ghana, almost firing them to the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (only for Luis Suarez to, uh, intervene).

A two-time AFCON runner-up, the striker – who famously wore the number three shirt – turned out for the likes of Udinese, Rennes and Sunderland at club level.

28. Hossam Hassan

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One of the most-capped international players of all time, legendary Egypt centre-forward Hossam Hassan represented his country on 176 occasions – during which he notched 68 goals.

Hassan – who spent most of his club career with Cairo giants Al Ahly – helped the Pharaohs to three AFCON titles across a 20-year span, as well as featuring at the 1990 World Cup.

27. Sulley Muntari

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Another key member of the Ghanaian team which reached the last eight of the 2010 World Cup, Sulley Muntari earned 84 caps for the Black Stars in total.

Known for his tenacity in midfield, Muntari lifted the FA Cup with Portsmouth in 2008 before going on to star for Jose Mourinho’s 2008/09 treble-winning Inter Milan side.

26. Vincent Enyeama

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At five-foot-eleven, Vincent Enyeama was on the short side for a goalkeeper – but that didn’t stop him from carving out a career as one of Africa’s all-time greats in the position.

Capped 101 times by Nigeria, Enyeama – who most notably played for Lille at club level – helped the Super Eagles to 2013 AFCON glory and featured at two World Cups.

25. Freddie Kanoute

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Born in France, Freddie Kanoute represented Mali at international level and, in 2007, became the first player born outside Africa to be named African Footballer of the Year.

Following spells with Lyon, West Ham and Tottenham, the towering centre-forward enjoyed great success at Sevilla, racking up 137 goals and winning back-to-back UEFA Cups in 2006 and 2007.

24. Kolo Toure

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Almost ever-present as Arsenal’s Invincibles won the 2003/04 Premier League title without losing a single game, Kolo Toure spent the vast majority of his career in England – where he was also a champion with Manchester City.

The centre-back also triumphed on the international stage, helping the Ivory Coast – for whom he amassed 120 caps – to 2015 AFCON victory.

23. Mohamed Aboutrika

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African Player of the Year runner-up in 2008 – when he won his second of two AFCON titles – Egyptian attacking midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika earned iconic status during a 100-cap international career.

At club level, Aboutrika lifted seven straight Egyptian Premier League titles with Al Ahly – in addition to finishing as top scorer at the 2006 Club World Cup.

22. Emmanuel Adebayor

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Undoubtedly Togo’s best player of all time, Emmanuel Adebayor inspired his country to their first ever World Cup qualification in 2006 – when he also earned a big move from Monaco to Arsenal.

And the imposing frontman went from strength to strength with the Gunners, making it into the 2007/08 Premier League PFA Team of the Year and winning 2008 African Player of the Year.

21. Lauren

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Another of Arsenal’s Invincibles, Lauren joined the Gunners as a midfielder but soon established himself as one of the most reliable right-backs in the Premier League, making the 2003/04 PFA Team of the Year.

The Cameroonian’s international career only lasted five years – but that was enough time to get his hands on two AFCON winner’s medals and 2000 Olympic gold.

20. Rigobert Song

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Capped a whopping 137 times during a 17-year international career, Rigobert Song is up there with the very best ever to play for Cameroon, winning two AFCON crowns and representing the Indomitable Lions at four World Cups.

The famously dreadlocked centre-back won trophies with Metz, Liverpool, Galatasaray and Trabzonspor, and later coached Cameroon at the 2022 World Cup – where they memorably beat Brazil.

19. Bruce Grobbelaar

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Born in South Africa, Bruce Grobbelaar represented Zimbabwe in international football, very nearly helping them qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

It was between the sticks for Liverpool that the suitably mad goalkeeper really made a name for himself, though – most notably in the 1984 European Cup final, where his ‘spaghetti legs’ act in the final penalty shootout against Roma sealed victory for the Reds.

18. Geremi

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From his native Cameroon to Paraguay to Turkey to Spain to England, then back to Turkey and onto Cyprus, Geremi’s career path wasn’t exactly typical – but it brought him great success.

A highly versatile right-back capped 118 times by his country – who he helped to two AFCON triumphs and Olympic gold – Geremi was a double Champions League winner with Real Madrid and a double Premier League champion with Chelsea.

17. Mahmoud El Khatib

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One of Africa’s very best players during the 70s and 80s, Mahmoud El Khatib played a starring role as Egypt ended a 27-year wait for AFCON victory in 1986.

A prolific goalscorer, the forward spent his entire club career at Al Ahly – where he later became President – helping them dominate their way to 10 top-flight titles between 1975 and 1987.

16. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

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French-born Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang goes down as Gabon’s finest ever player, captaining the country as his father had previously done so.

Also skipper at Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal during various phases of his career, Aubameyang was crowned 2015 African Player of the Year, and shared the 2018/19 Premier League Golden Boot with Sadio Mane and Mo Salah.

15. Thomas N'Kono

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A true legend in the history of Cameroon and Espanyol, the great Thomas N’Kono’s goalkeeping displays at the 1990 World Cup inspired a certain Gianluigi Buffon to don the gloves.

N’Kono starred as the Indomitable Lions – who he would go on to manage in 2009 – famously went all the way to the quarter-finals in Italy – having helped them be crowned continental champions six years earlier.

14. Sammy Kuffour

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For us, the best defender ever to come out of Africa, Ghanaian great Sammy Kuffour joined Bayern Munich in 1993 and spent the next 12 years winning trophy after trophy – including six Bundesliga titles and the Champions League.

A 1991 U17 world champion, he finally got to represent his country on the biggest stage of all as they qualified for their maiden World Cup in 2006.

13. Roger Milla

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Among the first African players to gain superstar status on the global stage, Roger Milla is, of course, best remembered for scoring four goals for Cameroon at Italia ’90 – at the ripe old age of 38.

The two-time African Footballer of the Year and double AFCON champion – who won the Coupe de France with Monaco and Bastia – then went and found the net again at the 1994 World Cup.

12. Nwankwo Kanu

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A firm fan favourite at Arsenal, Nwankwo Kanu had already lifted the Champions League with Ajax and UEFA Cup with Inter Milan when he joined the Gunners in 1999.

The epitome of ‘good feet for a big man’, the six-foot-six Nigeria forward – a 1996 Olympic champion – became something of a super-sub during his time with Arsene Wenger’s team, popping up with some key goals and winning two Premier League titles.

11. Rabah Madjer

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The first African outfield player to win the European Cup (Bruce Grobbelaar was the first overall), Rabah Madjer became an icon in the colours of Porto and Algeria during the 80s.

After equalising as Porto beat Bayern Munich to be crowned champions of Europe for the first time in 1987, Madjer helped his country to 1990 AFCON success – having featured at their first two World Cups in 1982 and 1986.

10. Jay-Jay Okocha

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Signed by Bolton Wanderers on a free transfer in 2002, Jay-Jay Okocha has to go down as one of the most entertaining players ever to grace the Premier League – and one of the best ever from Africa.

A 1994 AFCON winner, 1996 Olympic gold medallist and Nigerian Footballer of the Year on no fewer than seven occasions, the devilishly tricky Okocha delighted spectators with some audacious pieces of skill.

9. Michael Essien

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One of the top box-to-box midfielders in Europe at his peak, Michael Essien flourished at Chelsea after his 2005 arrival from Lyon for £24.4m – at the time, the biggest fee ever paid for an African player.

The Ghanaian – a 2010 AFCON runner-up – proved instrumental as the Blues won the 2005/06 Premier League title – and he went on to add numerous further honours, including the 2011/12 Champions League.

8. Abedi Pele

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It’s not often that a nickname becomes the name a player actually goes by – but Abedi Pele – who won the 1992/93 Champions League with Marseille – really was that good.

African Footballer of the Year three years on the trot from 1991 to 1993, Pele – whose sons Andre, Jordan and Rahim Ayew all went on to represent Ghana – won the 1982 AFCON with the Black Stars.

7. Riyad Mahrez

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PFA Player of the Year for his starring role in Leicester’s fairytale 2015/16 Premier League title triumph, Riyad Mahrez rapidly became one of the best wingers in the world, making a £60m move to Manchester City in 2018.

Within a year, the dazzling Algerian had collected another Premier League winner’s medal and inspired his nation to AFCON victory; and in 2023, he finally got his hands on the Champions League.

6. Sadio Mane

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Having risen to prominence at Red Bull Salzburg then made his mark on the Premier League with Southampton, Senegal superstar Sadio Mane joined Liverpool in 2016 – and went on to true greatness.

Within four years, the devastatingly fast forward had won the Premier League title and Champions League, forming a formidable front three with Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino – and the following year, he tasted AFCON glory.

5. Yaya Toure

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An absolute giant of a midfielder, Yaya Toure was pretty much unstoppable in his prime, playing a vital role in three Premier League title triumphs at Manchester City.

African Footballer of the Year four years running from 2011 to 2014, the Ivory Coast icon captained his country to 2015 AFCON glory and is one of a handful of midfielders to score 20 goals in a Premier League campaign.

4. Didier Drogba

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The first African player to reach the 100-goal mark in the Premier League, Didier Drogba gave many a defender nightmares during his hugely successful first spell with Chelsea – where, among other honours, he won four Premier League titles and the Champions League.

A two-time African Footballer of the Year and two-time Premier League Golden Boot winner, the Ivorian banged in 65 goals in 105 caps for his nation.

3. Samuel Eto'o

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One of the greatest strikers of all time, four-time African Footballer of the Year Samuel Eto’o scored for fun during spells with Barcelona and Inter Milan during the 00s and early 10s – and he won the Champions League with both clubs.

Third in the voting for 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year, Eto’o was an Olympic gold medallist and two-time AFCON champion with Cameroon – for whom he notched 56 goals in 118 caps.

2. George Weah

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Africa’s first Ballon d’Or winner – in 1995, when he was also named FIFA World Player of the Year – George Weah remains one of the very best players never to play at the World Cup.

The Liberian icon – who went on to become the West African nation’s President – lifted league titles with PSG and AC Milan, finishing as 1994/95 Champions League top scorer while playing for the latter.

1. Mo Salah

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Mo Salah flopped during his first stab at the Premier League with Chelsea – but Liverpool gave him a second chance, and how he took it: the Reds’ Egyptian King rapidly established himself as one of the most devastating attackers around.

A multiple Premier League Golden Boot winner and two-time African Footballer of the Year, PFA Players’ Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year, Salah is simply sensational.

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