Africa’s greatest footballers

FootballAfrican influence on the English Premier League has never been greater, with exciting young stars joining the likes of Victor Wanyama and Yaya TourÉ in the limelight. Msafiri looks at the past, the present and the future…

African influence on English football has come a long way in recent years, providing some of the Premier League’s biggest-ever names, like Didier Drogba and Nwankwo Kanu – as well as new heroes such as Riyad Mahrez.

But how many kids across Africa have a poster of Ghana’s Arthur Wharton?

That could soon change. Wharton’s story is just starting to be told – and it’s one that should make the entire continent proud. He travelled all the way from Ghana – then known as the Gold Coast – to become England’s first-ever black professional footballer in the 1880s and paved the way for so many others.

These days there are 45 African internationals in the Premier League alone and they include some of the biggest names in world football, such as Yaya Touré and Kenya’s very own Victor Wanyama. Add to that the new heroes of 2015-2016 – footballers such as Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez at Leicester City, Senegalese striker Sadio Mane at Southampton and DRC winger Yannick Bolasie at Crystal Palace, who are all making big headlines – and you can see that African football is on the up.

The Trailblazer
So how much do the current crop of talent owe to trailblazer Wharton? Born in Ghana in 1865 he sailed to Britain as a trainee missionary but soon discovered he was an outstanding sportsman, winning the Amateur Athletic Association’s 100-yard sprint in a world record 10 seconds.

Quite how or why he went from sprinter to goalkeeper nobody seems to know; but he entered top-level football as keeper for Preston North End, was part of their all-conquering team of the late 1880s and then turned professional with Rotherham in 1889. He was the first black player in England – and possibly in the world – to do so.

Wharton’s contribution to English football was recognised in 2014 when a statue of him was unveiled at St George’s Park, the new home of the game in England.

David Sheepshanks, chairman of St George’s Park and former chairman of Ipswich Town, said: “When you look at what this man achieved it’s simply extraordinary. Imagine the courage he had to display to achieve what he did in those days.

“Certainly not enough people know about his story and we’re going to tell it to everyone who visits here.”

Who was Arthur Wharton?
• Born in Jamestown, Gold Coast (now Accra, Ghana) in 1865.
• His mother was a member of the Fante Akan royalty.
• Moved to England in 1882 to train as a Methodist missionary.
• Signed by Darlington at the age of 19 and then Preston in 1886.
• Turned professional in 1889 after moving to Rotherham – and became the world’s first black professional footballer.
• Also played for Sheffield United, Stalybridge Rovers, Ashton North End and Stockport County.
• Died penniless in 1930 and buried in an unmarked grave in Yorkshire.
• His grave was given a headstone in 1997 following a campaign by anti-racism body Football Unites, Racism Divides.
• Inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
• A statue of him was unveiled at St George’s Park, the home of English football, in 2014.

Today’s Premier League
These days, of course, there is a serious African flavour to the Premier League, in a competition that embraces players from every continent.

At last count there were 45 African inter-nationals registered in the league (up from 37 last year) and 17 of the 20 clubs include a player from Africa in their squad (Manchester United are among those who don’t). That figure could well rise on transfer deadline day as clubs battle to bring in new talent, too.

This season has been something of a landmark one. African players scored nine of the 30 goals on the opening weekend of the season, for instance, and of the 37 players nominated for the Confederation of African Football’s Player of the Year, 11 were playing their football in England.

It’s not a one-way street, either. English football is hugely popular across Africa – boasting a television audience of close to half a billion last year. And recent statistics show clubs such as Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City have millions of fans across the continent. That support looks certain to grow as the number of role models and African heroes in the Premier League continues to rise.

It took a long time from Arthur Wharton’s arrival more than 120 years ago for it to happen. Many clubs in England didn’t employ a black player until the 1980s, let alone welcome a visiting international from Africa. Now clubs actively search for talent all over the continent. Manchester City have set up a School of Football in South Africa, are actively scouting in Nigeria and have an arrangement with the Ghana FA to unearth talent.

City’s young Nigerian Kelechi Iheanacho scored his first goal for the club this season while Sadou Diallo was found in Guinea and has just won England U18s caps after he moved to the UK as a boy. Whether that is good for Africa is open to discussion. Nowadays young boys growing up in Africa have dozens of heroes to look up to as they dream of making it big on the international stage. Can you imagine what Arthur Wharton would make of that?

Big names of 2016
Victor Wanyama (Southampton/Kenya)
Kenya’s very own superstar, the former Celtic midfielder is in top form and has been linked with moves to clubs such as Arsenal and Tottenham. Could he become one of the Premier League’s African legends in the future?
Yaya TourÉ (Man City/Ivory Coast)
The biggest name on the teamsheet at City, a world-class player capable of scoring spectacular goals from midfield.
Wilfried Bony (Man City/Ivory Coast)
The former Swansea striker is the most expensive African star in Premier League history, costing £28m from Swansea. He has to get past Sergio Aguero to get a game sometimes, but is a hero in his own right.
Victor Moses (West Ham/Nigeria)
On yet another loan spell from Chelsea, winger Moses looks at home at Upton Park and is starting to reproduce the form he always shows for his country.

The rising stars
• Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City/Algeria) The Leicester winger, 24, has been a revelation and a contender for player of the season so far. He had scored 13 goals by December, guiding unfashionable Leicester to the top of the table.
• Yannick Bolasie (Crystal Palace/DR Congo) Powerful and unpredictable winger who is making the big guns take notice with eye-catching performances at Selhurst Park. Has added goals to his armoury this year, too.
• Odion Ighalo (Watford/Nigeria) One of the finds of the season, the striker has been banging in goals for the Hornets after helping them to promotion. In fact over the whole of 2015 he scored more goals in England than any other player, 30 at last count.
• Sadio Mane (Southampton/Senegal) The Saints striker has such incredible pace and has played so well that Manchester United are desperate to sign him.
• Andre Ayew (Swansea/Ghana) and Jordan Ayew (Aston Villa/Ghana) Brothers in arms in the Premier League, both have scored goals this campaign.
• Arouna KonÉ (Everton/Ivory Coast) The striker is having the season of his life at Goodison, forming a wonderful partnership with Romelu Lukaku.

On the bench:
Celestine Babayaro (Chelsea/ Nigeria), Emmanuel Adebayor (Arsenal, Manchester City, Tottenham/Togo), Bruce GrobBelaar (Liverpool/Zimbabwe), Stephen Pienaar (Everton, Spurs/South Africa), Alex Song (Arsenal, West Ham/ Cameroon), Yakubu Aiyegbeni (Portsmouth, Middlesbrough, Everton, Blackburn/Nigeria), Benni McCarthy (Blackburn, West Ham/South Africa), Peter Ndlovu (Coventry City/ Zimbabwe).

History: top 10 African footballers in Premier League
Ranked subjectively on their contribution to the Premier League not on their performance for their country or across their career
1 Didier Drogba (Chelsea/Ivory Coast)
Undoubtedly number one, the Ivory Coast striker was a superstar at Chelsea – winning four league titles in two spells at the club, scoring in four FA Cup Finals and even converting the penalty against Bayern Munich that won them their first-ever Champions League trophy. A true legend.
2 Nwankwo Kanu (Arsenal/Nigeria)
The Nigerian became a terrace hero at Arsenal after arriving from Inter Milan in 1999, not least because of a famous 15-minute hat-trick against Chelsea. He won two Premier League titles and remains a deity in his homeland.
3 Yaya TourÉ (Man City/Ivory Coast)
The Ivory Coast midfielder is Africa’s biggest current star and one of the Premier League’s top ever imports. His drive, skill and goals from midfield helped City to two Premier League titles.
4 Michael Essien (Chelsea/Ghana)
Ghana midfielder Essien was an integral part of two title-winning Chelsea teams before heading to Real Madrid to complete his career. At his best, unstoppable in the middle of the park.
5 Lucas Radebe (Leeds/South Africa)
The South African defender led by example at Leeds, where he was made captain, guiding them to the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2000.
6 Jay-Jay Okocha (Bolton/Nigeria)
Skilful Nigerian star, he may not have won titles at the highest level but he never failed to entertain at Bolton and was loved wherever he played.
7 Samuel Eto’o (Chelsea/Cameroon)
One of Africa’s greatest-ever players, Eto’o arrived at Chelsea at the end of his career but nevertheless has to be on the list. How could you leave a four-time African Player of the Year out? He also had a spell at Everton.
8 Tony Yeboah (Leeds/Ghana)
Scorer of spectacular goals, the powerful striker became the first player in Match of the Day history to win two Goal of the Month awards in successive months. He also scored 29 goals in 59 games for the Black Stars.
9 Kolo TourÉ (Arsenal,Man City, Liverpool/Ivory Coast)
The Ivory Coast defender, elder brother of Yaya, has captained three of England’s biggest clubs. Not a bad CV!
10 George Weah (Chelsea/Liberia)
Another megastar who arrived in the Premier League late in his career. His best days were in Italy and France but England still remembers the two-time African Player of the Year and one-time World Player of the Year fondly.

Did you know?
• Our list leaves out several African-born legends who chose to play for France instead. Did you know Patrick Vieira was born in Senegal? Or Claude Makelele in Kinshasa? And Marcel Desailly in Accra?
• The first-ever African international to play in the Premier League was Zimbabwe’s Peter Ndlovu, who made history by playing for Coventry in August 1991.
• George Weah is the only African player to win both the FIFA World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or awards in the same year.
• Arsenal’s up-and-coming young star Alex Iwobi is the nephew of Nigeria legend Jay-Jay Okocha.
• Samuel Eto’o was the first player to win two European continental trebles, with Barcelona and Inter Milan.

The Young Guns
Kelechi Iheanacho (Man City/Nigeria, striker)
The next big thing at the Etihad, he is only 19 years old but already scoring goals in the Premier League. Born in Imo State he was first spotted playing in the FIFA U17 World Cup for Nigeria. Named Africa’s Most Promising Talent in 2013, he scored his first-ever Premier League goal last September, against Crystal Palace.
Sadou Diallo (Man City/Guinea, midfielder)
Highly rated and tipped to make a breakthrough next season. “I have a lot of friends in Africa who want to be in my situation right now,” he said recently.
Alex Iwobi (Arsenal/Nigeria, winger)
Has been on the bench for the Gunners this year, an exciting young winger who is only 19. He made his Gunners debut in October 2015 and is also now a Nigerian international, having been born in Lagos.

5 minutes with Yannick Bolasie
Q You’ve gone from playing non-league football for Hillingdon Borough to being one of the top African stars in the Premier League. Can you believe it?
It’s crazy to think where I’ve come from and where I’ve been playing. Now to have a manager of Alan Pardew’s quality say I’m worth £20 million, £40 million or £60 million – it makes me feel proud. But I want to keep improving. I know all eyes are on me now so I have to make sure I am on my game all the time.
Q You seem to be getting better every season, though?
I am always learning every day – I am equivalent to a puzzle coming together. I am putting all the pieces together and just trying to get the final parts.
Q Commentators sometimes say even you don’t know what you’re going to do next – so how can defenders know? Is that true?
My skills are raw and uncoached, it is pure instinct. It has to just come naturally, but I like to keep defenders guessing.
Q The fans at Palace love you – and so do the fans of DR Congo. Is that important?
The supporters of Congo remind me a bit of the Palace fans, actually. They’re noisy! It’s always been a great atmosphere over there in Africa. I’m very lucky.

5 minutes with Riyad Mahrez
Q How do you explain your incredible form this season? Everyone is talking about you!
I don’t know – I think last season I was like that as well but did not have the success, now this year I have scored more. The manager Claudio Ranieri has given me a lot of responsibility and has given me a lot of confidence.
Q So you always had confidence in yourself?
Yes. I’m not surprised about what I can do. I knew I could do things like this.
Q Can you continue your form for Leicester all season?
I hope so. But it is more difficult for me now that defenders know my game – they will close a lot, so I have to be careful now. They will start to kick me, the manager said to me as well.

Where is he now?
Didier Drogba at the age of 37 isn’t yet thinking of retirement. In fact the Ivory Coast legend is hitting the goal trail in Major League Soccer, playing for Canadian-based Montreal Impact…
Q What do you think of the MLS, Didier? It’s not quite as big as the Premier League yet?
No, but it’s a growing league and I think it’s going to be one of the most important and decisive leagues in the world in a few years.
Q So, what next? Will you stay?
I will have time now to think about whether I want to carry on or not. I’m just enjoying playing, running everywhere, defending, scoring goals, travelling, going to new cities, discovering new plans and a new way of life.
Q You scored 12 goals in 14 regular season games and got Montreal to the play-offs before losing. So not a bad year?
It has been a good year. I’m happy with my season and I always said that despite my age I could do something good for the club.
Q Will you ever be back at Chelsea?
Not to play, but one day I want to give back to the club that has given so much to me. I have agreed with the club directors. I don’t know what. Why not manager? Why not sporting director, trainer at the academy or maybe an advising role for strikers? Let’s see, but I know I’ll be back.