With the African Nation’s Cup upon us again (whoops, I meant to say “African Cup of Nations” obviously), no fewer than 25 players plying their trade in the English Premier League have left these shores for the tournament in Angola. With double the number of players involved in CAN 2010 compared with the tournament in 2000, what better way to celebrate the explosion of African talent in the English Premier League than naming the ten best African players of the last decade!
10. Steven Pienaar – Ok, perhaps this is a surprise inclusion, especially when considering the player has only been gracing the Premier League since the 2007-08 season. However, in that time, he has been a major force in an Everton team that has achieved respective fifth place finishes in the world’s toughest league. He made 28 appearances for Everton in both seasons, and has provided excellent cover for the long term absentee Mikel Arteta. Pienaar’s vision and work rate make him one of the first names on the team sheet for club and country. The South African international is only going to get better, and when taking into account he cost Everton just over £2 million, he is certainly one of David Moyes’s best buys to date, which is no small complement.
9. Sulleyman Ali Muntari – This combative central midfield player from Ghana was a club record signing for Portsmouth when he joined in May 2007. Also comfortable on the left side of midfield, the £7.1 million Pompey paid Udinese for his services looked like money well spent, with Portsmouth securing their highest ever Premier League finish (8th) during Muntari’s time at the club. ‘Sulley’ played an important part in Portsmouth’s most successful season since they won the old Division One in 1950. Muntari will be remembered especially for scoring a 78th minute penalty in the 6th round of the F.A. Cup for Portsmouth at Old Trafford, knocking Utd out of the cup, and eventually ending the ‘big four’s’ monopoly on the F.A. Cup that dated back to 1995.
8. Joseph Yobo – David Moyes made Joseph Phillip Yobo his first signing at Everton, signing the Nigerian international permanently in 2003 in a deal worth around £5 million. Yobo has averaged 29 league appearances a season between 2002 and 2009, and even managing to play every minute of Everton’s 2007-08 league campaign. How Yobo slipped under the radar of the Premier League’s elite is a mystery, with Arsenal and Chelsea failing to follow up their reported interest. In his prime Yobo was a formidable presence for opposing strikers. He possessed pace, strength, was good in the air, and had great distribution. Yobo helped Everton achieve their highest ever Premier League finish in 2004-05 (4th), and has served the club with distinction for the best part of a decade.
7. Yakubu Aiyegbeni – Yakubu Aiyegbeni has been criticised in the past for his languid style and laid back approach to the game. However, his record of 73 goals in 196 Premier League games certainly places him within the bracket of the Premier League’s top African players of the last decade. Joining Portsmouth from Maccabi Haifa in 2002-03, the Nigerian helped the club retain their Premier League status in their debut season, scoring 16 goals. Yakubu’s 28 goals in 67 appearances in the Premier League for Pompey led Middlesbrough to spend 7.5 million on the player in 2005, and Yakubu helped the club reach the UEFA Cup Final in May 2006, their first ever European cup final. His form for Middlesbrough eventually led to a big money move to Everton, where ‘The Yak’ currently resides.
6. Emmanuel Adebayor – ‘Adebayor, Adebayor, give him the ball, and he will score’ the Arsenal fans once used to sing of their talisman… today Arsenal fans still sing that tune, but the words have changed slightly. Controversy has certainly haunted the Togo captain, be it on the field spats with fellow players (but who could blame him in the case of Nicklas Bendtner), or his sprinting the length of the pitch to celebrate in front of the Arsenal fans that once sung his name with such gusto. However, there is no doubting that on his day, the Togolese has serious talent. During the 2007-08 campaign, the player scored an impressive 24 goals in 36 Premier League appearances for Arsenal. Not only has Adebayor shown an ability to be prolific, he can be the scorer of both spectacular and important goals, his equaliser in a 1-1 draw with Villarrael in the first leg of the Champions League quarter final at the Madrigal stadium being an excellent example of both.
5. Nwankwo Kanu – The most decorated figure of all time in African Football, Kanu’s impact on the Premier League has been likewise noteworthy. The lanky Nigerian overcame heart surgery at Inter Milan before his move to Arsenal in 1998, going on to win two Premier League titles and two F.A. Cups with the Gooners. Kanu’s reputation for trickery and scoring flamboyant goals earned him the status as an Arsenal legend. A goal against Tottenham, where he flicked the ball over the head of Tottenham defender Luke Young with his back to goal, before volleying into the net, is an Arsenal fan’s favourite, likewise his hat-trick against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the 1999-00 season. Despite most assuming his days of collecting top honours were numbered, he lifted the F.A. Cup one last time, scoring the winning goal for Pompey against Cardiff in the May 2008 final.
4. Augustine Azuka “Jay-Jay” Okocha – So good they named him twice, ‘Jay-Jay’ was the hero of the Bolton team in the early naughties. Famous for his dazzling stepovers and stunning free-kicks, Okocha led Bolton to their first cup final for nearly a decade, losing 2-1 to Steve McClaren’s Middlesbrough in the 2004 League Cup final. In a time and space before Sam Allardyce and his Bolton team truly learnt how to suck the life out of a game of football, the likes of Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff lit up the Reebok stadium. Okocha was a performer, and it seemed as though the Nigerian couldn’t score unless he was standing over a free-kick 25-yards out. He was one of the most entertaining players to grace the Premier League on his day, and for Bolton fans he was worth the entrance fee alone.
3. Michael Kojo Essien –Michael Essien, or ‘the Bison’ as he is also known, has won a Premier League title, two F.A. Cups, and one League Cup in the four full seasons he has spent playing for Chelsea. Essien can play pretty much anywhere in defence or midfield, and probably has done during his time at Chelsea. He has electrified football fans of all persuasion with his athleticism and drive from midfield, scoring memorable goals along the way. In 2006-07 Essien hit one of the sweetest strikes of his career to salvage a point against Arsenal. It was later voted by Chelsea fans as ‘Goal of the Season’, and is a collectors item, along with the stunning left foot volley he scored against FC Barcelona in last seasons now infamous Champions League semi-Final 2nd leg. Put simply, he is one of the best midfielders on the planet.
2. Kolo Habib Touré – Many raised an eyebrow at the reported £15 million Mark Hughes spent taking the player to The City of Manchester Stadium. However, it was the Ivorian’s place amongst Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ in the 2003-04 season that has earned Touré his place as the Premier League’s second best African player of the decade. Touré played in all but one of Arsenal’s league matches in the ‘Invincible’ season, and with Sol Campbell marshalled the Arsenal defence expertly, with the team conceding just 24 goals. While acquiring a couple of F.A. Cup winner’s medals along the way, the Ivorian has been a top defender in the Premier League consistently for 8 years, and his role as a lynchpin in possibly the greatest side to play in the Premier League cements his place as one of the top African player of the last 10 years.
1. Didier Yves Drogba Tébily – Who else but the Drog? Terrorising defences is difficult enough, but somehow Drogba manages to do so without letting a hair go out of place (I’m glad to see the ponytail make a comeback, thanks Didier). The 31 year old has attained a habit of scoring a few goals too, especially in the 2006-07 campaign, where he almost single-handedly maintained Chelsea’s title challenge, before eventually losing out to Manchester United. The Ivorian scored 20 goals in 36 appearances, his best return as Chelsea player. Didier Drogba has shaped the way Chelsea have played football now for six seasons, and epitomizes what it is to be a modern striker. Fast, powerful, good in the air, and an excellent finisher, Drogba is one of the best players to have played in the Premier League, and arguably, the best African player ever to have done so.
So there you have it, the ten best African players the Premier League witnessed in the noughties. Disagree? Think that Didier Zokora was the Ivorian Franz Beckenbauer? Let’s hear your views!
Written By Mark Turner