Aboutrika takes centre stage

As Egypt's Al Ahly prepare for their third appearance in the FIFA Club World Cup, star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika is hoping to reclaim some ground for club football on the African continent.

The classy midfielder is one of the five candidates for this year's CAF African Footballer of the Year award, and if he wins will become the first player at an African-based club to win the continent's highest individual honour since 1985.

Traditionally, Africa's version of the Ballon d'Or goes to high-profile players plying their trade at clubs in Europe, but the 30-year-old Aboutrika's achievements in 2008 mark him out as a strong candidate. Aboutrika began the year with the winning goal in the CAF Cup of Nations final, and ended the domestic season helping Al Ahly to win a record-breaking sixth CAF Champions League title in November.

He has been a major factor in their last three Champions League successes, with his more notable contributions including a dramatic last-gasp winner in the 2006 final against CS Sfaxien of Tunisia. Aboutrika, a late bloomer whose age has counted against a possible transfer out of Egypt, also grabbed the winner in this year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals, showing his superb sense of timing by snatching onto Mohamed Zidan's pass to win the trophy for Egypt for a second successive time.

Aboutrika, who hails from the Cairo suburb of Giza, was also pivotal to Al Ahly retaining their Champions League crown. The Egyptians lost their first game in the preliminary knockout phase at the start of the 2008 edition, but then embarked on an unbeaten run that took them all the way to the final, where they enjoyed a 4-2 aggregate triumph over Coton Sport of Cameroon.

One step further
Al Ahly coach Manuel Jose has often described Aboutrika as the best African player still playing on the continent, but this year hopes are high that the Footballer of the Year award could see the darling of the club's fans go one step further.

Aboutrika faces some stiff opposition, however, competing as he is against a previous winner in Didier Drogba, an in-form fellow countryman in Amr Zaki, not to mention another couple of Europe-based heavyweights in the shape of Emmanuel Adebayor of Togo and Ghana's Michael Essien. The vote is conducted among the coaches and captains of CAF's 53 member associations and the result has been promised before the end of the year.

The last player from an African club to win the award was Mohamed Timoumi of Morocco's Royal Armed Forces in 1985. Although Cameroon's Roger Milla was playing for a club in Reunion when he was crowned African Footballer of the Year in 1990, the island was not at the time a member of CAF.

Egypt's Al Ahly, without doubt the most successful club in African football history, boast only one previous winner of the African Footballer of the Year award, midfield general Mahmoud Al Khatib in 1983. Aboutrika, it is widely agreed, would be a more than worthy successor.

Previous CAF African Footballer of the Year winners
1970: Salif Keita (St Etienne, France and Mali)
1971: Ibrahim Sunday (Asante Kotoko and Ghana)
1972: Cherif Souleymane (Hafia and Guinea)
1973: Tshimen Bwanga (TP Mazembe Englebert and Zaire)
1974: Paul Moukila (CARA Brazzaville and Congo)
1975: Ahmed Faras (Mohammedia and Morocco)
1976: Roger Milla (Canon Yaounde and Cameroon)
1977: Tarak Dhiab (Esperance and Tunisia)
1978: Karim Abdoul Razak (Asante Kotoko and Ghana)
1979: Thomas Nkono (Canon Yaounde and Cameroon)
1980: Jean Manga Onguene (Canon Yaounde and Cameroon)
1981: Lakhdar Belloumi (GCR Mascara and Algeria)
1982: Thomas Nkono (Espanyol, Spain and Cameroon)
1983: Mahmoud Al Khatib (Al Ahly and Egypt)
1984: Theophile Abega (Toulouse, France and Cameroon)
1985: Mohamed Timoumi (Royal Armed Forces and Morocco)
1986: Badou Ezaki (Real Mallorca, Spain and Morocco)
1987: Rabah Madjer (FC Porto, Portugal and Algeria)
1988: Kalusha Bwalya (Cercle Bruges, Belgium and Zambia)
1989: George Weah (Monaco, France and Liberia)
1990: Roger Milla (St Denis, Reunion and Cameroon)
1991: Abedi Pele Ayew (Olympique Marseille, France and Ghana)
1992: Abedi Pele Ayew (Olympique Marseille, France and Ghana)
1993: Abedi Pele Ayew (Olympique Lyonnaise, France and Ghana)
1994: George Weah (Paris St Germain, France and Liberia) and Emmanuel
Amunike (Sporting Lisbon, Portugal and Nigeria)
1995: George Weah (AC Milan, Italy and Liberia)
1996: Nwankwo Kanu (Inter Milan, Italy and Nigeria)
1997: Victor Ikpeba (Monaco, France and Nigeria)
1998: Mustapha Hadji (Deportivo Coruna, Spain and Morocco)
1999: Nwankwo Kanu (Arsenal, England and Nigeria)
2000: Patrick Mboma (Parma, Italy and Cameroon)
2001: El Hadji Diouf (Rennes, France and Senegal)
2002: El Hadji Diouf (Liverpool, England and Senegal)
2003: Samuel Eto'o (Real Mallorca, Spain and Cameroon)
2004: Samuel Eto'o (Barcelona, Spain and Cameroon)
2005: Samuel Eto'o (Barcelona, Spain and Cameroon)
2006: Didier Drogba (Chelsea, England and Ivory Coast)
2007: Frederic Kanoute (Sevilla, Spain and Mali)