The inaugural CAF African Nations Championship (CHAN) in Côte d'Ivoire produced its fair share of thrills and surprises, with champions Congo DR emerging victorious in the competition open only to players plying their trade in their domestic leagues. As a perfect shop window for some of the continent's top young players and hidden gems, we shine the spotlight on seven of the finals' top performers.
Given Singuluma (Zambia)
A tall striker with a killer touch, Singuluma constantly harassed opposing defenders to help Zambia reach the last four of a major continental competition for the first time since 1994. A striker in the Roy Makaay mould, Singuluma can be quiet for long stretches, but his instincts when presented with a scoring chance are impeccable. The 23-year-old notched five goals, including a hat trick against the hosts in the opener, to top the scoring charts and is likely to add much-needed firepower to Zambia's upcoming 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifiers. Singuluma, who was released by South African club Bay United before undergoing trials at Finland's FC Haka, is relishing the prospect of football in Europe. "God has answered my first prayer and that was for me and my country to do well," the player said. "My second prayer is that European scouts spot me so that I can continue my career there."
Ibrahim Ayew (Ghana)
The muscular midfielder, and son of former Ghana legend and three-time CAF Footballer of the Year Abedi 'Pele' Ayew, played a pivotal role in leading Ghana to a place in the CHAN final. With superb ball control, accurate passing, cannon-like shooting and powerful tackling, the 21-year-old clearly left his mark on the competition. He scored twice to help the Black Stars come from two goals down and draw with Zimbabwe before carving out and creating the opening goal against Senegal in the semi-final. The form of Ayew, who plays for local club Sekondi Eleven Wise, might prompt Ghana coach Milovan Rajevac to include him in his plans for this year's final phase of FIFA World Cup qualifiers. "When I was called up for the CHAN people thought it was because of my father," Ayew said. "It put a lot of pressure on me, but I have proved myself to be a decent footballer."
Samuel Inkoom (Ghana)
Modern defending is as much about attacking as defending, and Inkoom is every inch a modern defender. The 19-year-old is solid enough at the back, but he is also keen to make penetrating runs down the right flank, whipping in inch-perfect crosses. He impressed for Ghana's U-20s during their triumphant CAF African Youth Championship campaign earlier in the year and put in some fine displays in Côte d'Ivoire to earn a call-up to Ghana's squad for the South Africa 2010 qualifier against Benin on 28 March. Inkoom, who plays for Asante Kotoko, is being linked with several European clubs including French giants PSG and La Liga outfit Espanyol.
Antoine N'gossan (Côte d'Ivoire)
The hosts had a tournament to forget, losing twice and drawing once for an early exit. But they can take solace in the performance of their 18-year-old playmaker, a product of the same ASEC Mimosas academy that nurtured the likes of English Premier League stars Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue. N'gossan showed flashes of his undoubted talent throughout the hosts' short stint in the competition, spraying passes all over the pitch and elegantly picking out team-mates. He is also a creative dribbler with a ferocious long-distance shot, making him one to watch. N'gossan has an outside chance of playing along with the likes of favourite Ivorian sons Salomon Kalou and Didier Drogba in the qualifiers for South Africa 2010.
Tresor Mputu (DR Congo)
Speedy, skilful and decisive, this talented forward deservedly scooped the best player award at the finals. Although he scored just one goal, a close-range header against Zimbabwe, he contributed heavily to DR Congo's title run with energetic and tireless movement up and down the flank. "I was obliged to come down to Côte d'Ivoire and lead the team to success following our elimination in the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup," he said. The 23-year-old, dubbed 'the next Samuel Eto'o' by former Congolese coach Claude Le Roy, could soon leave domestic club Mazembe for Europe as several English Premier League clubs are reportedly interested in him. "I am eyeing a move to Europe, possibly in summer," he confirmed.
Philip Marufu (Zimbabwe)
Tiny in stature but a giant in the air, Marufu was Zimbabwe's star player during their CHAN campaign. The Dynamos striker scored twice in three group stage games, first netting Zimbabwe's second in their opening 2-2 draw with Ghana when he gathered Ayew's short back pass to go one-on-one with the keeper and slot home with aplomb. He later demonstrated his unlikely aerial prowess in the 1-1 draw against DR Congo with a near-post header.
Ahmed Saad (Libya)
A deep-lying striker who makes all the difference through deft passes, mercurial runs forward and decisive goals, Saad once again proved to be Libya's most reliable star. The Ahly Tripoli man's skill and creativity make him a difficult opponent for defenders, who usually are left mesmerised by his quick-footed flicks and tricks. He scored his country's only goal against Ghana, having been instrumental in his side's campaign in booking a place in the prestigious tournament.