At the head of a long line of African heroes, Didier Drogba of Côte d'Ivoire and Chelsea, and Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon and Inter Milan are today looked upon as the standard-bearers for African football on the world stage – and the natural successors to George Weah, Abedi Pele, Roger Milla and Rabah Madjer, among others.
Michael Essien (Ghana), Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo), Obafemi Martins (Nigeria), Mohammed Aboutrika and Ahmed Hassan (both Egypt) or Rafik Saifi and Antar Yahia (both Algeria) also have star billing in a continent poised to welcome the FIFA World Cup™ to its shores for the very first time, in this case to South Africa.
Every month, FIFA.com focuses on a different aspect of its DVD box set '50 years of African football', offering you a better insight into this immense database. This month, we shine the spotlight on those players currently blazing a trail for African football.
*Côte d'Ivoire’s all-time leading scorer (41 goals in 60 games) is a man who needs no introduction. Drogba, 31, constitutes talent in its purest state, possessing as he does an exceptional eye for goal (not least with his head), awe-inspiring strength and a burning desire to win – attributes that have earned him a string of awards in recent years.
The first Ivoirian to score at a FIFA World Cup – on 10 June 2006 against Argentina (1-2) – is also Chelsea’s record goalscorer in European competition (25 goals), and finding the net in domestic matches has not been too taxing either (106 goals in 230 outings). He possesses all the required skills to become one of the big stars of FIFA’s flagship tournament. For Drogba, it will be a case of coming full circle, having made his international debut on 8 September 2002 against none other than South Africa.
*The Cameroonian is a tireless, insatiable goalscorer. Always in the right place at the right time, there are few better at sprinting into the box to fire home at crucial moments. Peripheral to the play at times, he clearly prefers efficiency to flair, plundering a scarcely believable 130 goals in 200 appearances for Barcelona. Equally impressive is his record for Cameroon, which shows another 42 strikes in 88 games. Eto’o also took top honours at the Olympic Football Tournament in 2000 and the CAF African Nations Cup in 2000 and 2002, a competition in which he remains all-time top scorer with 16 goals. The Inter Milan star was made international captain for the first time on 12 August 2009, replacing Rigobert Song, who had led the team for ten years. With Eto’o leading from the front, the Indomitable Lions look a good bet to revive past glories next summer.
*A real engine in Chelsea’s midfield, the Ghanaian Michael Essien is the prototype of the modern footballer, a cultured combination of power and technique. Very adaptable, the 26-year-old can deliver the same productive performance in defence as he does as a holding midfielder, as an attacking midfield or even out wide. 'The Bison' works tirelessly and is never afraid to shoot from distance, often with spectacular results.
Chelsea’s Player of the Year in 2007 was nominated for African Footballer of the Year for the fourth time in a row in 2008. With a Round of 16 appearance under his belt from Germany 2006, Essien (41 caps, 9 goals), has his heart set on a stunning run in South Africa.
*African Footballer of the Year in 2008, the former Gunner (62 goals in 142 matches for Arsenal) played a decisive role in Togo’s qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. At 1.90m and 73 kg, the graceful yet rangy forward plans to have just as big an influence on the reinvigoration of Manchester City, and aims to help his international team-mates bounce back after the disappointment of missing out on South Africa 2010.
*This pint-sized striker (1.70m/70kg), renowned for his bursts of speed, has enjoyed success wherever he has laid his hat. In Serie A, he notched up 49 strikes in 134 games with Inter Milan, while in the English Premier League, he managed 35 in 104 appearances for Newcastle. At the start of the 2009/10 season, he decided to try his luck in Germany, joining reigning champions Wolfsburg. At the age of 25, he has already scored 17 times in 34 outings for Nigeria, including a vital brace in the 3-2 win in Kenya this month that secured the Super Eagles a berth in South Africa.
*Mohamed Aboutrika’s career path has not been that of your average footballer, to say the least. Viewed as one of African football’s crown jewels of the last decade, the Egyptian international spent half his career at home-town club Tersana, before joining the imposing Al Ahly in January 2004. Since then, his star has been constantly on the rise. Led by this outstanding playmaker, the Red Devils have picked up almost every trophy on offer, including three CAF Champions League titles (in 2005, 2006 and 2008), and also finished third at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in 2006.
Trophies have not been thin on the ground for Egypt either, with Aboutrika adding two African Cup of Nations titles to his list of honours. Voted Egyptian Player of the Year every year since 2004, Aboutrika will sadly not be present at next year's extravaganza after his country narrowly missed out on qualification.
*This solid defender (1.87m/79kg) wrote his name into Algerian football history by scoring the decisive goal in the winner-takes-all play-off with Egypt (1-0) with an unstoppable strike from the tightest of angles. With five goals in his 34 appearances for the Desert Foxes, Yahia will be instrumental to Algeria’s goal of making an impact at the finals, 24 years after their last appearance.