African strikers lay waste in Europe
It is often said that the future of football lies in Africa, and with the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ drawing ever nearer, it would be foolish to claim otherwise. Away from preparations for the big event, though, the leading talents of the African game hafve also set pulses racing on the pitch in Europe's major leagues. Of course, former luminaries such as George Weah, Salif Keita, Rabah Madjer, Lakhdar Belloumi, Abedi Pele and Roger Milla all opened the world's eyes to the talent Africa could produce, yet they were mostly isolated examples in their day, overshadowed by the constellation of stars, notably from South America, who then lit up the old continent.
Now, though, times have changed, and nowhere is this more evident than in Europe's scoring charts, where African strikers have grabbed headlines with their exploits in some of the most prestigious championships. "It's a good thing, and the Europeans would be hard-pressed to get by without us," remarked FC Barcelona's Cameroonian forward Samuel Eto'o, a shining symbol of the African breakthrough. "So many barriers were put in our way that it's now really gratifying to see the success a lot of us have had at a high level." Seriously injured in a UEFA Champions League game against Werder Bremen in September 2006, the Indomitable Lion has had to watch much of that success from the sidelines, but despite being absent for almost six months he has still been able to register nine goals in just 13 appearances this season.
Voted African Footballer of the Year three times in succession between 2003 and 2005, Eto'o must have fancied his chances of adding an unprecedented fourth honour after claiming the Spanish league title and the Champions League in 2006. That would have been to underestimate a certain Didier Drogba, though. Having helped Chelsea to the 2005/06 Premiership crown and his native Côte d'Ivoire to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations final, not to mention starring in the Elephants' first FIFA World Cup sortie, the former Marseille marksman reached new heights in 2006/07.
Drogba ended the domestic league season with 20 strikes, making him the only African to have ever finished top-scorer in England. Add in six Champions League goals as well a berth in the semi-finals of the same competition and his campaign shimmers with the lustre of success. Yet the powerful Ivorian was not finished there. The Blues also managed to secure an English cup double and twice, with Drogba grabbing the winning goals on both occasions. First he fired a brace to defeat Arsenal 2-1 and lift the League Cup. Fast forward a few months and the 29-year-old was at it again, gracing the splendid new Wembley stadium with a fine extra-time effort to see off Manchester United 1-0 and haul the FA Cup back to west London.
New lease on life
Nor was Drogba the only African striker to give Premiership defenders nightmares last term. South African hotshot Benni McCarthy proved deadly in his debut campaign with Blackburn Rovers, collecting 18 goals to silence critics after two difficult years with FC Porto. "I'm finally wearing the Rovers shirt and I fully intend to show them they didn't make a mistake by signing me," the Bafana Bafana forward told FIFA.com last December. True to his word, he came second only to Drogba in the scoring stakes and, at nearly 30 years of age, proved he has lost none of the ability that earned him a Champions League winner's medal in 2004.
But if the crisp English air clearly suits McCarthy and Drogba, it has failed to inspire some of their continental colleagues. Having defended the colours of both West Ham and Tottenham between 2000 and 2005, Mali's Frederic Kanoute left a positive impression with fans of both clubs without ever finding the back of the net on a regular basis. A total of 29 goals in three years with the Hammers and 14 in two seasons for Spurs meant the former Lyon man joined Sevilla FC as a relatively unknown quantity in 2005, but he quickly won over the Andalusian public with his excellent technique and selfless attitude.
His tally of six strikes in 32 games in 2005-06 looked all too familiar, but this term the Malian has been almost unrecognisable. Swapping his usual role as support striker for that of main goal threat, Kanoute has bagged 21 goals so far, smashing his own personal record to power Sevilla to a second consecutive UEFA Cup triumph and a place in the final of the Copa del Rey. On course to win the Pichichi trophy (for La Liga's top-scorer), the Eagles' forward has been given a new lease on life as he approaches his 30th birthday. "The older I get, the better I feel," he told FIFA.com. "I play more intelligently, I position myself better and I use my energy more efficiently. I'm lucky enough to have a good team behind me, and my own game has benefited from that."
Five countries, five strikers
In France, where Kanoute's career began, Pedro Miguel Pauleta once again outscored everyone else this year. But of the nine players immediately behind the Portuguese veteran, five came from Africa - and each of them from a different country. Representing Senegal, Mamadou Niang enjoyed the kind of season that marked him out as a player to watch during impressive spells with Troyes, Metz and Strasbourg, and his 12 goals for high-profile club Olympique Marseille helped the Mediterranean side book their return to the Champions League. Also celebrating a perfect dozen, Guinean striker Ismael Bangoura was in top form for Le Mans and has started to attract the attention of France's top teams. Nicknamed 'the Trigger' for the searing pace of his finishing, the 22-year-old could be set for big things.
With one strike fewer under their belts, Nigeria's John Utaka and Côte d'Ivoire's Aruna Dindane provoked a fair amount of joy among fans of Stade Rennais and RC Lens respectively. Dindane was only denied more by injuries in the latter half of the campaign, but his team were fortunate enough to receive sterling assistance from captain Seydou Keita. The Malian also buried 11 goals - quite an achievement for a defensive midfielder!
That group may soon be joined in Ligue 1 by a couple of Belgium's hottest properties; namely, Anderlecht's Congolese predator Mohamed 'Meme' Tchite and Westerlo's Nigerian front man Patrick Ogunsoto. With 20 goals each, the duo fell one short of the total set by Germinal Beerschot's Francois Sterchele, but caught more than a few eyes in the process.
Thanks to performances like those, the African game undoubtedly revelled in its most stunning season on the global stage as the ground continues to be laid for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Serious strides were made, but perhaps European football is just as poised to enter a new era. Flag-bearer for a generation of gifted African strikers, Samuel Eto'o hopes he has opened the door for others to follow. "I'd love to see Barça, Madrid, Milan or Chelsea field six Africans," he said. "Those clubs often play six or seven Brazilians, so why not just as many Africans one day?"