Ten pretenders eye African throne
Awards ceremonies tend to arrive thick and fast at this time of year, and sporting diaries are already well and truly marked for the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala in January, when the identity of the world’s top player will be revealed.
Prior to that momentous evening, Africa’s football community is set to designate the continent’s prestigious Footballer of the Year award for 2012 on 20 December. An original 34-man shortlist has been whittled down to ten pretenders to the title, including last year’s deserving winner, Ivorian midfield man Yaya Toure.
On a continent where many national sides’ nicknames stem from the animal world, African fans are on tenterhooks as to who will emerge as the top dog of 2012. Given the year he has had, it would not be a huge surprise if the current holder of the award, Côte d'Ivoire’s Yaya Toure, managed to hang onto his crown.
Not only did the box-to-box midfielder propel Manchester City to their first English league title in 44 years, but he also enjoyed a fine CAF Africa Cup of Nations, helping Les Elephants reach the final of the tournament in February. The major disappointment for the former Barcelona star was City’s below-par performance in the 2011/12 UEFA Champions League, which saw them exit the competition at the group stage.
Consequently, Toure’s main rival for the prize could well turn out to be his international team-mate and captain, Didier Drogba. After having tasted success in every available tournament in England over the years, all that was missing to cap off his time at Chelsea in style was a European trophy. In May, that dream became a reality, as the now Shanghai Shenhua forward led the Blues to a UEFA Champions League triumph over Bayern Munich, scoring a late equaliser in normal time before slotting home the decisive spot-kick in the ensuing penalty shoot-out.
The manner of the victory was the perfect tonic for Drogba, who had missed a penalty during the final of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations against Zambia, and it makes him a strong candidate to claim the aforementioned individual accolade for the third time, having already won it in 2006 and 2009.
Although he did not get his hands on any silverware over the past twelve months, another Ivorian, Gervinho, registered an excellent first season with Arsenal, not only scoring crucial goals but setting up team-mates such as Robin van Persie, top scorer in the Premier League last campaign, on numerous occasions. The pacy forward also starred in the international arena, appearing in the Africa Cup of Nations final and being named in the Team of the Tournament.
Zambian Christopher Katongo went one step further, though. Captain of the Chipolopolo, he took Africa – as well as the entire football world – by surprise by guiding his side to glory at Gabon/Equatorial Guinea 2012. Capable of playing right across the midfield as well as in attack, the Henan Jianye playmaker bagged three goals in Zambia’s first-ever continental victory, 19 years after a plane crash in which the lives of the majority of the national squad were tragically lost.
That team’s talisman, Kalusha Bwalya, generally accepted to be the best player in the country’s history, was fortunately not aboard that day and won the African Footballer of the Year award in 1988. More than two decades later, Katongo would constitute a fitting successor to his more illustrious compatriot.
Attack-minded Moroccan Younes Belhanda would also be viewed as a worthy winner by many, after a season that saw him emerge as Montpellier’s best player as they strode towards a maiden French championship. Named Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year for season 2011/12, if successful on 20 December, Belhanda would become the first Moroccan to win the prize since Mustapha Hadji in 1998.
Senegalese striker Demba Ba represents another pride of lions, the Lions of Teranga, but he has experienced similar emotions in 2012, putting in tremendous domestic displays but suffering immense letdowns on the international stage. His Senegal team bowed out of the Africa Cup of Nations after three group-stage defeats, but the explosive forward consoled himself by racking up a hatful of goals for Newcastle United and enabling the Magpies to finish fifth in the Premier League.
Cameroon international Alexandre Song is another nominee whose excellent club performances have recently led to a significant rise in profile, as he recorded 11 league assists for Arsenal and earned a dream move to Barcelona in the process.
Gabonese attacker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang consistently tormented Ligue 1 defences last term, scoring 16 times for Saint-Etienne. In addition, this season the 23-year-old son of former Gabon stalwart Pierre Aubameyang has picked up where he left off, hitting the net on a further eight occasions.
The rising star of African football showed that he could also perform at top-level international tournaments with distinction, netting once for Les Pantheres at the Olympic Football Tournament at London 2012 and three times at the Africa Cup of Nations, an event co-hosted by his country. He suffered a disheartening climax to that tournament, however, missing a penalty in Gabon’s shoot-out defeat by Mali.
While none of Mali’s Eagles are in the running for African Footballer of the Year, a representative of Nigeria’s Super Eagles does have a solid chance of success. John Obi Mikel may not have had the opportunity to shine at Gabon/Equatorial Guinea 2012, following Nigeria’s failure to qualify, but the energetic midfielder more than made up for it with his exploits in a Chelsea shirt.
Although some of the best performers around the globe have come and gone during the Jos-born international’s time at Stamford Bridge, he has nevertheless managed to firmly establish a place in the side during the past few campaigns. Mikel brought the curtain down on a highly productive season by playing a key role in Chelsea’s Champions League final win over Bayern, and that feat could well see him become the first Nigerian since Nwankwo Kanu in 1999 to attain the individual distinction.
Completing the shortlist of ten hopefuls is Andre Ayew, who reached the semi-finals of the Cup of Nations earlier this year with Ghana, and who has recently set about fulfilling the potential he showed at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. After finding the net twice for the Black Stars in Gabon, the winger-cum-forward scored four goals in the Champions League for Marseille, helping his club to advance to the quarter-finals of the competition, and also lifted the French League Cup. Intriguingly, the last Ghanaian to be singled out as cream of the crop in Africa was Abedi Pele, also a Marseille player, and more importantly, father of Andre Ayew.