Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o and Michael Essien have been the defining faces of African football for the past decade, a torch now being carried by Yaya Toure as this generation heads to what should be their major international swan song in Brazil.
Man City’s Ivorian midfielder will be 35 by 2018 and surely on the wane, but in a continent loaded with talent, more great names are expected to emerge and take over.
We takes a look at some youngsters nearly all of whom, coincidentally, are on Chelsea’s books who should form the core of the continent’s next great generation.
Kenneth Omeruo, Chelsea/Nigeria
To get an idea of his capabilities, think John Terry in a Fabio Cannavaro frame, but taller still. He looks nothing like anyone’s idea of the archetypal defender.
No hulking muscles wrap around his 6-foot-1 frame to make him the sort of towering terror that a forward will fear at first glance. What he lacks in bulk he more than makes up for in pace, quickness of thought, a steady head, an uncanny read of the game and a midfielder’s ability to bring the ball out of defence.
This lad is not shy about mixing it with the biggest player, but usually it is the opposition who comes out the worse for wear.
Consider the forwards who have been shut out by the wiry centre-back: Didier Drogba, Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Javier Hernandez.
At just 20, the Nigerian has already tacked on 14 international appearances, won the African Nations Cup, played at the FIFA Confederations Cup and is a regular first team pick for the Nigeria national team.
All of this happened almost by accident.
Picked for the Super Eagles’ squad for the 2013 African Nations Cup as part of Stephen Keshi’s bold move to retool the squad with younger and more malleable talent, not many expected Omeruo to see much action.
When he came on in the opening game of the tournament, it was to help keep the door shut after fellow defender Efe Ambrose had been sent off. Another piece of fortune played its part in getting him a start in the very next game. Skipper Joseph Yobo fell to injury and Keshi had no hesitation in naming Omeruo alongside former Sunshine Stars teammate Godfrey Oboabona. Together, they formed such a formidable partnership that the vastly experienced Yobo couldn’t find a way back into the starting XI for the rest of the tournament.
At the club level, Omeruo has been more modest, featuring for ADO den Haag in Holland and a loan to Middlesbrough in the English Championship for a spell, but weirdly enough, he almost did not make it this far, and it is arguable that his build had plenty to do with it.
John Obuh,who coached both the Nigeria U17s and U20s during that period, says Omeruo was one of his more exceptional talents. ‘Once you see him play, you just know that he is going to be amazing. He has confidence, he can see things almost before they happen, and he fears nobody. I was not surprised when Chelsea came for him, because you could see he had greatness in him.’
Clearly, Chelsea think so too. Having farmed him out on loan for the past two seasons at Middlesbrough, Aitor Karanka had nothing but the highest of praise the defender recently signed a new contract keeping him at the club till 2018.
With John Terry on his last legs and Jose Mourinho looking to freshen things up, Omeruo is well on the path to being the next big thing from Africa. ‘The way he is going, he will captain the national team,’ Obuh predicts.
Christian Atsu, Chelsea/Ghana
It took former Chelsea and Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas 20 minutes of seeing him train to sign Christian Atsu while still in charge of Porto. And if further validation was required of his huge talent, YouTube offers some scintillating skills and goals including a fizzing effort from the top of the box after cutting infield for the last of Ghana’s six first-leg goals against Egypt in qualifying.
It was a goal that epitomized everything about Atsu: quick thinking; close control; pace; balance; and a confident, precise finish.
Ghanaian journalist Michael Oti Adjei can’t speak highly enough of the 22-year-old: ‘After he tore Malawi apart in a 2013 Nations Cup qualifier, the feeling in the whole stadium was that we had witnessed the next Abedi Pele, the next great thing in Ghana football.
‘I am convinced he is potentially not just a future Ghana great but a future African great. He is that good.’ It explains why Chelsea have moved quickly to secure his services, although like Omeruo, he has been sent out on loan, anchoring the attack for Vitesse Arnheim.
Mohammed Salah, Chelsea/Egypt
It might be coincidence that the three brightest and most promising stars of the African continent are signed up to Chelsea. Then again, it could be that the Chelsea scouting department are more than earning their keep.
While Omeruo and Atsu have yet to pull on the Chelsea blue in competition, Salah, a late recruit, has not only done so but excelled. Fast of feet and thought and blessed with the ability to finish with some ease, Salah has already announced himself to the world with some memorable European nights on the wing for former club FC Basel. Not that it was something unfamiliar to him. Hitting 16 goals in 27 international appearances, including finishing as joint top scorer in the African World Cup qualifying for 2014, speaks to the 21-year-old’s abilities.
Salah has represented Egypt at U20 and U23 levels and was voted Most Promising Talent by CAF in 2012.
Honorable Mention: Ogenyi Onazi, Lazio/Nigeria
Lazio’s Ogenyi Onazi is as tenacious as they come in midfield. His heel-snapping style would draw comparison with former Italy international Gennaro Gattuso and also provides the platform that allows John Mikel Obi to play with unrestrained freedom for Nigeria.
It is doubtful how much longer Onazi will remain with the Italian club, especially if he goes on to have a good World Cup.
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