They belong to the class of the very best. Not only did they play with courage, many of them are held as legends at club and country levels. Footballers in their mold are the best any team manager would wish for. Unlike players like Marcel Desailly, Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira and lately Ngolo Kante, Kylian Mbape and Paul Pogba, who won the world cup as Europeans, these players , despite being abundantly endowed with skills, never laced boots to play at the World Cup; the world’s largest footballing stage. In this piece, we review some of the best African footballers that never had the opportunity of shinning at the FIFA World Cup.
George Opong Weah
His Excellency, the President of Liberia was a footballer, and a damn god one at that. After a successful season at Tonerre Kalala of Yaounde, Cameroon, which drew the attention of Cameroun’s coach, Claude Le Roy to him, he spoke about the gangling striker to Arsene Wenger who eventually took George Weah to Monaco and that was the beginning of great exploits. He scored 47 goals for Monaco. At Paris St. Germain, he was the highest goal scorer in the UEFA Champions League in 1994. He was the African Footballer of the Year in 1989, 1994 and 1995. He left PSG for AC Milan of Italy in 1995 and was there for 4 years, scoring 46 goals in 114 games. He was what Milan needed after the exit of Marco van Basten. The most spectacular of his Serie A goals was the one in which he ran the length of the field with the ball past seven opponents before scoring against Verona.
Till date, Weah is the only African that has won European Footballer of the Year and the Ballon d’Or. He is one of the best footballers that ever lived. He played for Liberia 60 times, two editions of the African Nations Cup and scored 60 goals in all appearances.
It is believed that his son, Timothy who presently plays for PSG and has represented the United States at youth level might be at the World Cup someday, though he would be representing the United States, his country of birth.
Like his cousin, George Weah, Debbah was at the Nations Cup twice. He played in various parts of Europe and the Middle East. He scored 47 goals for the Liberian national team and captained the team for some time.
He and Weah are the country’s biggest exports to football. James Debbah is the current Manager of his country’s national team.
Undoubtedly the greatest Ivorian footballer of all time, Pokou won the highest goal scorer award at the Nations Cup twice, 1968 and 1970. He was for many years the all-time highest goal scorer at the African Nations Cup. His total of 14 AFCON goals was eclipsed by Samuel Etoo in 2008. He holds the record of also scoring 5 goals in one AFCON match, a feat he achieved in a 6-1 victory over Ethiopia in the 1970 edition of the tournament. `
The peak of his career was between 1974 and 1977 when he scored 44 goals for French club, St. Rennais in 63 games.
Odegbami was nicknamed “Mathematical” because of his love for dribbling on the touchline while running with the ball as well as his status as a trained Engineer. He is regarded as a legend both at club and country levels. His playing career saw him play for Shooting Stars of Ibadan for 14 years.
He was a member of the Nigerian team that won the African Cup of Nations in 1980. With 22 goals in 47 appearances for Nigeria, he is regarded as one of the best right wingers the country has ever produced.
Abedi “Pele” Ayew
Call him a Ghanaian legend and you will not be wrong. Abedi was not nicknamed “Pele” for nothing’s sake; things he did on the pitch made fans remember Edison Arantes dos Nascimento, the Brazilian Pele and greatest footballer of all time. Abedi Ayew was for a long time the captain of Ghana’s Black Stars.
Apart from being a member of the victorious Black Stars team that won the Nations Cup in 1982, Abedi won the Golden Ball at the 1992 African Cup of Nations. He is about the most decorated African player and in his collection are three African Footballer of The Year awards, a UEFA Champions League winner’s media and the maiden BBC African Sports Star of the Year medal and many more.
Abedi also holds the record of the most appearances at AFCON level as he played in five different editions: 1982, 1992, 1994, 1996 and 1998. His 33 international goals were the all-time highest in Ghana till they were surpassed by Asamoah Gyan who presently holds the record.
Ghana never qualified for the World Cup while Abedi’s playing career lasted. He however has a compensation in that his three sons; Ibrahim, Andre and Jordan have all represented Ghana at the World Cup.
Chukwu, a Rangers International of Enugu legend captained Nigeria’s Eagles to their first ever Nations Cup glory in 1980. He was a centre back many opponents found it very difficult to deal with. He was also known to have a characteristic fiery shot which he utilized mostly when playing free kicks. Apart from achieving success as a footballer, Chukwu became a respected coach. He coached the national teams of Kenya and Nigeria.
Muda Lawal was nicknamed “Alhaji Shira” by fans of Shooting Stars of Ibadan where he played between 1975 and 1984. Lawal, a mercurial midfielder was a member of the historic Shooting Stars team that won the 1976 African Cup Winners Cup. He also dazzled while playing for Stationery Stores of Lagos and Abiola Babes of Abeokuta. In his 86 games for Nigeria, Lawal scored 12 goals.
Till date, he is the only African that appeared in five consecutive African Nations Cup tournaments, 1976 to 1984. A stadium in Abeokuta, his hometown was named after him following his demise in 1991.
Frederic Oumar Kanoute is another person that chose his country over the French national team. He played for the U-21 team of France 16 times before switching nationality to Mali. He won the African Footballer of the Year award in 2007 and is the first player born outside Africa to do so. He was a member of the Malian team that got to the final of the African Cup of Nations in 2004. He scored a total of 23 goals for Mali in 39 appearances.
Ghanaians who were around in the 1980s still remember his heroic exploits when he featured for Hearts in the Asante Kotoko vs Hearts of Oak game in 1980 in Accra. Many agreed that but for Ansah, the margin would have been much more. Ansah left Ghana to man the goal for Leventis United of Ibadan in the 1980s and till he left, not a few fans wished he could change his nationality.
He is one of the best goalkeepers of Ghanaian origin, though like many footballers of his time, they never had the chance to play at the World Cup. He however represented Ghana at the African Nations Cup.
Adokiye, one of the legendary members of the 1980 AFCON winning Nigerian team is one of the two living ex-Super Eagles players who have stadiums named after them. Adokiye is revered as one of the best left wingers that have ever played for Nigeria. He also played at the 1980 Olympics.
He played for Sharks of Port Harcourt, Rangers International of Enugu and African Continental Bank of Lagos.
Interestingly, Adokiye succeeded as a footballer and a lawyer. He served as various times at the Director of Public Prosecution and later Commissioner for Justice in Rivers State.
Though born in Germany, Anthony Baffoe laced boots for the Ghanaian national team and shone brilliantly in the 1992 and 1994 African Cup of Nations. 6’3 tall Baffoe is a utility defender who shone in his playing days at clubs in four different continents; Europe, Asia and South America inclusive.
He has the record of being the first player born outside Ghana to play for the West African country and he played long before Ghana made a debut at the World Cup. Baffoe who presently holds a top position in the CAF executive committee has a silver medal of the 1992 Nations Cup in his collection.
Football definitely runs in his family. Kwame is the younger brother of Ghanaian legend, Abedi “Pele” Ayew. He started playing in Europe when he was just 17 and he never stopped shinning till he retired.
His playing career took him to clubs like Victoria Setubal of Portugal and Boavista where he scored 31 goals in 56 games. He was a member of the Ghanaian Olympic team that won bronze at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
Ordatey Nii Lamptey
Lamptey started shinning in 1989 when he played for the Black Starlets of Ghana as a 15-year-old in the FIFA U-17 World Cup. He would later lead the Starlets to victory two years later, winning the golden ball in the process. He was also part of Ghana’s bronze winning Olympic ’92 team.
Lamptey made his debut for Ghana and scored as a 16-year-old during the qualifying games for the 1992 Nations Cup. Though on the international stage, he did well for Ghana, Lamptey did not mature into the player many thought he would become. Expectations were super high when soccer legend, Pele tipped him as “the next Pele” after his brilliant display at the 1991 cadet World Cup.
Yeboah is one of the most prolific strikers Ghana ever had. Not only was he one of the first black players in the Bundesliga, he became the first African to captain a German side. At Eintracht Frankfurt, Yeboah emerged the top scorer in the Bundesliga for two years back to back: 1993 and 1994.
From there, he joined Leeds United where he scored 32 goals in 66 appearances. For more than 10 years, Yeboah played for Ghana, appearing at the African Cup of Nations three times. He scored a total of 29 goals for Ghana in 59 games.
Japhet N’Doram is Chad’s greatest export to football. After some years of playing in Africa, he joined Nantes FC of France, where he spent seven years. In the 192 games he played, he scored 72 goals.
N’Doram was well respected in his playing days. He later became Director of Football at Nantes.
Keita, a former Barcelona star represented Mali at six editions of the African Nations Cup. Keita was the best player at the U-20 World Youth Championship in Nigeria in 1999. A year after he won the golden ball at the U-20 level, Keita made his debut for the Eagles, the national team of Mali. He has two AFCON Bronze medals in his collection, won in 2012 and 2013.
The versatile defensive midfielder scored 25 goals in the 102 games he played for Mali.
Joel Tiehi is no doubt one of the finest footballers ever produced by Cote d’Ivoire. In his playing days, he was known to be a lethal finisher. He was part of the Elephants that won the 1992 Nations Cup. He finished the 1994 African Cup of Nations with four goals, one behind Rashidi Yekini who emerged the competition’s top scorer.
Tiehi played for his country 40 times, scoring 25 times. He scored 65 goals in 177 appearances for Le Havre FC of France and scored 18 goals for RC Lens in the 1994/95 season.
Senegal’s legendary captain and coach remains one of the best players that ever played football in West Africa. He was one of the first Senegalese players to play in France. He scored 23 goals for Metz in the 1985/86 season to emerge the top scorer in the French League that season.
He represented Senegal at the 1986, 1990 and 1992 editions of the Nations Cup.
Though ‘Ben Badi’ as Traore is fondly called didn’t play for long in Europe, having joined Sporting Braga of Portugal as a 19-year-old, he compared favourably with his peers who played in European soccer leagues. Apart from winning the 1992 Nations Cup, Traore who was then an ASEC Mimosas player was the top scorer in the Ivorian league that year and in 1994.
In the 10 years of his international career, he played 49 times for Cote d’Ivoire and scored 29 goals.
Youssuff Falikou Fofana
Nicknamed “the dribbler”, Fofana was one of the star-studded Ivorian team that won the 1992 African Cup of Nations. He is also fondly called “the Black Diamond”. His playing career saw him lacing bots for the likes of ASEC and Monaco among other clubs. He scored 28 goals for Monaco in 188 games and he was a member of the Monaco team that emerged runners up at the UEFA Cup Winners Cup in 1992.
Mohamed “Small” Kallon
Nicknamed “Small Kallon” by fans because he is the youngest of the three Kallon brothers who played for the Sierra Leonean national team, Mohammed holds the record of being the youngest player ever to play for the Leone Stars, his country’s national team. He made his debut at the age of 15 in 1995. At 16, he was the youngest player at the 1996 African Cup of Nations.
He grew to maturity and became the captain of the national team, a position he quit after their failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Apart from Inter Milan where he shone in the early 2000s, he played for AS Monaco, AEK Athens and other clubs before he retired.
With 628 caps, 440 league appearances inclusive for Liverpool in 13 years, Grobbelaar earned himself a place on the list of the club’s legends. Many remember the former Zimbabwean Number 1 for his confidence and daring displays on the field.
Despite winning the English League six times, Bruce Grobbelaar never manned goal for his country at the World Cup. He however played qualifiers for the 1982, 1986 and 1994World Cups and til date, Zimbabwe is still waiting to debut at the biggest stage. Grobbelaar had 32 international caps for his country.
Ndlovu who is fondly referred to as “Bulawayo Bullet” shone brilliantly for Coventry City in the English League. He had 38 goals for Zimbabwe in 100 games. The excellent old-school wing player and his teammates narrowly missed the 1994 World Cup. Peter Ndlovu made history on August 19, 1992 when he became the first African footballer to play in the new English Premier League.
People in the younger generation will remember Kalusha Bwalya as the President of Zambia’s Football Federation, a position he held between 2008 and 2016. In his playing days however, his exploits put him among the best in the world. He shot into limelight at the 1988 Olympic Games when he scored a hat trick in the 4-0 demolition of Italy.
In 95 appearances for Cercle Brugge in Belgium, the Zambian legend scored 30 goals. He was the African Footballer of the Year in 1988. The following year, he moved to PSV Eindhoven where he played till 1994, scoring 25 goals in 101 games. Well known for his powerful left foot, Kalusha scored 39 goals for his country in 87 games.
Incidentally, his elder brother, Benjamin and younger brother, Joel both played for the Zambian national side, Chipolopolo.
He was the only member of Zambia’s golden generation that missed the ill-fated flight that claimed the lives of the national team in 1993. He led a new Zambian national side to the 1994 African Nations Cup where they won silver, losing 1-2 to Nigeria in the final.
Best Ogedegbe’s name comes up when Nigeria’s outstanding national team goalkeepers are being mentioned. He was a member of the 1980 team that won the Nations Cup. He was also at the Olympic Games the same year.
He was for many years the number one goalkeeper for Shooting Stars, where he is still held as a legend even in death.
He is revered as the greatest Zambian footballer of all time. He is also the country’s leading all time goal scorer. He won the Zambian Best Footballer award five times. He was the coach of the golden generation of Zambian players that died in the 1993 flight that crashed off the coast of Gabon during the country’s quest to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.
Phiri was no doubt one of the best goalkeepers Africa produced in his time. Winning the Zambian Footballer of the Year award back to back in 1993 and 1993 is a testimony of the feats he performed on the field. At 6’3, Phiri showed class in the 1994 Nations Cup in Tunisia. He joined the Zambian national team after the death of the golden generation and he was one of those who proved that Zambia indeed abounds with talented footballers. He manned goal for Qingdao Hainiu, a Chinese club between 1998 and 2000. He died in January 2001, weeks before his 33rd birthday.
Pierre Emerick Aubameyang
Perhaps if Auba had continued playing for France, he would have made it to the World Cup and probably be part of the winners. Born to a former Gabonese national team captain and a Spanish mother, Aubameyang was eligible to play for Spain. Italy and France wanted him. He played for France at the U-20 level before switching nationality to play for his fatherland.
He made his debut for Gabon in 2009 and in 2012, he scored his country’s first ever goal at the Olympic Games. It must however be stated that Aubameyang, the 2015 African Footballer of the Year still has a career ahead of him and may feature at the World Cup if Gabon makes it in 2022.
He was a jewel in the Nigerian youth team that paraded the likes of Peter Nieketin, Adeolu Adekola, Lawrence Ukaegbu, Nosa Osadolor and others in the late 1980s. Nicknamed “Etim Maradona” because of his dribbles that embarrassed defenders, Esin graduated into the Super Eagles team shortly after the Chile ’87 World Youth Championship. Despite being shot weeks before the 1987 tournament, he made it to the championship though Nigeria did not make it beyond the group phase.
Many of those who saw him play at Calabar Rovers, Iwuanyawu Nationale and Flash Flamingoes describe him as one of the very best players to don Nigeria’s famous Number 10 jersey. He played for Nigeria during the qualifying games of the 1990 FIFA World Cup.
He played in the Belgian league for clubs that included Lokeren and Lierse SK before he was framed up for alleged rape. The frame up took a bad toll on his career. Today, Etim Esin counsels young Nigerians on character management. He urges them to learn from his experience.