The Confederation of African Football has released a 30-man shortlist of players who could be named the continent’s top player, but who is most likely to claim the award?
The time has come to take stock of Africa’s top footballing talents once again, with the Confederation of African Football (CAF) unveiling a 30-man shortlist for the award given to the continent’s best player over the last year.
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The sheer number of nominees suggests Africa has a wealth of top-performing players spanning the globe, but a great deal of the inclusions are unnecessary and others are just risible. The build-up to the award always opens with 30 possible winners, as all of Africa’s key footballing nations invariably get at least one nominee.
The shortlist makes for curious reading. Medhi Benatia, for example, continues to struggle for form and fitness for Juventus and Morocco and can barely string five straight games together. His reputation, it seems, has seen him named among Africa’s best. Wahbi Khazri and Aymen Abdennour make the shortlist as the Tunisian representation, and it is hard to decide which inclusion is more incredulous.
The deadweight on the list is plentiful and by the time it is whittled down to five, and then three, the usual favourites will emerge.
What makes the shortlist for 2016 interesting, though, is that despite those nominated through prestige and reputation Yaya Toure is conspicuously missing. The last time this happened was in 2010, when Samuel Eto’o won the last of his four gongs, a record Toure equalled in 2014.
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His hopes of moving clear on his own in the history books were dashed last year, as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang won for the first time. The Borussia Dortmund forward is favourite to make it a double this year and, ironically, Eto’o has made the shortlist once again.
It is however interesting that Toure’s exclusion comes following his ill-advised outburst after last year’s award. He infamously branded the choice of Aubameyang as “pathetic”, and may well be paying the price for his faux pas with this snub.
It has been a season of impolitic media outbursts from the camp of the Ivorian midfielder, with his agent Dimitri Seluk’s comments contributing to his current pariah status at Manchester City. That said, Toure was still an important part of the side that reached the semi-finals of the Champions League last season, where they lost to eventual winners Real Madrid.
While it is unlikely he would have been as important a factor in this year’s running, on the strength of that alone, it is hard to argue there are 30 African footballers who have had a better year.
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In any case, his place in last year’s top three will almost certainly be taken by Algeria winger Riyad Mahrez. The 25-year-old was one of the cornerstones of Leicester City’s improbable title win in England, and will push Aubameyang just as hard as Toure did last year. In his favour is not just his displays, but the fairytale nature of the Foxes’ triumph.
Aubameyang’s Dortmund, however, had to settle for second place in the Bundesliga, and exited the Europa League at the quarter-final stage after losing to beaten finalists Liverpool in dramatic fashion. But the Gabon international did score 39 goals in 49 club appearances in all competitions last term and is eight for eight this term across the Bundesliga and Champions League.
Andre Ayew placed third last time out and on the evidence of his debut season in the Premier League, he is another who is among the favourites. His case is, however, harmed by the injury he picked up early in the first half of his Premier League debut with West Ham which will keep him out of action for at least another month.
Islam Slimani’s goalscoring prowess earned him a move away from the relatively quiet Portuguese Primeira Liga. The switch to Leicester City may be a catalyst to a serious challenge next year but comes too soon for this one, as the method of selection makes it unlikely his exploits in Portugal will gain enough traction.
The trend has shifted in African football – a lack of era-defining players has led to more equal opportunities. It is unlikely that any one player will dominate the award for an extended period like Toure, Didier Drogba or Eto’o.
Aubameyang and Mahrez are clear frontrunners, but with the likes of Slimani and Sadio Mane breathing down their necks, there is no room for complacency at the top. The duopoly of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s dominance of the Ballon d’Or seems unlikely to spread to the African award… for now.