Soccer players from the continent are kicking it up a notch as they become instrumental in their European teams contesting championships.
A number of African footballers have excelled at their European clubs in the 2018/19 season, growing their reputations and showcasing the skill, artistry and power of players from the continent.
But there have also been some new names to savor, players who have stepped out of the shadows to boost their reputation and suggest they can become not just stars in their own countries, but also on the global stage.
Belgian coach Tom Saintfiet, who led Gambia in the recent Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, has worked extensively in Africa and Europe, and is highly-regarded for his tactical acumen and views on the game.
He keeps a keen eye on African players in Europe every week and says there has been much to admire this season.
“You have to start at Liverpool with Mo Salah and Sadio Mané,” Saintfiet tells FORBES AFRICA.
“The impact that their goals have had for the club has been immense and if they win the English (Premier) League, for the first time in 29 years, this season, then you can truly say this would be a triumph made in Africa.”
Egyptian forward Salah and Senegalese striker Mane are arguably the two outstanding talents from the continent in Europe, at present, but Saintfiet reveals there is much more to admire.
“Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alex Iwobi at Arsenal have had excellent seasons too, even if their team has struggled, a bit, at times. But you cannot ignore the contribution they have made.
“But one player that has really stood out for me, who is maybe a surprise, is Adam Ounas from Napoli. For me, he is the future. He is only 22 years old, but he is already a fantastic player.”
The winger has had a growing influence at Napoli this season as they emerged as the only real challengers to Juventus for the Serie A title, even if they were some way off the pace in the end.
“He can score goals and provide assistance, and at his age, his potential is simply huge,” Saintfiet says.
“He played against my Gambian side for Algeria and I saw that day a player who can become a star of the game. His opportunities with the national team have been a little limited because of the quality of the competition he faces, but I think in the next few years, he will emerge as a top player from the continent.”
Another who was relatively unknown before the start of the season was Togolese defender Djené Dakonam Ortega, who has been inspirational for surprise-package Getafe CF in the Spanish LaLiga. Ortega has been virtually ever-present for the side in what many consider the best league in the world, and has played a large role in making Getafe challengers for the UEFA Champions League.
“He can play as a left-back or a right-back, and sometimes in the centre too, and he has been very consistent this season. He is a very hard-working footballer who has obvious natural ability,” Saintfiet says.
“I don’t think anybody expected Getafe to have the kind of season they are having, they have been exceptional. I doubt many people had heard of Djené before the start of the season either, but they will know him now.”
Saintfiet is also full of praise for Tanzanian striker Mbwana Samatta, who has been banging in the goals for Genk in Belgium and turned them into surprise championship challengers.
“He is scoring a lot of goals, the best season of his career. I don’t think anybody in Belgium expected Genk to be challenging for the league, but Samatta’s goals have given them the chance to do that.
“He has made a big contribution to the team and, in my opinion, he is ready for a higher level [league].”
Saintfiet also pointed out the quality of Ivory Coast striker Nicolas Pépé at French Ligue 1 side Lille, Burkina Faso forward Bertrand Traoré at Lyon and Senegal defender Kalidou Koulibaly from Napoli.
He has also been impressed by the Champions League exploits of Cameroon goalkeeper André Onana, who plays for Ajax Amsterdam.
“He is a very good goalkeeper, but you know in the Dutch league, he plays for a team [Ajax] that is very dominant and so it is hard to judge his ability. Ajax do not allow their opponents to create many chances, so Onana is, maybe, not tested as much as many other keepers.
“But having watched him closely in the Champions League, it is a different story. There he has been able to show what he can do and for a young goalkeeper, he has acquitted himself very well.
“He will get even better, but he has good physical attributes and comes from a country [Cameroon] that is renowned for producing very good goalkeepers.”