The Senegalese held court in Egypt on Tuesday night when Liverpool FC of England’s gem Sadio Mane was deservedly decorated as the Africa Footballer of the Year inside the Albatros Citadel Sahl Hasheesh, Hurghada, Egypt.
Mane finished as finalist in the previous three editions of the CAF Player of the Year (in 2017 and 2018 and taking third place in 2016), but never won the coveted piece of silverware. He is only the second Senegalese to win the award after El Hadji Diouf, who was the winner in 2001 and 2002.
It is important to state here that Mane has been the most consistent African in the last four years, losing trice, yet remained focused in his job of scoring goals for club and country. Those disturbing the media with paralysed analyses about the absence of Nigerian male players in the awards should tell them to be consistent in their performances with Super Eagles and their clubs.
Besides, our players must grow up and strive to play for the bigger cubs in Europe, which win trophies and play at the big stages such as UEFA Champions League finals, Super Cup finals and World Club Champions finals. These three trophies and their winners’ medals are with Mane, making him the obvious choice for the CAF Africa Player of the Year.
Mane’s acceptance speech typifies who he is – simple, urbane, respectful and abhors self glorification. The Senegalese lives for his people, fights for them, provides basic amenities for his people, not minding if that’s the responsibility of government. Need I waste space to list all that Mane has done for Senegal, her people and the community, dear reader?
According to Mane on Tuesday night: “To be honest I would prefer to be playing football than speaking in front of so many important people. My job, I love it. I’m really happy and really proud at the same time. I would like to thank my family, especially my uncle who is here today – and as well my coach. [I’d also like to thank] my national teammates and the staff, Liverpool football club and my teammates.
“It is a big day for me and I would love to thank all the Senegalese people who have been voting for me. I’m from a very small village called Bambali and I’m sure they are all watching me tonight. Again, I’m really happy and very proud to win this.”
Pundits won’t be surprised if Mane wins the 2020 edition, given the way he is playing for Liverpool, especially if the Reds win Barclays English Premier League title and retain all their trophies. Did I hear you say tall dreams for Mane and Liverpool? With the way Liverpool is playing this season, not many European clubs can beat them.
Of course, Liverpool’s attacking onslaughts rest in the hands of Mane, Mohammed Salah and Firmino, so who or what will stop Mane from winning the diadem again? Perhaps his teammate at Anfield Mo’Salah but definitely not a Nigerian player. Sorry, I’m not sentimental because this is serious business and our players need to realise that or remain as second fiddle where it matters the most.
It must be noted here that the award winner is judged based on players’ contributions to their country and club. For this year, Senegal are Africa’s best playing soccer nation adjudged by FIFA, aside playing in the finals of 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, losing in the finals to Algeria, with Mane spearheading the Senegalese’s team.
The CAF Player of the Year award was first won by Ghana’s greatest player Abedi Ayew Pele in 1992 with the first Nigeria winner being Rashidi Yekini in 1993, two players who made goal-scoring look so easy.
Guess what, Nigerians dominated this award until 1999 because it was the country’s golden era of producing immensely talented footballers, losing the spot twice during this period in 1995, to easily the best African footballer, President George Opong Weah, who also voted the best European player and World Footballer of that year and in 1998 to pony-tail Mustapha Hadji.
Austin Jay Jay Okocha was so good for country and his hitherto Barclays English Premier League side Bolton FC of England that he was twice named BBC’s best African player in 2003 and 2004. In both years, Cameroonian Eto O’ Fils was without a doubt Africa’s best player, winning the award consecutively from 2003 to 2005, although Eto again won it in 2010. The Cameroonian won it four times.
Did you say Eto’s feat was awesome? What would you say of Ivorien Yaya Toure, who won it four consecutive times from 2011 to 2014? Those who have won the award were exceptional players who led their teams by example throughout matches. Eto and Toure were class acts in the game despite playing in different positions.
However, Toure did more than just scoring goals for the Elephants of Cote d’ Ivoire. He held the team’s midfield together and provided the buffer defenders needed to ward off opponents’ attacking forays.
Eto and Toure’s reigns raised the bar for Africans playing in Europe. They switched teams for high fees and justified what they were given. It explains why Africans have dominated the World team of the year, with Mohammed Salah, reigning Africa Footballer of the Year Mane and Mahrez, Aubameyang as outstanding players. The trio scored 22 goals each for their Barclays English Premier League last season, sharing the award of the highest goal scorer of the 2018/2019 season. It was the first time three players would tie on 22 goals in one season.
No prize for guessing right the trio Aubmenyang (13 goals), Salah (10 goals) and Mane (11 goals) are among the leading scorers in the EPL this season with Vardy (17 goals) topping the chart after 21 matches. Sadly, Harry Kane is out for three months due to a hamstring surgery which would take until April to heal. This leaves the stage open for a fight to the finish race for this year’s top scorer. Would there be a tie like last season? Don’t bet against it. I digress
In fact, a Nigerian Emmanuel Amuneke won the 1994 edition courtesy of his mercurial showing at the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, which Nigeria clinched in Tunisia, despite playing only in the final game against a Zambian team that rose from the ashes of an unfortunate plane crash, which claimed the lives of all 30 passengers and crew, including 18 players. Amuneke scored the two goals which sank Chipolopolo with the Zambians opening scoring. Many people sentimentally tipping them to lift the trophy, but Amuneke spoilt their predictions because Nigeria won 2-1.
Chipolopolo’s captain, Kalusha Bwalya—later national team coach and President of the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ)—was not aboard the flight as he was in the Netherlands playing for PSV at that time and had made separate arrangements to make his way to Senegal to take part in the match.
Charles Musonda, at the time playing in Belgium for Anderlecht, was previously injured and thus was not on the flight. Bennett Mulwanda Simfukwe, who had been seconded to the FAZ by his employers (ZCCM) for five years and was supposed to be on this flight, wasn’t on the flight because his employers demanded that he should immediately be removed from the list of those officially scheduled to travel to Senegal.
Nwankwo Kanu won the award twice, first in 1996 for his showboating displays at the Atlanta ’96 Olympic Games. Victor Ikpeba, a member of the goal winning Olympic side won the award last for Nigeria in 1999. Ikpeba was an ‘enfante terrible’ like the French would say but his talent and commitment to Monaco’s games and Nigeria’s earned him the award.
Nigerians were ‘molested’ for pictures and autographs by the nationals in Monaco and other French cities they visited by the French fans who held Ikpeba in awe at the France ’98 World Cup. Ikpeba was truly the prince of Monaco.
The pertinent question would be if any Nigerian would win the award in this new decade? It isn’t looking good. Our players don’t play for big clubs, just as they seem contented with earning big money in Europe, irrespective of putting markers in their careers, which is what winning the Africa Footballer of the Year award represents. I recall a feud between Ikpeba and Osaze Odemwingie. Ikpeba urged Odemwingie to win the Africa Footballer of the Year first, then he would be qualified to do any comparison with him. Upper cut, like they say in boxing. The feud ceased.
Five players have been listed as likely to win the award – Victor Osimhen, Joe Aribo, Ndidi, Samuel Chukwu and Iheanacho. My response is if Nigeria would qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, given the way our players prosecute our matches. Of these names pencilled for the award, which club in Europe would Osimhen command a regular shirt like he does at Lille FC in France? Chukwueze isn’t an exceptional player. He also doesn’t look like the player for the big stages, aside the fact that his style of play is predictable.
If Osimhen must win the award next year, he must either remain in Lille or join Paris Saint Germain (PSG) in the French Ligue, since it appears the style there suits his game. Aribo, Ndidi and Iheanacho are far-fetched options for the award, except Nigeria qualifies for the 2022 World Cup with a top tactician not what we have now.
Will any Nigerian win the Africa Footballer of the Year in this new decade? Please, show me a new player we have not seen.