Seeing an African in the winning side for this year’s Champions League will virtually amount to an underdog claiming the top prize.
For many, the trio that readily comes to mind to emerge tops at the Cardiff final are Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich who interstingly have no African presence as it were.
With the growth and extension of TV viewing in the turn of the millennium, football fans in Africa have only become more and more glued to the best of European football.
Apart from supporting certain clubs, many Africans also form part of the home based drummers for African players representing various clubs in the competition, hoping that they go as far as possible and that more will follow in the footsteps of the likes of Abedi Pele, Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba in becoming demi-gods of European football.
With those trios now only a part of history, we look to see those in the present generation of African players who have a chance of writing their names in the folklore of the European Champions League history come May, 2017.
Since the inception of the reformed version of the UEFA Champions League in 1992 more than a few African players have gone on to enjoy success in the competition.
The first was Ghanaian maestro Abedi Pele who led Olympique Marseille’s charge in 1993 – the only French victory in the competition yet.
Just two years after him came the turn of Ghana’s perennial West African rivals, Nigeria to conquer Europe.
The 90s were such great times for Nigerian football. The nation won the 1993 World Youth Championships, a second African Cup of Nations title in 1994, made a first ever World Cup appearance, an impressive one at that, that same year and won the football event of the Olympic Games in 1996.
Two great players who had a huge say in some of these successes were Nwankwo Kanu and Finidi George.
They were also lynchpins in Luis Van Gaal’s youthful side that won the UEFA Champions League in 1995.
A second Ghanian, Samuel Kuffor, recovered from a shattering 1999 final defeat to Man United to win in 2001 with Bayern Munich.
Between those two events were triumphs for Cameroon’s Geremi Ndjitap; a part of the successful Real Madrid sides of 2000 and 2002
Geremi’s great compatriot, Samuel Eto’o enjoyed huge successes in 2006, 2009 (with Barcelona) and 2010 (with Internazionale) – thereby becoming the only African to win it thrice and also the only African to win it with two different clubsides.
Two other African players have also won with the Catalans: Ivorian Yaya Toure in 2009 and Malian Seydou Keita in 2011.
South Africa’s Benni McCarthy was one of the heroes of Jose Mourinho’s all conquering FC Porto side of 2004.
Benni may have drawn inspiration from South Africa-born Zimbabwean ex-international goalkeeper, Bruce Grobbelaar who won the completion in 1986 with Liverpool and Algerian great, Rabah Madja who led FC Porto to victory in 1987.
McCarthy was closely followed by Liverpool’s Jimi Traore in 2005.
Perhaps the most intriguing of them all came in 2012 where Chelsea’s win featured Nigeria’s Mikel Obi, Ghana’s Michael Essien and the Ivorians Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou – the most in a single campaign.
Ghana lead the race
A summation of these success stories shows that Ghana have produced the most players to win the trophy: Abedi Pele, Samuel Kuffor, Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien. Cote D’Voire, with their golden generation, have three in Toure, Drogba and Kalou.
Nigeria features three in Kanu, Finidi and Mikel. Cameroon follows with the duo of Geremi and Eto’o as well as Mali with Keita and Traore.
Since Chelsea’s 2012 victory, however, there has been a notable African absence in the winning team lists. Bayern, Real Madrid and Barcelona who won the last four did not and still do not feature any Africans in their respective first teams.
Ghana’s Thomas Partey – a bit part player for Atletico Madrid – came closest last season only to suffer an utterly painful loss to City rivals Real Madrid.
The situation does not look to be much better this season for African players. Yaya Toure, perhaps the biggest of them, did not make the list submitted by Man City coach, Pep Guardiola.
This is not to say that the Catalan has something against African players. Nigeria’s Kelechi Iheanacho is a major beneficiary of Guardiola’s “selective generosity”.
After them are perennial pretenders Arsenal who boast a modest contingent of Egyptian Mo’ Elneny and Nigerian Alex Iwobi in their squad.
The absence of Manchester United (with Eric Bailly) and Chelsea (with Mikel Obi and Victor Moses) – two of the strongest English teams presently – from the competition also significantly diminishes the chances of an African triumph.
Chelsea’s and United’s losses are Leicester’s and Tottenham’s gain, however. If Spurs win, Victor Wanyama would become, after McDonald Mariga Wanyama with Internazionale in 2010, the second Kenyan to win the competition.
Leicester have in their team Nigeria’s Ahmed Musa, Algerians Islam Slimani and Riyadh Mahrez and the Ghanian duo of Jeffrey Schlupp and Daniel Amartey.
Another Ghanian who would hope to taste the honeypot is Kwadwo Asamoah of Serie A champions Juventus.
The Turin giants, despite their Serie A dominance, have won the competition once in 1996 and hold the unenviable record of 6 final defeats, the last coming in 2015 against Barcelona.
They will look to go a step further this time… just maybe with a touch of some left-footed African magic.
Also in their armoury is Mehdi Benatia – the Moroccan on loan from Bayern Munich.
Bayern’s Bundesliga rival, BVB will look to reenact some blitzkrieg counter-attacking football as they served in their phenomenal 2013 run to the final.
PSG’s Ivorian defender, Serge Aurier will hope to go two steps farther than last year’s quarter-final with new coach Unai Emery. Then there is the Napoli duo of Kalidou Koulibaly and Faouzi Ghoulam.
Ghoulam’s compatriot Yacine Brahimi and Nigerian youngster Chigozie Awaziem will hope for a repeat of FC Porto’s 2004 magic, while Moroccan Adel Tarabt, on a personal resuscitation mission in Portugal would crave an end to Benfica’s European curse this time out.
Beyond this bunch there is little else to look forward to.
The dearth of African players at the very top Champions League clubs represents a bad omen.
Since FC Porto and Liverpool won the trophy in 2004 and 2005 respectively the winners have mostly emerged from pre-tournament favourites.
The usual suspects: Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid are in a class of their own. Perhaps just below them would be the likes of Atletico, PSG, Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Arsenal.
It is on the shoulders of these second-rate contenders that the hopes of Africa are pinned. Thus, unless some fate of Chelsea-2012 proportions comes into play there is not likely to be an African winner.
Well… fancied or not, If you bet on Leicester winning the English Premier League last season you can bet on an African Champions League winner this year.