How African soccer players dazzle Europe
BY EBOW GODWIN AND JAMES ASUKA
The amazing prolific exploits of superstar Samuel Eto’o at Inter Milan and Barcelona succinctly summarize how the creativity, skills and talents of African soccer mega-stars have helped to lift their individual European club sides from low ebb to the dizzy heights of celebrated glory.
African soccer players have indeed invaded European championships like Roman Emperor Julius Caesar’s legions conquered the world. These players are all over Europe, from Portugal to Russia. Some of them have even worn the jersey of European national teams during the World Cup tournaments. Case in point: Gerard Asamoah, a German of Ghanaian origin, and Poland’s Emmanuel Olisabede whose parents are Nigerian.
The rise of African soccer players in European major soccer leagues is the result of the athletic and technical abilities, the sophistication, the intelligent play, and, above all, the joy with which these Africans play this game of European origin.
It’s amazing how the majority of these players got there, coming from countries where sports facilities, handling and financial resources are in chronic shortage. Once in Europe where they are in a better environment, these Africans have exploded, to the delight of club owners, spectators and fans in general. As they get better and better, these guys truly impact the various European championships season after season.
Looking in the rearview mirror
African soccer players did not rise to stardom overnight in Europe. They were kept for a long time in secondary roles before rising to their current level, after capitalizing on the good performance of the Super Eagles of Nigeria and the Lions Indomptables of Cameroon in World Cup tournaments, and mostly during the Olympic tournament that both countries have won. Nigeria won the title in 1999 in Atlanta thanks to the generation of Kanu and Babangida, and Cameroon followed suit in 2000 in Sidney, Australia. Jay-Jay Okocha of Nigeria and Henri Camara of Senegal were then only two of many who have honored the African continent.
In France, Sidney Govou, a French player of Beninese origin, was one of the key players in Lyon’s first win of the national title in 50 years during the 2000-2001 season. This talented striker was the author of Lyon’s goals during the game of the last day of the championship that opposed Lyon, then second in the league, to the leader, RC Lens, the club in which El Hadj Ousseynou Diouf and Ferdinand Coly, both from Senegal, played. The former, who had a great 2001-2002 season and an extraordinary 2002 World Cup – when Senegal advanced to the quarter-finals during its first ever participation in the World Cup tournament by beating France, then-world’s champion – caught the attention of major clubs. Liverpool broke its piggy bank to acquire this rare bird. The Best African Player of the Year 2001 signed a contract worth $17 million. Diouf joined the premier British league where his captain, Aliou Cissé, has signed up with Birmingham City for roughly $7 million. Then followed the explosion.
Some of the achievements of these African star icons can only be described in superlatives, for, like the ancient Roman gladiators, they came, they saw and dazzled Europe.
It is now platitudinous in Europe to say that anytime the lissome and agile Samuel Eto’o flicked the ball with his magic feet for Inter-Milan or FC Barcelona, he wrote history with his golden boots. A key utility player, he employed his uncanny dexterity to propel Inter-Milan to capture the commanding heights of the Italian League by annexing the Italian Cup and finally, in one single swoop, conquer the European Champions League all in uninterrupted row in 2010. Eto’o also acted as an accelerator for the Internationale Milan to win the Italian cup in 2011.
In Barcelona, Eto’o was the toast of fans when Barca wrestled the coveted Spanish league in 2008 and proceeded to win the Spanish cup in a mesmerizing row. From there, he went on to help catapult Barcelona Football Club into the apex of victory, grabbing the European Champions League Cup, the Super World Cup of Champions, and the Spanish Super Cup, one after the other. In all, Eto’o helped Barcelona to win the Spanish league in 2005, 2006 and 2009, which earned him the Best Scorer award of the league in 2006.
Eto’o started his unrivalled European career by helping Real Majorque to win the Spanish cup in 2003. The little native boy from the district of Nkon, in Cameroon, now in his thirties, has virtually conquered all the departments of European soccer. He put a total of 107 goals from 144 league matches at the back of the nets of the opponents when he was with Barcelona Football Club. He lately abandoned the European glitter to invest his talent into a missionary zeal to inspire the young and old fans at Anzi Makachkala Club in the Russian league.
Samuel Eto’o is not a lonely achiever. Other African heroes have followed his golden path to glory.
Didier Drogba, the Ivorian soccer icon, has scored 151 goals and played 332 matches at Chelsea since he joined the club on July 20, 2004. Seydou Keita of Mali, another prolific goal poacher, played a major role when FC Barcelona performed a demolition job over Manchester United at Wembley during their European Cup Championships diadem. Keita’s speed and endurance were rare assets that reduced Manchester United’s defense into smithereens.
Similarly, Yaya Touré from Cote d’Ivoire scored dazzling goals while he was with Barcelona that kept European football fans talking for years. Like his former teammates Samuel Eto’o and Seydou Keita at Barcelona Football Club, Yaya Touré has lifted many Spanish and European cups, including the most coveted European Champions League. He is now performing well as the midfielder regulator at the British side Manchester City and is now ranked among the ten highest salaried in the British premier League.
But a peep at the incredible exploits of the African soccer missionaries cannot be completed if we fail to mention the achievements of gifted and talented Carlos Kameni, one of the rare pedigrees of Cameroonian goalkeepers in Europe. Kameni is literally scooping gold with his magic hands with which he miraculously disallows lethal shots from entering into the net while at post. Kameni always springs with the agility of a cat to make crucial saves. This quality helped his team Espanyol to secure their highest La Liga finish since his debut season with the club in 2004-2005.
North Africa too has its soccer ambassadors performing wonders in Europe, though not in large numbers like their Sub-Saharan peers.
Center back Mehdi Benatia from Morocco, a fast and physical athlete, has been a pillar of defense in Udinese, in Italy, that he joined from the French second division. He has been nicknamed “the Moroccan Maldini” by Italian fans in reference to the legendary Italian soccer star Maldini. Center back Karim Haggui is a Tunisian who plays for Hannover 96. Hannover had a great season last season, finishing fourth to earn a Europa League spot, thanks, among other things, not only to Didier Ya Konan from Cote d’Ivoire who proved vicious in attack, but also owing to the club’s improved defense where Haggui reigns. The Tunisian proved so good that the club extended his contract mid-season to keep him until 2014.Clearly, the European clubs that have trusted African players don’t regret their decision. Owing to the success of these players, some major league European clubs have established partnerships with African clubs to recruit promising players at lower cost. Overall, it appears the various European clubs are engaged in a race against the clock in the search for black pearls that would help them to do very well in their respective championships.
Those who regret to see the best African talents go to Europe get in return the satisfaction of seeing these expatriates raise very high the torch of African soccer and make a priceless contribution to the influence of European soccer, while making a fortune. The subject of our next story on African soccer stars in the Diaspora.