by David Sweeney
As Tuesday the 26th of June marked the tragic passing of midfield warrior Marc Vivien Foe, I thought it fitting to run through my best and worst Premier League African XIs.
The former Manchester City man who scored the last ever goal at Maine Road passed away after collapsing during an international match for Cameroon. His loss served to unite the football world with tributes being left at the ground in respect to the midfield powerhouse. He was a true gent and a fantastically underrated player who popped up with many vital goals in his one season at City, proving the difference in many games. As a team we were much weaker without him.
Since the Premier League began in 1992, there have been numerous Africans – some better than Foe, many worse – that have plied their trade in England, with varying levels of success. For every Drogba, there is a Mido, and for every Yaya Toure, there has been a Djemba-Djemba. Thankfully for Southampton fans, there was only one Ali Dia.
Over the years, our African counterparts have brought to our game a mixed bag of beautiful ball skills, hard-hitting tackles and a tendency for temperamental tantrums.
Perhaps the fairest (and most interesting) way to gauge the impact the imports have had on the Premier League is to propose a match-up encompassing the best African XI stars to have graced the Premier League, versus the worst.
African All Stars (3-4-3)
GK – Bruce Grobbelaar (Liverpool)
Grobbelaar’s unique brand of showmanship, athleticism and unshakable confidence made him an obvious choice for the goalkeeping position in this side. There is also the small matter of his trophy cabinet which is gleaming with various medals he picking up during his time at Anfield. His return includes six First Division titles, three FA cups and three League cups and a European Cup. His eccentricity and his famed wobbly-leg penalty saving routine ensures Grobbelaar will be remembered fondly by everyone connected with Liverpool.
Defender – Lauren (Arsenal)
The-tough-tackling Cameroon was brought to Arsenal in 2000. Although initially he took a while to adapt due to niggling injuries, he won fans over with his tenacity and versatility and was a mainstay in the famous ‘Invincibles’ side in 2003-2004.
Defender – Chris Samba (Blackburn)
The powerful Congolese centre-back was brought to the Premier League in 2007 by Mark Hughes for a bargain price of £450,000 and was an instant hit, making Blackburn hard to beat and eventually became club captain before leaving the club in January 2012 after (unsurprisingly) falling out with current Rovers boss Steve Kean.
Defender – Alex Song (Arsenal)
Although not his natural position, the Cameroonian international is comfortable in this role as he has repeatedly shown for Arsenal. The combative defensive midfielder has had a great campaign for the Gunners who ensured a Champions League place, partly down to Song’s clever lofted through balls to Van Persie who finished with typical aplomb.
RM – Stéphane Sessègnon (Sunderland)
At Sunderland, Sessengnon has become the first Benesien to play in the Premier League. The pacey wideman has proved to be popular amongst fans of the North East club and is widely recognised as the Black Cat’s best player. It is surely only a matter of time before he moves on to bigger and better things.
CM – Yaya Toure (Man City)
Yaya Toure is the ultimate modern day midfielder. His powerful physique allows him to go on regular marauding box to box runs whilst effortlessly brushing aside his opponents. He also possesses the very happy knack of scoring vitally important goals such as his winners in both the semi and final of the FA Cup last year and his brace away at Newcastle which virtually secured the Premier League title. Yaya is naturally a huge favourite at the Etihad and if he can take his form of last season into the new campaign, you wouldn’t bet against the champions retaining their crown.
CM – Micheal Essien (Chelsea)
Essien is a footballing powerhouse and in his pomp could control the midfield on his own. He was never purely defensive or purely attacking but he made Chelsea significantly better at both. He would win the ball back very quickly and high up the pitch. His pace allowed him to cover the entire midfield and his strength allowed him to dominate it. Although he wasn’t creative in the sense that say David Silva or Juan Mata is, he made things happen by picking the right pass and similarly to Yaya he has the ability to motor past the opposition midfielders and drive into the space. A cracking player who has been unfortunately dogged by injuries in recent years. However at the peak of his powers he would walk into this side.
LM – Jay-Jay Okocha (Bolton)
So good they named him twice Okocha was a revelation for Bolton Wanderers and almost single-handedly kept Big Sam’s side up. The Nigerian always had something unusual to show off during games, be it his finesse, his touch, his vision or more prominently his silky skills which regularly bamboozled opposing defenders. The Premier League seemed to suit Okocha’s style of play down to the ground and he should bring unpredictability and flair to this line up.
CF – Dwight Yorke (Aston Villa, Manchester United Blackburn Rovers, Birmingham City, Sunderland)
The maverick forward’s play encapsulated the excitement Manchester United’s treble winning side created. He forged a prolific strike partnership with Andy, sorry Andrew Cole and the duo played a crucial role in United’s domestic dominance throughout the late 90’s. He also was a success at Villa and for those reasons he gets a starting berth in this side.
CF – Tony Yeboah (Leeds)
In his brief but memorable stint at Leeds United Tony Yeboah became synonymous with banging in breathtaking goals. His 25 yard dipping thumper against Liverpool was recently short-listed for best ever Premier League goal by the BBC, unjustly losing out to Rooney’s derby ‘shinner’.
CF – Didier Drogba (Chelsea)
In my opinion Drogba is the best African player to have played in the Premier League and even at the ripe old age of 34 he remains a formidable proposition.
Didier has won the lot – he is a Premier League winner, FA Cup winner, League Cup winner, Community Shield winner, Chelsea Player of the Year, Premier League Golden Boot and perhaps most importantly, Champions League winner. Over the years he has been a joy to watch with his goals, pace and overall magnificent play. On his day he really is unstoppable.
Abysmal Africans (3-4-3)
GK – Richard Kingston (Blackpool)
By no means dreadful Kingston’s inclusion is more down to his poor decision making and tendency to flap at crosses which ultimately contributed to Blackpool’s slide down the Premier League table following an injury to their regular stopped Matt Gilks.
Defender – Kamil Zayatte (Hull City)
Zayatte proved to be a solid performer for Hull during their first half of the season in the Premier League and formed a good partnership with fellow centre back Michael Turner. However after Christmas things changed for the stopper who suddenly turned kamikaze and Hull slid rapidly down the table. After Hull City made his initial loan move permanent Zayette seemed to take his foot off the gas and began to relax which resulted in unnecessary errors creeping into his game and became very prone to lapses in concentration. As Hull were ultimately relegated with Zayette at the heart of the defence, he makes the team.
Defender – Djimi Traoré – (Liverpool)
Don’t blame it on Biscan, Don’t blame it on Finnan, Don’t blame it on Hamann, Blame it on Traore, He just can’t, he just can’t, he just can’t control his feet.
Defender – Ibrahima Sonko (Reading)
The former Reading bruiser took the Premier League by storm in his maiden season with a string of top notch displays which helped propel newly promoted Reading to the dizzy heights of 8th place. However after a series of injuries the Senegalese centre back failed to recapture his good form and after an unsuccessful spell at Stoke he has drifted down the divisions and is now currently a free agent after being released by Ipswich Town.
RM – Mame Biram Diouf – (Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers)
The forward could never really call Old Trafford his home as he was cast out on the periphery consigned to playing the early rounds of League Cup games and even when he did get his chance he was often slow out of the blocks and had the touch of a baby elephant to boot. Sadly as his transfer to Hannover has shown, it was never going to work for him at a club the size of Manchester United and for his lack of impact and his nightmarish displays, especially on the wing, Diouf leads the line in this side of flops.
CM – Hossam Ghaly (Tottenham, Derby)
Although Ghaly showed flashes of his talent at Spurs, ultimately his attitude was not up to scratch. In a midweek encounter with Blackburn Ghaly walked off the pitch like an Egyptian in a huff and aggressively threw his shirt on the floor in disgust after being substituted by manager Martin Jol. This obviously didn’t go down to well with the Spurs faithful and his Premier League career was as good as over. His hotheaded temper also got the better of him just as he was about to move to Birmingham City on July 30, 2007 when he became annoyed with their methods of training and allegedly insulting the Birmingham City players. Consequently, the deal was cancelled days later. Ghaly’s personal life has also took a turn for the worse when he tested positive for a banned substance in 2010.
CM – Eric Djemba-Djemba (Man United)
Cameroon international Djemba-Djemba was signed by Manchester United in 2003 to succeed the rather large boots left by Roy Keane. Conversely to Okocha the joke was that Eric was so bad they named him twice and after some very substandard performances he was sold after just 18 months at the club and his career has nosedived ever since. Interestingly the ‘midfielder’ was declared bankrupt in 2007.
LM – Ali Dia (Southampton)
Con man Ali Dia somehow managed to spectacularly fool Southampton manager Graeme Souness into playing him in a Premier League match against Leeds United on the 23rd of November 1996 when Dia’s agent convinced Souness his client was the cousin of former world footballer of the year George Weah. He played once when he replaced Saints legend Matt Le Tissier. Le Tissier recalls the day well ‘His performance was almost comical. He kind of took my place, but he didn’t really have a position. He was just wondering everywhere. I don’t think he realised what position he was supposed to be in. I don’t even know if he spoke English – I don’t think I ever said a word to him. In the end he got himself subbed because he was that bad.’ A comical affair that I doubt will ever happen again but for his footballing ability or lack of it, Dia makes the eleven. Hell I’ll even make him captain.
CF – George Weah (Chelsea, Manchester City)
The Liberian strikers talent is not in question. As a former world footballer of the year during his spell at AC Milan, big things were expected of Weah when Joe Royle brought him to Maine Road. However his stay was short and not-so-sweet coming to an abrupt end after just 11 games. His departure was down to a sorry mixture of his poor attitude, his reluctance to sit on the substitute’s bench, combined with Joe Royle’s inability to deal with big name players. His promising partnership with Paulo Wanchope was inevitably cut short as a result and his spell at the Blues is now a bemusing footnote in a bizarre 5 year period of constant chopping and changing of a not so talented playing squad.
CF – Ade Akinbiyi (Leicester)
Big things were expected of Akinbiyi who despite being born in London earned one cap for Nigeria. After prolific spells in the lower leagues at Gillingham, Bristol City and Wolves, Leicester manager Peter Taylor spent a whopping £5 million on the big striker. However Akinbiyi was awful in his spell at the Foxes and was unlucky enough to earn the nickname “Ade Akin-bad-buy” after an amazing display against Liverpool where he somehow managed to miss four gilt-edged chances. To his credit Ade went on to have a successful career in the lower leagues but has never been a good enough player to perform at the highest level.
CF – Mido (Tottenham, Middlesbrough)
Mido arrived at Tottenham in early 2005 and announced his arrival with two debut goals. Coincidentally this is the only game I have ever seen him play well. How he has managed to rack up over 50 international caps for Egypt is beyond me. He is constantly overweight and his lazy play reflects this. Having somehow just earned a contract at Barnsley for the new season Mido will be playing Championship football next season. I predict it will end in tears within the first 3 games.