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Sports Features of Monday, 17 November 2003

Source: Clement Nwankpa Jnr - The Guardian

Who wins African Footballer of the Year?

THE year is gradually winding down and as is customary with this period of the season, hardwork is appreciated. It is a period of harvest when outstanding players are given a pat on the back.

Across the globe, the big attraction will be on who will be the World Footballer of the Year. Just last week,a list of 50 nominees for the European Golden Ball was announced.

In the continent though, the big question will be, who will be the African Footballer of the Year? It is another odd year meaning that whoever is named the continent's best will be going into the Nations Cup next year with all the attendant razzmatazz.

Incidentally, the year's poll will be one of the closest in recent years. It could be as close as 1998 when Morocco's Mustapha Hadji edged out Austin Okocha or 1999 when Nwankwo Kanu was picked ahead of Ghana's Samuel Ossei Kuffour.

It was as a result of the neck-to-neck battle that on both occasions, the players that lost out protested the decisions believing they deserved it instead.

It is yet to be known if the year's best will be announced as late as March next year, as was the case last year. In this case, the Nations Cup could have ended before the pronouncement.

During the last edition of the Nations Cup in Mali, Senegal's El Hadji Diouf and Kuffour were still waiting to see who among them would be picked.There is every likelihood that Tunisia 2004 will not be a difference.

Observers will however remember how the award was presented to Kanu before the Eagles opening match at Ghana/Nigeria 2000 against Tunisia. That made him the cynosure of all eyes at the tournament and whether he lived up to the top billing is another thing.

At Senegal 92, reigning African best Abedi Pele of Ghana lorded it over everybody just as Rashidi Yekini won in 1993 and terrorised defences at Tunisia 94.

In 1996, Liberia made a Nations Cup appearance with George Weah, heavy with the World, European and African Footballer of the year awards.

By the time Burkina Faso '98 beckoned, Victor Ikpeba could not take his lap of honour as Nigeria was serving out a two-year Nations Cup ban, having boycotted South Africa '96.

Even if the winner is not announced before the Nations Cup, the nominees will use the biggest football stage on the continent as the platform to lay further claims to the award, though their performances at the Nations Cup will only be a perimeter for picking next year's winner.

Four years after Kanu became the first Nigerian to win it twice, will another Nigerian bag the honour? Five of the 10 editions in the 90s were won by Nigerians namely Yekini, Emmanuel Amuneke, Ikpeba and Kanu.

If any Nigerian is to be given the nod this year, he would have to battle against several other African sons who have had an impressive year. Here are the players who could be in the running for this year's award.

Samuel Eto'O (Cameroun)

Anybody who beats Eto'O to the award this year must be a class act. Both for the Indomitable Lions and his club, Real Mallorca, the lad has been in outstanding form. He was at the centre of it all when Cameroun beat Brazi and went all the way to the final of the Confederations Cup and since that was Africa's biggest achievement in the international scene this year, Eto is a favourite.

When Diouf beat Champions League winner Kuffour in 2001, the reasons proferred by CAF was the fact that while the latter set Europe ablaze, the former achieved more for the Teranga Lions of Senegal finishing as the top scorer during the World Cup qualifiers. Inspiring Cameroun at the Confederations Cup could be another factor that could swing the pendulum to his favour.Being the only African player nominated for the European Footballer of the Year is also a plus. It will take a lot of doing to stop this player who was a subject of big transfer speculations last summer after scoring 14 goals in the Spanish La Liga last season.

He was the tormentor-in-chief when Real Malorca humiliated his former club Real Madrid last season. He has been knocking on the door in recent years and this could be one big chance to grab it.

Shabani Nonda (Congo DR)

Ikpeba bagged the award in 1997 after scoring 17 goals in a Monaco team that had the likes of Thiery Henry and David Trezeguet. Is it by coincidence that Nonda scored 26 goals in Monaco's colours to emerge the French championat top scorer for the 2002/2003 season?

With this, Nonda, no doubt, has a solid pedigree as the countdown to naming the African numero uno begins. He was the only African leading scorer in a major European League and this should give Eto'o some course for concern. Over the years, Nonda has shown some consistency in front of goal in France and though, he was slowed down by injury that would later keep him out for the remaining part of the year, he is almost sure to finish among the top three in the poll if not the best. He has a credential no African could flaunt all the year.

Austing Okocha (Nigeria)

'Jay Jay' is arguably the most gifted player yet to bag the award. For all his trail-blazing achievements internationally, not a few have wondered why he has not picked the continent's biggest individual football honour.

When his $17 million move to PSG in 1998 made him the most expensive African player ever, many expected he would win the award that year but when Hadji beat him to it, he was always going to struggle to get a favourable mention and this has been the case over the years.

Interestingly, since 1998 he may not have come closer to winning it than this year. Ealier in the year, he told The Guardian how he desired to crown an eventful career with the African Footballaler of the Year award. This could have influenced his chart-bursting performances in the colours of Bolton this year, a club he single-handedly helped to escape regulation last season. His eight goals also made him the club's joint leading scorer just as he was voted the most influential signing of the season by Sky Sports.

Okocha would later assume captaincy of the Reebok side this summer and has not stopped hugging the headlines particularly with his performance against Tottenham which has been rated as the best individual performance in the Premiership this season. If there is one player that could upstage Nonda and Eto'o, it is this playmaker adjudged the best African in the Premiership last season.

Jay Jay has a realistic chance of grabbing it. In fact, he is Nigeria's best bet. There is also the sentimental angle to it. Is it not possible that CAF would want to bid one of the continent's best players ever farewell with the award? He is the oldest and most experienced among the front runners for this award. It will take a class act to stop Eto'o and Jay Jay is not short of this.

Geremi Njitap Fotso (Cameroun)

Joining Middlesborough on loan from Real Madrid was the tonic Geremi needed to blossom during the year under review. He scored eight times from his midfield position, as Boro put up one of their best performances in recent years. He did well enough to attract a ?6 million move to Chelsea last summer. He was the only African among the superstars recruited by the free-spending Stamford Bridge Club for the current campaign.This power-packed player may not be a clear favourite for the award but he could get some respectable mention.

Steven Piennar (South Africa)

This creative midfielder with an educated left foot was beaten to the young player of the year award last year by Egypt's Mido but this year he is set to raise his hand and get counted among the big boys. A member of the all-conquering Ajax team that was beaten to a Champions League semi-final ticket by a late Milan strike, one of Piennar's best moments was scoring the goal that nearly edged out Milan at the San Siro. Definitely a player of the future, this little genius' more than modest performance in Ajax's colours may not be enough to earn him the big prize.

Eric Djemba Djemba (Cameroun)

Djemba Djemba's holding ability in the midfield was one of the strongest points of Nantes in the French Championat last season but it was at the Confederations Cup that his exploits in Cameroun's colours brought him to the fore. Manchester United would later part with ?3.5 million to bring him to Old Trafford. That was one of the biggest moves by an African player last summer and soared his rating in the continent. He has had his fair share of action at Man U including a well-taken goal. But how he upstages Okocha, Nonda and Eto'o to the award is yet to be known.

Kolo Toure (Cote d'Ivoire)

Toure ended last season as a midfielder in Arsenal's colours but since being converted to a central defender, he has seen more playing times and only seems to be getting better in the new position by the day. He got mentioned in the Champions League 11 two weeks ago and not a few see this as a tribute to a young player who could have the world at his feet in the years ahead. Toure may not have done enough to earn the award this year because it is believed he got off the starting block late.

Quinton Fortune(South Africa)

By his Man U standards, Fortune has been more fortunate this current season. When not playing from the left back, he will be running things from the left side of the midfield. The important thing is that he has been busy recently. More importantly, he has helped himself to a well-taken Champions League goal. Can Fortune go all the way in the African Player of the Year poll? Like Toure, he no doubt left it a bit late. He may have been slowed down at a point by injury.

Marc-Vivien Foe (Cameroun)

Many would recommend Late Foe for a post humous award but it must be pointed out that before he slumped and died at the Confederations Cup, this six footer had done well enough to lay a claim to the African Footballer of the Year. During the 2002/2003 season, he was on loan from Lyon to Manchester City, a club he helped to ninth place in the Premiership, scoring nine goals from a defensive midfield position. He had not had such a free scoring season in his European stint. Dying in active service for his fatherland also means he should not go unmentioned.

Benny McCarthy(South Africa)

McCarthy had a modest performance with Celta Vigo in the 2002/2003 season but it has been at Portuguese giants, Porto that he has hit the headlines this current season. Regular Champions League action at Porto has also done his chances a world of good but he may have to work harder next year.

Stephen Appiah(Ghana)

Nigeria 99 revelation Appiah had a good goal scoring in 2002/2003 season (by a midfielder's standards) with Brescia in the Italian Serie A attracting a move to Champions League runners-up, Juventus. Even in the star-studded Turin giants,he has got regular action in a midfield that parades the likes of Edgar Davids and Pavel Nedved.Playing alongside these celebrated players has projected him and will give him some chance in the poll. The dwindling fortunes of Black Stars of Ghana may not give him the desired boost.

Hatem Trabelsi (Tunisia)

The African Footballer of the Year list will never be complete without mentioning Ajax flying right back Hatem Trabelsi,who is easily one of the most improved players this year. He was key to the Amsterdam club's charge at Europe last season.He would later be at the centre of transfer speculations linking him to Manchester United. Ajax made it clear to United that the player was not for sale.He is currently injured but one thing that will work against him is the seeming difficulty for defenders to bag the award in recent years. When Taribo West placed third in 1997, he had done well enough to win it same for Kuffor in 1999 and 2001.

Lauren Etame Mayer (Cameroun)

Lauren has been a regular feature at Arsenal right back in the past three seasons and this year was not a difference. Despite his good showings with The Gunners, what will always make it difficult for him to bag the African honour is his turning his back against the Camerounian national team. Moreover, he has had bad disciplinary records of late.

Henry Camara (Senegal)

Since joining Premiership campaigners,Wolves Senegalese World Cup hero, Henry Camara has pumped up the volume. He is however one of the late starters.

Paul Kpaka (Sierra Leone)

Kpaka was the leading African scorer in the Belgian Jupiter last season. He scored 22 goals in the colours of Germinal Beershot. A nomination for the award could be enough for him.

Abubakari Yakubu (Ghana)

He is listed as a Ghanaian in Europe but he has Nigerian blood flowing in him.Yakubu was a tower of strenght in the holding midfield role for Ajax.Whether he will get nominated is another issue.

Obafemi Martins (Nigeria)

Martins scored three Champions League goals this year but he has more chances of emerging the young Player of the Year than the African best. One snag will be the fact that the 18 year old has not worn the green and white colours of the Eagles.

El Hadji Diouf (Senegal)

For the first time in two years, Diouf will not be entering the poll as a favourite. He had a poor 2002/2003 season (by his standard) but he has been more useful to Liverpool this season. It will take a miracle for the reigning King not to drop his crown this year.