78. African Footballers leave a mark on England’s triumph

The Gaurdian
3 June 2019
Professor Adekeye Adebajo

The English football Premier League is currently enjoying halcyon days with four English teams having contested the European Champions League (Liverpool v Tottenham) on 1 June and the Europa Cup (Arsenal v Chelsea), three days earlier. Six of the 10 richest clubs in the world are English, and Premier League teams are estimated to spend 80% more than their competitors across Europe for equivalent talent. Liverpool, for example, splashed out 300 million pounds on transfers and players’ salaries this season. The English like to boast that their league is the best in the world, despite the fact that its clubs had not, before last week, won the Champions League in seven years. They certainly have the richest and most competitive league, but have until this year, failed to dominate Europe.

A major story of this season was undoubtedly the fact that three African players – Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (Egypt) and Sadio Mané (Senegal), and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon) – shared the Golden Boot for the most league goals scored in the English season (22). All three played in Europe’s top two cup competitions last week, with Liverpool winning and Arsenal losing. Salah and Mané honed their skills in Africa before moving to Europe, while Aubameyang was born and grew up in Europe. Their triumph underlines the abundance of footballing talent across Africa: Salah is from North Africa, Mané from West Africa, and Aubameyang from Central Africa. Many rough footballing diamonds still remain to be unearthed on the continent. The story of these three individuals is clear proof of Africa’s impact on the most popular sport in the world.

27-year old Mohamed Salah – valued at over 100 million pounds – also won the Golden Boot in England last year. He was voted African Footballer of the Year in 2017 and 2018, and FIFA’s third best player in the world in 2018 (behind Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo). Salah is renowned for his mazy runs, dribbling skills, and deadly finishing. He joined Swiss club, Basel, at the age of 20, before moving to Chelsea where he had just three league appearances and struggled to adapt to the physicality of the English game. He played in Italy’s Serie A with Fiorentina and Roma, and it was after he joined Liverpool for 42 million euros in 2017 that he developed into a superstar, scoring a record 32 goals (43 in all competitions) in 2018, to lead his club to a second-place league finish (after Manchester City) and runner-up (to Real Madrid) in the European Champions League final. Salah has scored 71 goals in just 104 appearances for Liverpool.

Nicknamed “the Egyptian King” on Merseyside, he is widely idolised in Egypt, as evidenced by schools and streets named after him, and his ubiquitous image on many murals. He has led “the Pharaohs” to the World Cup, Olympics, and the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), to be hosted in his home country over the next two months. He has scored an impressive 39 goals in 62 games for the national team. Renowned for his humility and down-to-earthness, Salah is most comfortable with close friends that he grew up with, and shuns the bright lights. He is also known for his generous philanthropy in supporting social upliftment programmes in his hometown of Nagrig.

The 27-year old Sadio Mané arrived in France to play for Metz at the age of 20. He struggled to adjust to playing in the snow and was withdrawn after 30 minutes in his first league game, leading to a flood of tears. Homesick and forlorn, he nearly gave up his dreams, but persevered. A sensitive and quiet soul, Mané again burst into tears after he missed a penalty in the Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final match for Senegal’s “Lions of Teranga” against eventual winners Cameroon’s “Indomitable Lions” in 2017. He has scored16 goals for Senegal in 60 appearances, leading them also to Olympic and World Cup appearances.

In the English league, Sané established his legend by scoring a 176-second hat-trick for Southampton in 2015, having earlier starred for Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. He is known for his close control, lightning pace, and intelligent creativity.  It was after he joined Liverpool in 2016 for 34 million pounds that his prodigious talent was finally realised. He has become a genuine superstar, though his quiet personality sometimes denies him the acclaim he deserves. As his German coach and father-figure, Jürgen Klopp, noted, Mané sometimes lacks belief in his own incredible abilities. The Senegalese did not score in the 4-0 “Miracle of Anfield” victory over Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final, but he did inspire his team with steely determination.  He has scored 59 goals in 122 Liverpool appearances, and is now valued at 76 million pounds.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – nicknamed “Auba” – is valued at 67 million pounds: 11 million pounds more than the price he joined Arsenal in 2018. With a mischievous toothy grin, the Gabonese was renowned at the start of his career with the AC Milan youth team for his speed and self-confidence. The 29-year old striker is also known as a prankster in the dressing room. He famously celebrated goals at Borussia Dortmund by donning Batman and Spiderman masks. Aubameyang rose to fame when he broke the German goal-scoring record by scoring in eight consecutive games for Borussia Dortmund in 2015, and also winning the African Footballer of the Year and Bundesliga Player of the Year awards in the same year. He scored 35 goals the following year, with several dazzling displays in the Champions League, and ended at Dortmund with 141 goals in 213 appearances. He already has an impressive 41 goals in just 64 Arsenal appearances.

Like Thierry Henry, Aubemeyang’s legendary Antillean-French predecessor at Arsenal (with whom he shares the number 14 jersey), the Gabonese converted from being a winger to a centre-forward. Early in their careers, critics accused both of possessing blistering pace, but lacking deadly finishing. Aubameyang’s memorable hat-trick in Arsenal’s Europa Cup semi-final fired the Gunners into the final, and his assists have also been impressive. British journalist, Barney Ronay, described him as “the deadliest, most thrillingly old-school centre-forward in the Premier League.” The Gabonese is also the most economical striker in Europe, scoring the most goals with the fewest shots, and he has the best minutes per goal ratio in Premier League history. After winning the Golden Boot with Salah and Mané, Aubameyang proudly noted: “We are representing Africa.” His father, Pierre-François – the major inspiration in his life who instilled supreme self-belief in Pierre-Emerick – captained the Gabonese national team, which his son has also gone on to do. Aubameyang has scored 24 goals in 59 appearances for his country, leading the “the Panthers” to the Olympics and Afcon.

Both Aubameyang and Salah idolised the Brazilian world cup-winning striker, Ronaldo, as kids. Sané idolised Brazilian world cup winner, Ronaldinho. Both Sané and Salah are short in stature, shy personalities, and devout Muslims who prostrate in prayer, kissing the ground to enact the sujud while celebrating goals. All three superstars are part of Africa’s golden generation of footballers who have conquered the world by playing what Brazilian legend, Pélé, famously described as “The Beautiful Game.”

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.