Feature: Emerging Africans footballers impressing in the English Premier League
After the remarkable exploits of Didier Drogba, Tony Yeboah, Michael Essien, Yakubu and others in recent years, it will come as a surprise to no-one that a new crop of Africans are once again taking the English Premier League by storm.
All in all, 22 Africans have struck the back of the net during the 2012/13 season, demonstrating the strength in depth of the continent’s attack-minded performers.
The list of scorers obviously includes some very familiar names, such as the Senegalese pair of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, Côte d’Ivoire’s Yaya Toure, South African star Steven Pienaar and Togolese target man Emmanuel Adebayor. But it also features some surprise guests that have succeeded in getting on the scoresheet in one of the toughest leagues on the planet.
FIFA.com turns the spotlight on five African players currently enjoying some of the finest spells of their careers.
Côte d’Ivoire, Wigan Athletic
The success enjoyed by Robin van Persie since leaving Arsenal could never be described as unexpected, while the signing of the explosive Michu may well go down as the bargain of the year. On a sliding scale of Premier League transfer expectations, the outcome of Arouna Kone’s move to Wigan resembles that of the Swansea attacking midfielder significantly more than that of the Manchester United man.
Not only has the Ivoirian delighted Latics fans by helping their heroes secure an unexpected berth in the FA Cup final, he has contributed ten valuable goals (the second largest haul by an African, behind Demba Ba’s 15 strikes) in their quest to avoid relegation. Four matches remain for Roberto Martinez’s charges to extricate themselves from the 18th spot they currently occupy. It is a challenge that is unlikely to unnerve the international attacker, who can also boast nine goals in 39 appearances for Les Elephants.
Kone’s 15 goals while on loan at La Liga side Levante brought to an end five difficult years during which he found the back of the net just three times in 50 league matches for PSV Eindhoven, Sevilla and Hannover. The season that saw the striker return to form still had the most curious of endings, however. A clause in his Sevilla contract stipulated that if he managed to score 18 times for Levante, he would return to Andalusia the following season.
Having clocked up 17 goals in all competitions with a handful of games left, he was then torn between scoring one more goal to assist his team, a feat which would precipitate a move back to a Sevilla outfit where he had never truly established himself, and ensuring that his tally remained stuck at 17, thereby pursuing his adventure with Los Granotes. In the end, Kone did not score again during season 2011/12, which suited Levante perfectly – until they transferred him to Wigan a few weeks later.
Senegal, West Ham
For Mohamed Diame, who left Wigan last summer, the major plus point of this campaign is not that he has settled in well at West Ham and scored for the London side, but simply that he is able to play the game at all.
In fact, the Creteil-born defensive midfielder came close to turning his back on a career in football, when, at the age of 19 and on the verge of signing his first professional contract with Lens, he was diagnosed with a heart problem that forced him to almost give up on his dream.
“Just as I was about to achieve my goal, they told me that I wouldn’t be able to play in top-flight matches any more. It was a terrible shock,” recalled Diame, who spent an entire season on the sidelines, receiving treatment and pondering his future.
In the summer of 2007, the midfield man returned to the pitch, keen to make up for lost time with Linares, a third division Spanish side. Rejuvenated, his performances caught the eye of Rayo Vallecano, then playing in the second tier; this time, the medical revealed nothing untoward.
A subsequent strong season at Campo de Futbol de Vallecas then led to a move to Wigan and the English Premier League in 2009. It did not take Diame long to become one of the team’s key players, opening the doors to the Senegalese national team in the process.
Having since racked up 17 caps, he has developed into a commanding figure in the centre of the park for the Lions of Teranga, where his displays have marked him out as a possible successor to Pape Bouba Diop, hero of Senegal’s memorable 2002 FIFA World Cup™ campaign. After joining the Hammers last year, he has already scored three times and become a firm favourite with the home fans.
Sierra Leone, Norwich City
Kei Kamara’s career almost never left the starting blocks. At the age of 14, he left his war-torn homeland of Sierra Leone to rejoin his mother in the USA by way of Gambia and a refugee support programme.
The American dream gradually became a reality for the budding footballer as, after building a promising reputation at high school and university, he found himself drafted by MLS outfit Colombus Crew in 2006. Stints at San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo followed for the attacker, before he put pen to paper with Sporting Kansas City in 2009.
Three seasons, 98 matches and 31 goals later, Norwich’s interest was sufficiently piqued for them to tempt the winger-cum-striker across the ocean on a loan deal in January of this year. The move triggered celebrations in the country of his birth, where English matches are shown at the cinema.
“All the screens back home were packed,” he said after his first appearance as a substitute for the Canaries against Fulham on 9 February. “There’ll be loads of yellow jerseys with my name on them,” he added. Since then, Kamara, who has 15 caps for Sierra Leone, has played in eight further encounters on English soil, scoring a goal against Everton in one of them.
His supporters back in west Africa are said to feel great pride in his achievements, not least his devoted mother. After making his Premier League debut, he wrote “Mum, I did it” on Twitter, alongside a photo of a Norwich jersey.
Burundi, Newcastle United
Gael Bigirimana’s story has also been described as a fairy tale. Born in Burundi in 1993, his family moved to England as refugees in 2004 after spending some time in Uganda.
He was only 11 when he knocked on the door of Coventry City’s youth academy, confidently asking for a trial. He was told politely that he would have to be spotted by a scout while playing for a local team, but as he sprinted back home, he was called back by a member of staff. “They said it was because they saw how fast I could run, but truth be told, I was just jogging,” recalled the 19-year-old midfielder with a smile.
Following a successful trial and numerous convincing performances in various age categories, the Burundian turned professional with the second-tier Sky Blues, despite having not yet turned 17. The prodigious talent would remain in the West Midlands for just one season, during which he earned the division’s Apprentice of the Year award, and in doing so attracted the interest of Newcastle United.
Bigirimana continued to impress at St James’ Park, opening his account for his new club in December with a superb left-foot strike versus Wigan. “He shouldn’t have been playing in this team. He should have been playing in our youth team, but our situation was such that he was given a chance,” said Newcastle manager Alan Pardew after the aforementioned goal.
“And as you saw, it’s a chance he’s grabbed with both hands. He went one step further, in fact, scoring a fantastic goal that he’ll remember all his life. He has an exciting future ahead of him,” Pardew added.
Recently, Reading winger Jimmy Kebe became a virtual team-mate of Bigirimana for a few seconds, when he announced on Twitter that he, a Malian born in France, would be joining Newcastle, taking a tongue-in-cheek dig at the Magpies’ French-focused signing strategy.
But humour is not all that Kebe has to offer, as he demonstrated this campaign for Reading, the club he has represented since 2008. Unfortunately, his five goals were not sufficient to save the Royals from relegation, but the lively performer certainly did not look out of place in England’s top flight.
Reading got a sense of Kebe’s potential even though the wide man had never actually played in Ligue 1. Loaned out by Lens, for whom he had only ever played reserve matches, to Chateauroux in 2007, he won over then-Reading manager Steve Coppell, who insisted on signing the player right there and then.
“I’d always dreamed of going to England; it’s a great opportunity to play against teams like Arsenal or Manchester United, and to face guys like Cristiano Ronaldo,” he said at the time of the transfer, adding, “It’s the chance of a lifetime.”
Unfortunately, Reading were relegated at the end of season 2007/08, and Ronaldo’s high-profile move to Spain in 2009 meant that Kebe would not get the chance to test himself against the Portuguese star after all. But what better motivation than an unfulfilled dream to spur on an ambitious footballer?