The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations is officially underway for what promises to be a fascinating month of football. The first matchday saw hosts Cameroon turn around an early deficit and defeat Burkina Faso 2-1, whilst Cape Verde edged 10-men Ethiopia via a goal from Júlio Tavares. With 24 teams vying for supremacy, let’s take a look at five promising (U-23) youngsters who could be set for a breakthrough tournament.
Edmond Tapsoba was unavailable for the opening match of the tournament after testing positive for COVID-19, but he’ll be hoping to return for Thursday’s match against Cape Verde as well as next Monday’s final group stage match against Ethiopia. Born in the capital city of Ouagadougou, Tapsoba got his footballing education on the streets and did not even play his first game of organized football until he was 14 years old, plying his trade with Salitas FC.
The now 22-year-old made his international debut for Burkina Faso while he was still playing in his home country, before earning a move to Portugal where he would play for Leixões and Vitória de Guimarães’ B team thanks to the help of Deco’s player agency ‘D20 Sports.’ The summer of 2019 paid dividends for Tapsoba’s career, with Ivo Vieira replacing Luís Castro as Vitória manager following the latter’s move to Shakhtar Donetsk. This saw Tapsoba finally receive his chance in the first team, impress in the league and the Europa League, and within months, earn a €25 million move to Bayer Leverkusen.
The Burkinabé centre back blends positional awareness, a cunning ability to break the lines with his passes, aerial prowess and a stellar ability in either box. Only Alphonso Davies has made more progressive carries per 90 than Tapsoba in the Bundesliga since the start of last season.
Another player who could be set to use the Portuguese league as a launching pad for a big move is Fali Candé. Born in Guinea-Bissau, Candé came over to Portugal at a young age and bounced around various smaller academies as well as Benfica and Porto, but it wasn’t until this season that he has truly made a name for himself under Paulo Sérgio’s Portimonense.
The 23-year-old left-back is strong in defensive duels but has also stood out in the final third, whether whipping in a cross, charging down the byline and breezing past his opponent, or even scoring a free-kick as he did in the second matchday against Tondela. After Beto’s departure to Udinese, Candé could become the next player to leave the Algarve and get a big move away.
Guinea have one of the most intriguing midfield crops in the entire tournament, with Amadou Diawara, Ilaix Moriba and Naby Keïta available for selection in the middle of the pitch, but one player who could emerge as a revelation in central defence is Saïdou Sow. The Conakry-born defender joined Saint-Ètienne’s academy in 2016 and made his Ligue 1 debut on October 3, 2020, just a week before making his debut for Guinea. After various runs of starts that were interrupted by lengthy spells on the bench, Sow has become a more consistent starter in defence for Les Verts and impressed, albeit still showing he is very much a raw prospect. The 19-year-old is imperious in the air, has good reactions and impressive anticipation, and after William Saliba and Wesley Fofana, could be the next Saint-Ètienne centre back to earn a big move.
“If he can build on his impressive full debut under the Argentine manager, keeping hold of Dieng may end up being one of their best moves of the year. After Souleymane Diawara, Mamadou Niang, and Habib Beye, Dieng could very well be the next Senegalese sensation to light up the Stade Vélodrome.”
I wrote those words about Bamba Dieng for BET Central in September, and it seems he’s only gone from strength to strength since then. The 21-year-old has scored 4 goals for Marseille this season, earning a contract extension until 2024 and interest from Premier League sides such as Newcastle and West Ham. It is unclear whether or not he’ll have a starting role for Senegal this month, with the likes of Ismaila Sarr, Habib Diallo and Boulaye Dia competing for a spot, but the Marseille man will nevertheless play his part as the Lions of Teranga look to win their first-ever Africa Cup of Nations.
The fifth and final player on my list is Ghanaian winger Kamaldeen Sulemana. After an impressive spell at FC Nordsjælland, Sulemana joined Rennes on a five-year contract this past summer for €20 million and quickly made a splash for the French club by racing up the left side of the pitch and curling a shot off the crossbar and into the back of the net. He has completed an astonishing 54 take-ons this season – his closest competitor amongst U-20 players has just 34 – and has averaged over 4 dribbles per 90 in Ligue 1 this season. Alongside Mohammed Kudus and Jordan Ayew, he could play a vital role in attack for the Black Stars as they look to win their first AFCON since 1982.