Last March, I gave my top 11 African breakthrough stars of the 2020/21 campaign. This March, I’m doing the same thing all over again. Players from last year’s list will not be eligible, naturally, for this season’s list, hence why Torino’s Wilfried Singo or Lens’ Cheick Doucouré are not on here.
Without any further ado, let’s take a look at the top 11 African breakthrough stars (U-23) of the 2021/22 season.
It should come as little surprise that a large portion of these African youngsters are plying their trade in Ligue 1. That’s not even including several players who barely missed the cut, such as Angers’ Moroccan midfielder Azzedine Ounahi or Clermont Foot’s Ghanaian midfielder Salis Abdul Samed.
While he hasn’t quite reached the levels of his older brother André, Cameroonian midfielder Jean Onana has emerged as a breakout star for Bordeaux since leaving Lille last summer (ironically, Lille brought in midfielder Amadou Onana in the same window). With Bordeaux currently rooted to the bottom of the Ligue 1 table (albeit level on points with three other teams), expect Onana to play a crucial role if Les Girondins are to escape relegation under new manager David Guion.
“Jean Onana is one of the rare players who can’t get out of Bordeaux starting eleven, and not by default,” says L’Èquipe journalist Sébastien Ferreira.
“He’s been a beast in midfield through his activity and he has the skills to take care of the ball. A little lack of regularity, but can you expect more from a 22-year-old foreigner who’s discovering Ligue 1 in this awful team that is Bordeaux? A player to watch in the next few months. Let’s see his full potential and how much he can carry responsibilities in a team that’s decently built.”
With 12 matchdays left, Bordeaux currently sit level on 22 points with Saint-Ètienne, Metz, and newly promoted Troyes. Troyes became the 10th club to be purchased by City Football Group (CFG) in 2020, and this partnership has seen Troyes land various players on loan from Manchester City such as Erik Palmer-Brown and Philippe Sandler. Perhaps the most impactful loanee, however, has been Issa Kaboré.
Like Onana, Kaboré had previously plied his trade in Belgium and has since made a seamless transition to Ligue 1, with the attack-minded right-back racking up 21 appearances thus far. What’s more, his sensational form for Burkina Faso in the African Cup of Nations saw him bequeathed with the Best Young Player award, the second recipient of the award after Senegalese winger Krépin Diatta won it in 2019. While he needs to work on his discipline and defensive positioning, he is a bright young prospect and at 20 years of age, he could very well be City’s long-term replacement for Kyle Walker.
It has been six months since I wrote about Mohamed Bayo’s impressive form at Clermont Foot for BET Central, and it’s safe to say he hasn’t fizzled out.
The 23-year-old Guinean international has racked up 10 goals and 2 assists in 21 appearances, finding the back of the net against the likes of Marseille, Monaco and Nantes, and proving to be the attacking talisman for Pascal Gastien’s side in their first-ever campaign in the French top-flight.
“He’s played a major role in their good start and always managed to do well even when the team was struggling. He’s not just a good poacher, he is quite comfortable with the ball for someone his size and can get his own shot in small spaces,” says Ferreira.
“He had to deal with an accident and was in police custody in October, and then he went away because of the African Cup of Nations, but he still has done quite well for someone who never played in Ligue 1 before and is quite strong on the mental side.”
Following their return to Ligue 1 in 2018 under David Guion, Reims finished an impressive 8th in 2018/19, before finishing 6th and sealing their first European qualification since 1963. However, after narrowly avoiding relegation in 2020/21, Guion was given his marching orders and replaced by ex Salzburg manager Óscar García.
After failing to impress in recent spells at Celta de Vigo and Saint-Ètienne, Reims have done fairly well under the Spanish manager and look set for a comfortable midtable finish despite selling top scorer Boulaye Dia to Villarreal. One player who has helped to fill the void in attack is Algerian attacking midfielder Ilan Kebbal.
“He became a regular because of the danger he brings in the final third of the pitch. A thrilling player with a lot of personality,” adds Ferreira. “He has not been very consistent throughout the season but that’s okay, he’s learning. His playing time went down in the past month and the return of Arber Zeneli (2 assists in his first 10 minutes of the season last Sunday) won’t help.”
“The arrival of Ghanian winger Kamaldeen Sulemana from FC Nordsjælland, combined with the emergence of Belgian winger (of Ghanian descent) Jérémy Doku could give Rennes one of the most threatening attacks in France, and Sulemana has already made his mark with a sensational debut golazo against Brest.”
I put Rennes in my top 10 transfer windows in the summer of 2021, and alongside the likes of Lovro Majer and Birger Meling, Kamaldeen Sulemana has been an important player for Bruno Génésio’s side who currently sit fourth in Ligue 1, three points behind Nice, four points behind Marseille, and level with Strasbourg. Whilst Sulemana is expected to miss the next few months due to a small crack in the vertebrae, expect the Ghanaian winger to play a crucial role for club and country upon his return from injury.
“Sulemana had an amazing start with Rennes and immediately cemented himself as one of the best dribblers in Ligue 1,” says Ferreira. “His quickness, unpredictability and instinct near the penalty box area made him a weapon for his team, but he has really been struggling in 2022.
He doesn’t seem to fit in this 4-4-2 that asks for more discipline and he’s lost confidence, but he’s only 19, there’ll be better days for sure, and he can still hope to become a super-sub in the final part of the season.”
Egypt scored just two goals in the entirety of the knockout round – both of which came in a 2-1 win against Morocco – and they scored just four goals in the entire 2021 African Cup of Nations, but they nevertheless came within inches of claiming a record eighth triumph thanks to a sturdy defence. One of the biggest reasons for their impressive defensive record under Carlos Queiroz was centre back Mohamed Abdelmonem.
Despite hitting the post in the penalty shootout in the final against Senegal, Abdelmonem has nevertheless been a bright spark in central defence since making his national team debut in December. He is comfortable at dribbling out from the back, holding his own in duels against physically imposing strikers, and at 23, he could very well swap Al-Ahly and move to a European club in the near future.
Whilst he wasn’t able to start for his country at AFCON with veterans Simon Deli and Eric Bailly being preferred in central defence, another African defender who has made headlines this season is 21-year-old Odilon Kossounou. After claiming back-to-back league titles with Club Brugge, the Ivorian defender earned a €23 million move to Bayer Leverkusen this past summer and has done well in his maiden Bundesliga campaign, with Gerardo Seoane’s side currently sitting third in the table and set for a Europa League Round of 16 clash with Atalanta. He has been relegated to third-choice following the return of Edmond Tapsoba from injury, with the Burkinabé partnering German veteran Jonathan Tah in defence, but he has nevertheless enjoyed a steady progression in Leverkusen.
“One big worry ahead of the season was how Leverkusen would deal with the long injury to Tapsoba, but Koussounou has really stepped up to the mark,” says German football journalist Adam Khan. “Physically exceptional, strong, quick, exactly what you would expect of a talented African centre half. Maybe a little limited in possession, but he’s definitely improving with more experience.”
Red Bull Salzburg are cruising towards a ninth consecutive Austrian Bundesliga title, are set to face Wolfsberger in the semifinals of the Austrian Cup, and have pulled off an impressive 1-1 draw against Bayern Munich in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16. It doesn’t matter how many players they sell – Salzburg just keep on getting better.
Perhaps the only thing that has been as consistent as their trophy hauls has been Salzburg’s crop of promising young African midfielders. Naby Keïta, Amadou Haidara, Diadie Samassekou…the list goes on and on. Following the sale of Zambian midfielder Enock Mwepu to Brighton, one player who has stepped up in the centre of the pitch for Matthias Jaissle’s side has been Mohamed Camara.
The Malian held his own against a midfield of Joshua Kimmich and Corentin Tolisso, winning an astonishing 16 ground duels and picking up the Man of the Match award. After missing out on the second half of last season after testing positive for a banned substance during a doping test, Camara has put to bed last season’s headaches and is shining bright for the Austrian giants.
We close out our list with three promising players who are plying their trade in Serie A. Born and raised in Italy, Maleh played a key role in Venezia’s promotion before heading to Fiorentina this past summer. The 23-year-old has mainly been used as a substitute under Vincenzo Italiano, with Gaetano Castrovilli, Alfred Duncan and Giacomo Bonaventura proving tricky competition, but he has nevertheless racked up 3 goals and 3 assists in 23 appearances.
“Maleh seems like a really interesting player, he’s done better than I thought since he joined Fiorentina,” says Italian football journalist Chloe Beresford. “He’s not fully broken into the first team but it seems that Italiano values him highly. He’s got great energy, which is needed in the pressing style that the coach is trying to implement this season.”
One of his finest performances came on January 13 in a Coppa Italia fixture against Napoli. Having replaced Riccardo Saponara at halftime, Maleh scored a goal and registered an assist and also created three goal-scoring opportunities to lead the 10-man Fiorentina to a 5-2 victory over Luciano Spalletti’s side. With Fiorentina chasing a European spot, expect the Moroccan international to continue to play an important role alongside La Viola’s other promising youngsters such as Arthur Cabral and Riccardo Sottil.
Alongside Issa Kaboré and Mohamed Abdelmonem, one youngster who proved to be one of the breakthrough stars of this year’s African Cup of Nations was Musa Barrow. Whilst the 23-year-old had previously struggled for opportunities at Atalanta, he has nevertheless emerged as a key member in Bologna’s attack since being converted from an out-and-out striker to a wide forward under Siniša Mihajlović.
He has registered 5 goals and 5 assists for the Felsinei, and proved to be an attacking talisman for Gambia in their first ever African Cup of Nations, grabbing a goal or an assist in every single game except for the final one – a 0-2 defeat to hosts Cameroon in the quarterfinals. With Barrow, Ebrima Darboe and a host of other promising players, fans of the Scorpions can certainly look forward to the future.
The final player on this list is Hamed Traorè. Born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, he moved to Italy at a young age and came through the ranks at Empoli before joining Sassuolo on a two-year loan with an option to buy in 2019.
Last year proved to be somewhat traumatic for the 22-year-old Ivorian, who was found guilty of breaking Italian law in order to join the football club “ASD Boca Barco” in 2015 under the name “Hamed Junior Traorè.” Among the involved was Hamed Mamadou Traorè, a distant relative of Hamed and his alleged brother Amad Diallo – now at Manchester United – who was accused of posing as their father to facilitate their immigration to Italy. Hamed was accused of falsifying documents in order to fake a relationship with Hamed Mamadou Traorè, an Ivorian citizen resident in Italy and request a family reunification, and was eventually forced to pay a fine of €48,000.
This season, however, Hamed has become a crucial fixture in Alessio Dionisi’s Sassuolo side following the January sale of fellow Ivorian Jeremie Boga to Atalanta. “In recent years he has played both as a mezzala and further forward, and because of dynamism and technique, he manages to cover a lot of the field both with dribbles and passes,” says Daniele V. Morrone, an Italian journalist for L’Ultimo Uomo. “After the sale of Boga, Sassuolo promoted him to a starting spot practically in place of him, even if they obviously have different characteristics.”
“He covers a lot of field and must coordinate with Giacomo Raspadori who leaves the half-spaces to cut into the box. When he receives, he can choose whether to exchange short and then cut in the area or whether to keep the ball and make the last pass himself.”