The African continent has produced some of the best players to have played the game. These next five could follow suit.
There has never been a greater time for African football. Some of the world’s best players have come from the continent to conquer Europe in recent years.
Stars like Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
Wilfried Ndidi, Andre Onana and Thomas Partey deserve notable mentions too. They are players who are expected to carry the torch for African football in the next few years.
But before those players made it to the big leagues, like most they started out at smaller clubs in Europe.
Salah at Basel, Sadio Mane at Salzburg and Metz, Ndidi at Genk.
First Time Finish has gathered five African players who look to follow suit.
Nationality: Ivory Coast
Club: Manchester United
There aren’t many 18 year olds who are worth almost £40 million. But Amad Diallo is the exception.
The fact that the Red Devils were prepared to fork out such a large sum for his services despite his lack of first team appearances is a marker of Diallo’s talent.
Even at such a young age his journey to Manchester has been long and arduous.
Amad Diallo was born in a time of war. As the civil-war of the early 2000s waged on in the Ivory Coast, a young Amad grew-up on the outskirts of the capital city Abidjan along the famous Ebrie lagoon.
His parents were able to move away from the conflict and found a new life in Italy.
It is in Italy where Diallo’s football journey began. He first began playing alongside his brother, Hamed, in a small Italian town called Bibbiano.
It wasn’t long before the pair attracted the attention of Italian giants like Juventus, Milan and Roma, but the young man chose Atalanta over all of them.
The move paid dividends. A young Amad honed his skills among some of Italy’s finest youth coaches and it’s fair to say he tore the youth divisions of Italian football apart.
46 games, 13 goals and 15 assists for Atalanta’s Primavera side. 23 goals and 6 assists in 41 games for Atalanta’s U17 team, doesn’t even scratch the surface.
Diallo has been more than just prolific at youth level. He’s been a leader and a driving force.
His average of 8.8 dribbles per match during his time at Atalanta’s U19 side is an indicator of his prowess and knack for taking players on.
His success rate of 55% which is above average for a wide player suggests he is relatively successful in his endeavour.
Of course dribbling is a key facet of any winger. However what separates a good winger from a great one is his productivity in the final third.
Much has been noted about Amad Diallo’s goal-scoring prowess. That will largely be down to his ability to find himself in the box. No player made more touches in the Primavera last season in the opposition’s penalty area than Amad Diallo with an average of 5.64 per 90.
And for players who average at least 1 smart pass per 90, Amad Diallo had the third best accuracy with 68%, highlighting his ability to find his team-mates and carve defences open with penetrative balls. This is supplemented by the fact that Diallo made 8.11 progressive passes per 90, the most for a winger in the competition.
It’s no surprise Manchester United were willing to fork out a fortune for the Ivorian.
Amad Diallo is a rough diamond who suits Solskjaer’s style of play down to the tee.
Diallo likes to dribble past players with his quick acceleration and has a knack for driving into the box. When he’s in dangerous areas he can be deadly, and on top of that he also has the vision and skillset to create opportunities for others.
Diallo spent just 90 minutes on the field for Atalanta’s senior side, but still showed flickers of his ability.
In five cameo outings he averaged 4.74 dribbles per 90, with only one unsuccessful one. He took 5 shots with a 75% accuracy rate. Drew 3 fouls. Made 4 progressive runs. Plus on top of that he became the first player born in 2002 to score in the Italian topflight.
His lack of senior experience will take him time to settle, but with Solskjaer’s knack for working with young players, once Diallo gets going, he will be hard to stop.
Club: FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk
At the end of 2020, only Robert Lewandowski had outscored Dembo Darboe in the first half of the season in Europe’s top divisions.
Darboe’s achievement of 17 goals in 19 games was all the more impressive considering prior to the start of the season, the Gambian forward had never played as the sole striker.
The decision to switch him from an attacking midfielder to a number nine has worked wonders.
Dembo Darboe lit up the North Macedonian league.
A tall, pacey forward, with agility and skill to beat his opponents, Darboe is a defender’s nightmare. His perpetual running in behind defenders has tormented almost every team in the North Macedonian top flight.
Darboe’s best ability, is to create opportunities for himself and to create spaces to take shots. He is excellent at opening his body up and getting a shot off, even when there are defenders marking him tightly. Unsurprisingly he has the third best shot per 90 record in the league with 3.08.
Those shots are usually fairly accurate too. For players who haven taken at least 20 shots in the league, Darbo has the best goal-conversion percentage at 28.07%.
For players who play in a first division European League and average at least 3 shots per 90, only Erling Haaland, Romelu Lukaku, Luis Muriel and Georgios Giakoumakis have a better conversion rate.
With Wyscout rating his xG at 12.09, Darboe has significantly outperformed it this season too, scoring four more goals than expected in the North Macedonian league.
But Dembo Darboe’s all round play is excellent too. Last season, he averaged 6.25 dribbles per 90, played 2.47 passes into the penalty area per 90 whilst playing as an attacking midfielder. He also had an average of 2.47 interceptions which is an impressive return for a player in his position.
The Gambian has made the step-up to the Belarusian league in January. He signed for the surprise winners of last season’s top flight FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk who beat BATE Borisov by a point to the league title and will be competing in the Champions League qualifiers next year.
It is not the biggest of leaps for Darboe, but he will be signing for a strong outfit, and if he continues his rich form and manages to impress in the Champions League qualifiers he could be set for bigger and better things come the summer.
What is frightening about Darboe is how well he has taken to role of the striker having never played there before. At 22 he’s certainly a late bloomer, but he has shown he can adapt and learn.
Back when he was playing on the African continent in Senegal’s top flight, Darboe was known for constantly pushing himself through individual training routines to get his dream move to Europe.
There is no doubt if he maintains the same work ethic, he could do very well at a higher level too.
Watch out for him at international level too. Gambia are one of the rising nations on the African continent and could qualify for the first major tournament in their history currently sitting top in their African Cup of Nations qualifying group.
The U17 Nigerian World Cup winning team of 2015 included stars like Victor Osimhen, Samuel Chukwueze, Kelechi Nwakali and Funsho Bamgboye.
But unlike his compatriots who made moves to big European clubs abroad, Bamgboye decided to take a different route from his compatriots.
He signed for Hungarian minnows Haladas in 2017 in a move which surprised many. Nonetheless, the Nigerian winger is slowly increasing his pedigree in Hungary and those eyebrows are no longer being raised.
After catching the eye with his speed and directness at Haladas, Bamgboye earnt himself a move to Fehervar, one of Hungary’s top clubs.
And this season, the Nigerian has established himself as one of the outstanding players in the Hungarian first division having netted 4 goals and handed out 6 assists. Only two players have a better G/A record this season.
Bamgboye is an explosive player. On top of his speed, he is blessed with the physicality to out-muscle his opponents.
At 8.7 dribbles per 90, no one has made more dribbles in the Hungarian first division. Bamgboye also has the third best success rate with 46.15% out of the players who make at least 5 dribbles per 90.
With 2.17 progressive runs per 90, he is the second most productive winger in the league behind Tamas Kiss.
When it comes to finishing, despite only scoring 4, Bamgboye is fairly accurate. He has fifth best conversion rate in the league for players who take at least 2.2 shots per 90 with 14.28%.
On top of that Bamgboye is a team player too. He has the best key passes per 90 in the Hungarian division with 1.09 (the second best behind him has 0.78). He is also tied for the most assists with 6.
And he doesn’t slack defensively either, only one winger has a better interception rate per 90 than Bamgboye with the Nigerian averaging 3.43. Impressively he also participates in the most defensive duels out of any winger, highlighting his work-rate with 10.54 per 90.
At 22 years of age, Bamgboye narrowly missed out on the Europa League group-stages with Fehervar this summer. But if he continues his impressive displays there is no doubt he will be playing in one of Europe’s elite competitions by the end of 2021.
There was reportedly interest in him from Belgium this winter, but he’s opted to stay in Hungary for now.
Last season it was Mohamed Kudus who lit up the Right to Dream Park in Denmark for Nordsjælland. This time around it is 18 year old Kamaldeen Sulemana, who might just be even better than the aforementioned Ajax midfielder.
At 18, Sulemana is already a full Ghanian international at senior level.
He also has 8 goals and 3 assists in total in just 19 starts for the Danish outfit between the end of last season and the beginning of this season.
Sulemana is blessed with frightening speed. He loves to bamboozle defences, and shrugs them off at ease.
This season he has averaged a remarkable 12.39 dribbles per 90 and at an impressive 53.59% success rate, no player who has averaged at least 6 dribbles per 90 can match the 18 year old.
Sulemana has also participated in the most offensive duels per 90 with 21.39 over 6 more than the second highest player in the Danish top flight. And usually Sulemana comes out on top, out of those players who average at least 10 offensive duels per 90, Sulemana has the 4th best success rate with 45.08%.
His 5.02 progressive runs per 90 is almost 1.5 more than his closest competitor in the Danish League. His 8.07 successful attacking actions per 90 is the best in the league by 2.0 with the second coming in at 6.11.
He is good at getting himself in the box too. With 3.97 touches in the penalty area, only one winger takes more.
An area where Sulemana perhaps has room to improve is his finishing. He only has 4 goals this season in 13 games. And his goal-conversion rate is just 10% which you would expect to be higher.
However, as Sulemana matures, he will certainly be able to polish that side of his game.
Defensively he can also increase his output, out of all the wingers and strikers in the Danish Superliga Sulemana is ranked the 5th lowest for successful defensive actions per 90 with 3.24.
At just 18 years of age though, Sulemana has all the attributes needed which could take him to the very top.
He has dazzled and bamboozled defences this season, as he continues to grow and mature he will get better and better.
In terms of playing style he resembles a young Sadio Mane with his dribbling ability and explosiveness.
There is no doubt, he will soon follow suit of Mohamed Kudus by making the leap to a big European club.
Having honed his skills in one of the African continent’s oldest football academies and most impressive in Right to Dream, he has the right guidance and support behind him too to make the best decision for his future.
Club: Brooke House Academy
There are not many 17 years olds who have the hopes of an entire nation resting on their shoulders. But Kelvin John certainly has had that pressure heaped upon him.
The 17 year old forward developed the sobriquet of the ‘Tanzanian Mbappe’ back in his homeland and the African continent for his impressive displays in the U17 African Cup of Nations Qualifying tournament back in 2018 when he was just 15 years of age.
By 16 he was already a full fledged senior international player and has won a plethora of Player of the Tournaments at regional African youth competitions.
A pacey and explosive forward one can see the comparisons to Kylian Mbappe. Kelvin John is an all-rounder. He possess excellent physicality. Defenders are hardly ever able to out-muscle him for the ball which allows him to hold it up well for his teammates.
His clever moment off the ball is an outstanding quality too and coupled with his fast speed, it often allows him to get to passes and through-balls before his opponents.
In addition to that, like any great forward John possess a striker’s instinct.
During the 7 games he played at the U17 African Cup of Nations qualifiers, John averaged an incredible 7.02 touches per 90 in the penalty area, most of which resulted in a shot or an opportunity created for his teammates.
His finishing is exemplary, he averaged 4.95 shots per game, with an accuracy rate of 61.1% being on target.
John also bettered his xG of 5.96 by scoring 7 goals in total.
But as mentioned before, John is an all-rounder.
He is an adept dribbler, averaging 8.26 dribbles per 90, winning 46.7% and drawing 1.97 fouls per 90.
He also made 2.34 progressive runs per 90 which is hugely impressive for a lone striker and worthy of those Mbappe comparisons.
For most of those runs, his clever feints and tricks are eye-catching and sometimes end up with defenders falling to the floor. One thing is certain, unless you bring him down, when he is in full flow it’s hard to stop him.
Impressively he puts in a defensive shift too. John averaged 4.13 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 70% and he also made 3.99 recoveries per 90.
Surprisingly the Tanzanian is still without a professional club due to FIFA regulations. He is currently training in Leicestershire with Brooke House Academy to get himself ready for European football.
There are reportedly some major clubs interested in the services of the young forward. He has spent trials at Genk, who are probably the most likely to land his signature when he turns 18 later this year and is able to sign a contract.
Kelvin John is already a landmark name in African football. He has all the attributes to succeed at the highest level and it would not be surprise if he exploded on the scene when he is eventually allowed to make his move to Europe.
(All stats via Wyscout)