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Superstars Sadio Mané and Mo Salah eclipse African football at home

SENEGAL’S Sadio Mané and Egypt’s Mo Salah are among 10 players nominated for the African Footballer of the Year prize at this year’s Caf Awards held by the Confederation of African Football in Rabat, Morocco.

Both players rose to global prominence playing for Liverpool in the English Premier League, propelling the club to three champions league finals and winning a title. Both have won Caf player of the year before, Salah twice in 2017 and 2018, and Mané once in 2019. Now Mané is poised to even the score at 2-2.

Star forwards, their pursuits on the field are the stuff of fame and constant headlines. Mané grew up in the village of Bambali, Senegal and began his professional career at 19. Salah was born in Basyoun, Egypt and was also a football-loving child. He signed his first contract with a local club at 14. As African players shine in Europe, they are at the front of the changing face of international football.

There are thousands of African players like them, born and raised in humble circumstances with football offering a rare escape from poverty. Each of these players aspires to hold trophies in their hands. While Salah and Mané pave the way, the constant media attention on the exploits of African players in Europe tends to downplay the heroic exploits of African-based stars in national leagues and Pan African club competitions.

This lack of visibility could create an impression that top class football is played only in Europe. While Mané and Salah bring headlines to the 2022 prize, there are several other awards on the night that help highlight the talent working at home.

Mané or Salah?

Mané has been reigning Caf player of the year since 2019 as the COVID pandemic and schedule changes postponed it for two years. Having recently joined Bayern Munich in Germany from Liverpool in the UK, he is one of several Africans playing in the English Premier League who made the 2022 shortlist. In fact five of the ten do.

Mané is the favourite to win again this year after leading Senegal to glory for the first time at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in February. The country also qualified for the World Cup Qatar 2022. Mané was voted best player of Afcon.

However, Salah also has strong credentials. A great season saw him win top scorer and player with the most goal assists in the Premier League. He was the Professional Footballers’ Association and Player Writer’s footballer of the year, beating Mané.

But given the fact that this award is for a player who best represents African football, it would be an upset if Mané’s national accomplishments at Afcon would not prevail over the individual accolades for Salah.

A man snakes his arms into a cross in front of him, animated, his mouth open. A man in a yellow jersey stands behind him, watching.
Al Ahly’s South African coach Pitso Mosimane is on the shortlist for best coach. Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images

The other contenders

While Mané and Salah are standout candidates, flying below the radar for CAF’s male footballer of the year is Senegal and Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. This season he was in the winning teams at the FIFA Club World Cup, AFCON and the UEFA Supercup. He was World’s Best Goalkeeper in 2021. Although goalkeeping is not a high profile position, Mendy’s performance credentials make him a favourite. Should he win he would be only the third goalkeeper to do so and the first since 1986.

The English Premier League dominates the shortlist when it comes to clubs, but when it comes to countries Senegal comes out on top with three players. Cameroon has two and Egypt, Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Algeria each have one. Geographically speaking, West and Central Africa edge out North Africa. Despite Ghana, Nigeria, Tunisia and South Africa having a high sporting profile, they are nowhere on the list.

African clubs miss out

The last time an African-based player won player of the year was Egypt’s Mahmoud El Khatib. The last four decades have witnessed a complete transformation in the African football and global football landscapes. Most African stars ply their trade in Europe where they are paid millions of dollars. It’s hard for an African club to house a player that can replicate El Khatib’s accomplishment. It is regrettable that excelling in Europe increasingly provides a more compelling case to be voted a CAF player of the year.

However, there are seven other categories at the CAF awards that offer better chances for African-based nominees to win. These include coach of the year, where Aliou Cissé, Pitso Mosimane, Carlos Queiroz, Tom Saintfiet and Walid Regragui have made the cut. There are also trophies for best young player, club and national team.

A CAFAF award sets winners apart as all time greats to be talked about for generations; it sets up contracts and financial opportunities. Even as Mané and Salah attract the lion’s share of the headlines, one should remember that many more talented players are waiting in the wings – but they will require identifying and nurturing. Caf, national football associations and African clubs have an obligation to invest in and unearth this talent while also celebrating their stars.

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