George Weah, AC Milan  (Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images)

George Weah, AC Milan.

Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images.

How African Footballers Changed Football

These African football greats have left an indelible mark in the annals of football history. Here’s how they did it.

For African football athletes coming out of the grassroots, this sport is a way of life. Further, it’s filled with zeal, aspiration, and the determination to keep hope alive. When born into hardship, many aspiring African youth athletes gather in community spaces under scorching hot weather, with the belief that one day, they will play in international stadiums.

They look up to African professional footballers who play on the global stage. But the rise to the upper crust isn’t straightforward. Compared to footballers in Europe, what it takes to get to such a status level is a mountain climb.

Thankfully, Africa's footprint in football features a plethora of talent who showcase their trade in international teams with seemingly effortless skill and dominance. Although the physicality and power of African professional footballers are intriguing, without fail, their success offers a different perception of the development of African football itself, which has been inspiring for aspiring athletes.

Historically, Africa has offered moments that have perhaps turned a more positive outlook on African football development. Tunisia set the record to be the first African squad to exit the group stages in 1978, Morocco became the first African team to enter the round of 16 in 1986, and fast forward to the 2010 FIFA World Cup which was hosted for the first time on African soil in South Africa, where Ghana ranked 7th among 32 countries.

Furthermore, most recently, in 2023 Morocco reached the semi-finals of the World Cup — the furthest an African team has ever progressed in a tournament. It is without a doubt evidence of the progress that aspiring footballers at the grassroots level look to.

To only look at the successes of African football teams distances aspiration from inspiration. This is because although the successes of the teams that African professional athletes represent are valid, true inspiration comes from the African nationals themselves who boast incomparable talent at the highest level.

It is deemed that the European level is competitive, however, the physicality, stamina, and skill of African footballers are noticeable on the world stage.

Many names come to mind when we think of professional African footballers, the likes of Ivorian striker Didier Drogba who at club level won four Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups, and the Champions League. Additionally, Drogba was named African Footballer of the Year twice in 2006 and 2009 and was the player with the most Runner-Up appearances in AFCON (4).

Christopher Samba of Congolese nationality born in France is a defender who played for the Congo (Brazzaville) national team and the Premier League for Blackburn Rovers, an achievement that many Congolese nationals have yet to attain.

There’s also former Senegalese professional footballer El Hadji Diouf, who played for Liverpool as a forward. He played at the 2002 World Cup reaching the quarter-finals, showcasing outstanding performance, and was named to the 2022 World Cup All-Star Team.

Going Against the Grain

To be recognized as legendary as an African footballer means holding exceptional talent in comparison to European rival athletes. When we analyze the career of Jay Jay Okocha, his style of play is considered as a quick, talented trickster on the ball with the technique and creativity that made him a legendary football athlete.

Like many aspiring African footballers, Okocha's passion started on the streets of his Nigerian homestead in Enugu State. In 1990, he joined Enugu Rangers and henceforth his professional career amassed huge success with the Nigerian national team, winning the African Cup of Nations in 1994 and the Olympic gold medal in 1996. Okocha is recognized as the greatest Nigerian footballer and a skillful player in the Premier League.

His exceptional flair and talent produced technical skills that only a football maestro can deliver such as “The Okocha” which he performed at the 1996 Olympic Games against Brazil, representing his country. Okocha delivered the trick with the roll of the ball with one foot and then step over with the other foot.

The season after, Ronaldo performed the same trick which fans dubbed “The Ronaldo” but it was always a creation of Okocha's mastery. Other notable skillful plays include the move he perfected where he flicked the ball over the head of his opponent, notably performed against former Arsenal star, Ray Parlour.

This instance of Okocha’s masterful skill being clouded by Ronaldo’s replica is an example of how often the talent of African players is shadowed by the efforts of a presumed more deserving image.

In my critique of a neocolonial economy that finds its footing even in the football industry, the circumstances of African footballers’ exceptionality come at the cost of showcasing a commitment to excellence that is borne from breaking the boundaries of African history and belonging in a foreign space.

In relation to Okocha’s journey, although he didn't play for the biggest clubs, sporting an 18-year career in Europe, a sure fact is that every European opposition he faced feared him.

In an interview with OmaSportsTV, Okocha reminisces on his journey saying, “I always leave my mark wherever I go and open doors for the next generation and that was my mission. You can see substance in different ways. For me, it was all about leaving my legacy wherever I found myself.”

Another of the many legends of African football is Frédéric Oumar Kanouté, a Malian national born in France, who is considered one of the top strikers in football. His greatest success was with La Liga Sevilla and was named the 2007 African Footballer of the Year, the first player born outside Africa to win the award. At Sevilla, he won two consecutive UEFA Cups in 2006 and 2007 and remains the club’s highest-scoring foreign player.

Jay-Jay Okocha of Bolton Wanderers is sent flying by the challenge from David Prutton of Southampton during the FA Barclaycard Premiership match held on May 3, 2003 at the St Mary's Stadium, in Southampton, England. The match ended in a 0-0 draw.Jay-Jay Okocha of Bolton Wanderers is sent flying by the challenge from David Prutton of Southampton during the FA Barclaycard Premiership match held on May 3, 2003 at the St Mary's Stadium, in Southampton, England. The match ended in a 0-0 draw.Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images.

Kanouté maintained the typical African striker archetype, possessing a lanky figure, and strong aerial and technical ability. His physicality promoted an image of a towering front man which aspiring athletes revered. At his peak, Kanouté was the symbol of achievement and many African strikers aspired to play like him.

And finally, we join yet another prominent figure in Central Africa, Cameroonian professional footballer Alex Song who at the time was considered one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. His swift ball-winning ability, physicality, and great passing range caught the attention of Arsène Wenger who was Arsenal's manager at the time.

At the height of his career, Song made his mark at Arsenal with a six-year tenure where he made his Premier League debut against Everton in 2005. In 2012, Song made his move to Barcelona signing a 5-year contract that, sadly, was the beginning of a downward spiral in his career due to minimal game time.

He was called up for the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations and was the only Cameroonian named in the Team of the Tournament. Notably, his presence at Arsenal played a vital role in the culture of signing African players at Arsenal. This was due to the fact that Wenger was quite fond of African players and thus continued to sign many after Song.

The Cream of The Crop

The golden buzzer of these A-list African footballers is the rise of “King George,” a prolific Liberian professional footballer who became the first African athlete to win the distinguished Ballon d’Or in 1995. The tenure of George Weah’s career is marked by his steady rise to the international scene winning the African Footballer of the Year three times, and FIFA World Player of the Year, among many club-related individual awards.

He spent 14 years in Europe playing for the likes of Paris Saint Germain, AC Milan, Chelsea, and Manchester City to name a few before heading off to El Jazira in the UAE and retiring there.

Since his commitment to the sport which steadily took off from the age of 15, Weah would eventually catch the attention of Arsene Wenger. Wenger became the pipeline through which Weah would transition into European football, joining Monaco in 1988, later inscribing his mark at PSG and ultimately, AC Milan where he would dominate and win the Ballon d’Or.

The impeccable eye of the former French football manager to draw and recognize African footballer talents provided many African athletes hope and most importantly a chance to play internationally potentially. From Alex Song to Nwakwo Kanu and of course, George Weah, Wenger understood the value of African athletes, which shattered the glass ceiling of perceptions against African players.

Wenger shifted the very fabric of African football, allowing many to fulfill their dreams of gracing the world stage. Evidently, Wenger’s aptitude for recruiting African talent enlightened the world of football with the perfect striker operating mainly outside the box, possessing strong stamina and physique on the field.

Weah captured the attention and love of the football world revered for his remarkable dribbling ability, speed, and impressive finishing capabilities.

At the core of his humanity, Weah invested much into Liberia’s football, providing financial support for its national team. George Weah’s philanthropic effort built his path into politics thereafter becoming Liberia’s reigning president since 2018.

In light of his humanitarian prowess to build his country, Weah’s dedication amplifies his footprint as a prolific African footballer who has left a mark on the legacy of the sport. As well as highlighting the importance of shaping our continent’s football industry so that the possibilities to rise to international status aren’t left to the mercy of a European savior.

The Next Generations

One can't turn a blind eye to the fact that the revenue earned by African professional footballers is indeed a great motivator for aspiring athletes. However, the successes of these athletes may portray an image of grandeur.

In an interview addressing youth athletes, Okocha shared: “The thing that I would like you [the young athletes] to realize is that skills alone can't keep you there [at the top], you need a lot of discipline, dedication, determination, self-belief, and practice. It's not just skill…”

African football athletes, the hunger to succeed therefore should be borne out of love for the sport than glamor. Further, embodying the spirit of changing the view of the world in a way to claim back power and develop African football for Africa.

The unmistakable impact these African players have on European soil is that they set a standard for the quality of players that scouts find in Africa. By doing so, they elevate the level of their teams and the leagues they compete in.

Such is even justified by top coach Jose Mourinho in an interview with Charles Ogundiya with Agency Reports, where he mentioned, “My success is always based on having an African Striker. Without an African Striker, I feel like I won’t succeed…”