A History of African Players in the Premier League

With the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations well underway in Equatorial Guinea, a host of Premier League clubs are currently without some of their most influential players. Manchester City will have to make do without the commanding presence of Ivorian Yaya Toure in their midfield. Toure’s compatriot Cheick Tiote and Senegal striker Papiss Cisse are both absent for Newcastle and the likes of Nabil Bentaleb, Yannick Bolasie and Riyad Mahrez will be sorely missed by Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace and Leicester City respectively.

It’s not just in recent times that African players have played such a pivotal role in English football however. Throughout the Premier League era, there has been an abundance of players originating from Africa, spread across the best teams in the country. The second largest continent in the world has given us some unforgettable characters, incredibly skilled individuals and a perpetual stream of sheer man-mountains! Here is an insight into the history of African players in the Premier League.

When the Premier League was inaugurated in 1992, there wasn’t exactly a plethora of African’s featuring on a regular basis. Nigerian striker Efan Ekoku and Zimbabwe international goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar were perhaps the most recognised names at the time. Grobbelaar was Liverpool’s number 1 at the time of the English First Division’s transformation into the Premier League and featured over 400 times for the Merseyside club. Ekoku played for Norwich City but most memorably for Wimbledon towards the end of the famous (or infamous), Crazy Gang era. Both were seen as top performers and also great personalities.

In the mid-nineties, the prominence of African players in England’s top flight was beginning to broaden. Who could forget about Leeds United’s cult hero, Tony Yeboah. The Ghanaian had a reputation for smashing in goals from distances that only Matt Le Tissier would dream of attempting at that time. Over the course of 2 seasons with Leeds, he managed 32 goals in 66 games and also became the first ever non-British player to receive the club’s Player of the Year award; a testament to how far players from the world’s poorest continent had come. South African Lucas Radebe also played for Leeds United at the time and was considered one of the league’s best central defenders.

Moving on towards the end of the decade, more and more Premier League sides were looking to Africa for their next big signing. Chelsea brought Nigerian teenager Celestine Babayaro to the club in 1997. Following a couple of successful seasons at Belgian side Anderlecht, the promising left-back was primed to thrive in England’s top flight and went on to play over 100 times for the London club.

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The following season Arsene Wenger signed gangly forward Nwankwo Kanu from Inter Milan. After only featuring 12 times in 3 seasons for the Italian giants, many doubted the Nigerian had what it took to play in the Premier League. Kanu soon proved his doubters wrong and instantly became a fans favourite at Highbury. He displayed a level of skill very few in English football had ever witnessed before and scored some utterly outrageous goals in his time with the club.

With Arsenal and Chelsea both having great success with their African imports, other top clubs in the land looked to follow suit. In 1999 Manchester United signed versatile South African Quinton Fortune and Liverpool secured the signatures of Cameroon defender Rigobert Song and Guinean striker Titi Camara. These signings would prove to be less beneficial than the aforementioned Babayaro and Kanu, though. Fortune was ironically, not so fortunate. He featured sparingly in an era where Manchester United dominated English football. Liverpool’s acquisitions only spent one season with the club before both being sold to fellow Premier League side West Ham United.

It was the turn of the century that brought about the Premier League’s most high profile African addition yet. In January 2000, Ballon d’Or winning Liberian striker George Weah moved to Chelsea on loan. After falling out of favour at Milan, the prolific forward spent the second half of the season at Stamford Bridge and won the FA Cup with The Blues. Weah moved to newly promoted Manchester City on a permanent basis at the end of the season, after failing to strike a deal to keep him at Chelsea. He was soon on the move again however, trading Manchester for Marseille, as he became increasingly unhappy with spending too much time on the bench. Although Weah’s time in England was short-lived, he will always be seen as one of the greatest ever players, African or not, to have graced the Premier League and is still to this day the only African player to be crowned World Player of the Year.

By the early 2000’s it was not uncommon to see almost every Premier League side fielding at least one African player on a weekly basis. Mali international Frederic Kanoute was scoring goals frequently for West Ham and Senegal forward El Hadji Diouf was making waves (good and bad) for Liverpool. Moroccan Mustapha Hadji was a key player for Coventry and Aston Villa and Shaun Bartlett was an invaluable member of a Charlton side who were enjoying an extended stay in England’s top flight. Arsenal had Cameroonian right-back Lauren and Ivory Coast central defender Kolo Toure, who would later go on to be part of the famous ‘Invincibles’. You get the point; African players were beginning to play a big role in English football.

Around this time, one of the less high profile yet most memorable African additions to the Premier League was found. Enter, Jay-Jay Okocha. The man so good they named him twice. The Nigerian, signed by Sam Allardyce’s Bolton on a free from PSG in 2002, was capable of doing things with a football no one else in the league could (or would be crazy enough to attempt in a game situation). Admittedly, Okocha didn’t possess the work rate and brute strength you would normally associate with a player from Africa; but that wasn’t his game. He embarrassed defenders week in, week out with his bewildering skills and flamboyant style of play and famously introduced the Premier League to the ‘Rainbow Flick’. It is players like Okocha that gain the continent’s footballers so many plaudits.

In the mid-2000’s, Chelsea were at the heart of a ‘Golden Generation’ of African players, blossoming in England’s top division.?The London club signed 4 Africans between 2004 and 2006, including a club record signing at the time. Didier Drogba signed from Marseille for £24?million after establishing himself as one of the world’s most prolific goal scorers. The Ivory Coast international was joined by compatriot Salomon Kalou and 2 holding midfielders in the form of Ghanaian Michael Essien and Nigerian John Obi Mikel. They were crowned Premier League champions in the 2004/05 and 2005/06seasons and won both the League Cup and FA cup the following year. Chelsea’s dominance of the mid-2000’s was largely down to the goal scoring prowess of Drogba, the work rate of Kalou and immense discipline of Essien and Mikel.

Cameroon internationals Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Alexandre Song were also introduced to the Premier League around this time, joining arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal respectively. South African Steven Pienaar was a regular starter for Everton and Emmanuel Adebayor was banging in goals for The Gunners.

At the turn of the decade, Manchester City brought Yaya Toure to the club. The former Barcelona player has proven to be one of the continent’s most prominent figures in world football and has been crowned African Footballer of the Year consecutively for the past 4 years. In this time the midfield powerhouse, best known for his effortless and marauding runs through opposition defenses, has won 2 Premier League titles and subsequently featured twice in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year.

More recently former Real Madrid, Barcelona and Inter striker Samuel Eto’o enjoyed spells with Chelsea and Everton but has now moved on to Italian club Sampdoria. Ivorian Wilfried Bony, who signed for Swansea in 2013, has recently joined Manchester City after a dazzling spell with the Welsh club which saw him score the most Premier League goals in the calendar year of 2014.

It is worth mentioning that not all players originating from Africa represent the country of their birth. Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira both played for some of the country’s most recognisable clubs but chose to represent France instead of the country they were born in. Former Arsenal and Manchester City star Vieira originates from Senegal but has over 100 French caps to his name following his families move from Africa to Europe. Makelele also moved to France at a young age, leaving Zaire in the late 70’s. You get a sense that these players want to represent the country that gave them a new start in life and this is backed up by Fabrice Muamba. The former Arsenal midfielder was born in Africa but represented England Under-21’s over 30 times before his well-documented cardiac arrest in 2012.

I have recently finished reading Muamba’s touching book ‘I’m Still Standing’, where you really get a great insight into the struggles that some African players face to make it as a professional footballer, let alone to England’s top flight. He speaks of playing football bare-footed on sandy pitches before having to flee his native Congo due to the nature of his father’s job conflicting with the political unrest the country was experiencing at the time. This is a far cry from the early careers of the majority of European players, who are bread into the world’s most modern and advanced football academies and have always owned the latest pair of Nike or Adidas boots. I believe this is why the bulk of African players who make it to the Premier League, give their all and are entirely appreciative of the opportunity they have been given.

So many African players are fan’s favorites and it’s clear to see why. They don’t take the position they are in for granted. Africa will continue to produce honest, skilled and powerful players and there is little doubt that the Premier League’s top clubs will always be looking to the world’s poorest nation to find some of the world’s best players.

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