Africa’s football governing body has released a shortlist of 30 for the top award, but there is already one standout candidate
The end of the year is award season, and so Caf has given us something to pore over with its 30-man shortlist for its African Footballer of the Year award.
It is remarkable that, in a list already so outsized, there can be a hot-button topic. It is hard enough to fill that quota with meaningful candidates without leaving out any, as Caf have done in excluding Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez.
The Leicester forward is the incumbent holder of the award, and while there can be no one crusading for him retain the prize, such a drop-off is certainly unprecedented. Having ridden on the back of Leicester’s dizzying Premier League feat in 2016, it is apt, and perhaps a little cruel, that their reversion to the mean has seen him drop out of the reckoning.
His loss of form was admittedly just as complicit in their capitulation as anyone else’s, but it is debatable that there are 30 African footballers who have been better than him in 2017.
Well, however implausible that seems, there is a shortlist in play without his name on it, and that means the prospect of a first-time winner is a very real one. Of course, 2015 winner Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is present, and will almost certainly be there or thereabouts when this melee is whittled down to three or five or whatever number Caf fancy.
However, while he had his most productive season with Borussia Dortmund in 2016/2017, there is a sense that now, more than ever, his waning influence at international level will prove a disadvantage. Gabon were gravely disappointing on home soil at the Africa Cup of Nations in January, exiting in the Group Stage.
It also won’t help his cause that he excused himself from selection during the year, citing emotional distress. The contrast with a player like Mohamed Salah who, with a nerveless penalty in the final minute in the seething cauldron of Alexandria, sent Egypt through to a first World Cup since 1990, could not be more stark.
It has been a huge year for winger Salah, who led Egypt to the final at the aforementioned Afcon, whose goals helped Roma into the Uefa Champions League, and who in the summer became the most expensive African Footballer ever when he transferred to Liverpool.
He has taken to the Premier League with immediacy, and has also been on the mark in the Champions League for the Reds. That he is the overwhelming favourite is not in question; in fact, it is probably club teammate Sadio Mane who will run him closest, having finished in the top three last year.
As is apt to happen in tournament years, strong performances at the Afcon have seen the likes of Youssef Msakni, Christian Bassogog and Junior Kabananga make the shortlist; the decision to move the Cup of Nations to the summer will at least achieve the object of making tournament performances all the more cogent, as it may be difficult for most to factor in a competition that took place at the very start of the year by the end of it.
n the case of Bassogog, who has done absolutely nothing meaningful since, one might be excused for wondering why he has been included at all.
Headline club performances have boosted Eric Bailly, Jean-Michael Seri, Victor Moses, Karim El Ahmadi and Bertrand Traore this year (the latter two were superb at the Afcon as well), although in that case it is puzzling not to see Hakim Ziyech on the list, as he was influential in Ajax’s Europa League final run, and has been excellent for Morocco in the World Cup qualifiers since mending fences with Herve Renard.
Not to imply he is undeserving in the present, as that is far from the case. However, while this year’s award comes a little too early for him, he is certainly the heir to Yaya Toure’s now vacant throne of Africa’s best midfielder. Startlingly complete in all phases of play, he is good enough even now to get into the top five, and may well be the next player to win and retain the award in the years to come.
In the meantime, this all feels rather like a coronation: this has been, indubitably, the year of Mohamed Salah, and all the other 29 are there to attend his greatness.
A third different winner in the last three years—say what you will about awards in football, but at least Africa’s isn’t predictable.