The greatest African XI in Premier League history - including Chelsea and Liverpool stars

A starting XI of the greatest African players ever to grace the Premier League - featuring some of Chelsea, Liverpool and Leeds' greatest.
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With the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in full swing (yes, we know it’s 2024, take it up with the organisers…) and already producing a whole bucketload of shocks, stunning goals and superb football, we thought now was the perfect time to sit down and argue over who would make the starting line-up of a team made up of the best African players ever to grace to pitches of the Premier League.

After some lengthy debates over who should play up front (a very hard decision), whether Jay-Jay Okocha’s cult status really demands his inclusion (a very easy decision), and a bit of a head-scratch over the strange lack of first-rate left-backs to choose from, we’ve compiled a ridiculously good team – and probably provided plenty of ammunition for some arguments of your own…

Goalkeeper – Edouard Mendy (Chelsea)

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Mendy’s best form at Chelsea didn’t last all that long – but it lasted long enough for the Champions League trophy to be brought to Stamford Bridge and gave us enough stunning reaction stops to compile hours of YouTube videos.

After joining the Blues in 2020 he kept a string of clean sheets, set a few records (including the joint most clean sheets in a Champions League campaign and setting the longest run of them in club history), and made Sergio Agüero look ridiculous when he saved his Panenka penalty. Then he was named FIFA Best Goalkeeper of the year, his form suddenly nose-dived and before you could blink, he was playing in the Saudi Pro League. But while he was good, he was about as good as we’ve ever seen in English football.

Left-back – Celestine Babayaro (Chelsea & Newcastle)

Babayaro had a chequered career, to say the least. He was banned for giving Dirk Kuyt a hearty slap when the referee wasn’t looking, was sent home from AFCON 2004 for disciplinary breaches, has been declared bankrupt, and was described by former Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd as “a disgrace” who “didn’t pull his weight” – although that sounds a bit harsh when you consider that he once put in a strong performance for the Magpies less than a day after discovering his younger brother had passed away.

For all the downs, though, there were plenty of ups – and around and arounds, courtesy of his trademark acrobatic goal celebrations. The Nigerian was wonderful for most of his spell at Chelsea, often keeping Graeme Le Saux out of the side and racking up over 200 games for the club, and was among the best left-backs in the league for long periods around the turn of the millennium. That said, we must admit that there is a frankly weird lack of left-backs to choose from for this XI, and Babayaro is probably our weakest link. Come back in a few years’ time, and we can have a chat about Rayan Aït-Nouri.

Centre-back – Kolo Touré (Arsenal, Manchester City & Liverpool)

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It must be a tough life, being one of the greatest players in your nation’s history but simultaneously not even the best player in your own family. Such is the elder Touré brother’s lot, but it didn’t stop him from becoming an Invincible at Arsenal or a double league and FA Cup champion across his illustrious career.

A brilliant all-round defender who read the game well, was comfortable and composed in possession and who was all but unbeatable for speed or strength, Touré was one of the best two or three defenders in the division during the 2000s and still had plenty in the tank at City and Liverpool, where his experience made him an incredibly valuable asset. Won AFCON 2015 with the Ivory Coast as well – just don’t ask him about management. And don’t ask any Wigan Athletic fans you meet either, for that matter.

Centre-back – Lucas Radebe (Leeds United)

A titan of Nineties football, Radebe was a colossal presence at Elland Road whose rugged mentality and unwavering focus made him one of the great captains of his time. And if you want a character reference, one of the many people who called him their hero was Nelson Mandela. Pretty hard to beat that for a recommendation.

In truth, Radebe’s peak was relatively brief and sadly curtailed by injuries which started biting around 2000. He limped on for a few more years – long enough to sit on the sidelines while his side disintegrated and plunged into the Championship, which was a rather cruel fate for one of the best players in Leeds’ history, and poor reward for his loyalty. Radebe supposedly rejected opportunities to move to Manchester United and AC Milan, among others. Perhaps the most popular player in the history of his club, and with very good reason.

Right-back – Lauren (Arsenal & Portsmouth)

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Laureano Mayer, best known to us solely by his bowdlerised forename, was the Cameroonian rock at right-back during Arsenal’s legendary Invincibles season and a double league champion who also won three FA Cups and two AFCONs – not a bad trophy haul at all, especially given that he retired from international football at the age of just 25.

An intelligent, strong and dependable defender with some excellent judgement in the tackle and a very decent passing range, Lauren was, at his best, a brick wall in the back line who contributed plenty going forward, even if he wasn’t the kind of full-back who looked to get to the byline like so many do today. He was also right praised for his work ethic and never-say-die attitude, both of which were endlessly praised by his managers down the years. Probably deserves more plaudits than he tends to get these days…

Central midfield – Michael Essien (Chelsea)

We feel a little sorry to think that there is now a generation of young football fans who are just a little too young to have watched Essien in his prime, whether it was for Chelsea or Real Madrid – he defined what a defensive midfielder should be, and deserves to be remembered as one of the best there’s ever been in that position.

A brilliant tackler who read the game like a book, a superb passer who could drop a long diagonal onto a team-mate’s toes and an endlessly industrious engine room who covered every spare inch of the pitch. Oh, and he had absolute cannons in those legs, as evinced by a smattering of goals which invariably involved the ball being smashed into the net at something just short of warp speed. He won just about everything except AFCON, which seems rather unfair for probably the greatest player in Ghanaian history.

Central midfield – Jay-Jay Okocha (Bolton Wanderers)

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One of the most flair-filled, thrill-packed careers of all time belonged to Olympic and AFCON champions Okocha, whose wizardly skills and gift for playing the great entertainer made him one of the most unlikely and popular players ever to have turned out for little old Bolton.

Jay-Jay – “so good they named him twice” – scored stunning goals, sent half the defenders in the league to Coventry with his step-overs and lightning changes of pace, and seldom did anything which didn’t have at least some chance of being spectacular. He was a brilliant player who elevated the club to a level seldom seen before (and certainly never since) but also just so much damned fun to watch. A mildly acrimonious departure, which saw him stripped of the captaincy as he refused a contract extension in favour of moving to Qatar, didn’t prevent him from winning a fan vote to name the greatest player ever to feature at the old Reebok Stadium.

Central midfield – Yaya Touré (Manchester City)

Yaya had his weaknesses in life, but they mostly seem to have centred around birthday cake. On the field, he was one of the greatest in the world for several years, bestriding the pitch like a colossus with those long, rangy limbs, bearing down inexorably on defences who were almost always powerless to stop him.

One of the most impressive dribblers we’ve ever seen, he used his physique to dominate the midfield, his tackling ability to win the ball, his technique to shift the ball downfield at frightening speed and his eye for goal to score time and again. At his best, he seemed genuinely unstoppable – a holding midfielder who was lethal in the box, and an attacking playmaker who would snuff out attacks before they’d even started. Ended up winning three Premier Leagues, two La Ligas, an AFCON title and a whole host of lesser trophies – and also, by way of a curious legal footnote, once held the record for the largest drink-driving fine ever handed down in Britain.

Wide forward – Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City & Manchester City)

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Let’s get the spoiler out of the way – we didn’t find room for Sadio Mané. Or Tony Yeboah. Or, frankly, about a dozen other forwards who probably deserve a spot in our side on their own merits. But Mahrez, the dynamo behind Leicester’s freak title win and later an endless stream of trophies at City, is not only a great player but also one of the English top flight’s most underappreciated players.

There’s a reason the Algerian outlasted and outscored so many other players in the Pep Guardiola era – he isn’t just technically brilliant, fast and a strong goalscorer but is also a superb playmaker who was just as good playing off the shoulder of the last man as he was dropping into midfield to pick passes for his team-mates. Few players are blessed with such a versatile skillset, and very few indeed achieve more than he has. Many people would put Mané ahead of Mahrez, but we say the trophy cabinet doesn’t lie.

Wide forward – Mohamed Salah (Chelsea & Liverpool)

Perhaps the greatest African player ever to grace the Premier League – only Essien and Yaya can really argue about that – the Egyptian’s lethal movement, unpredictable changes of pace and precision finishing have made him one of the best goalscorers in the history of the English top flight, and at 31 there’s preciously little sign of him slowing down just yet.

He also seems to be a genuinely fabulous human being – he’s donated immense amounts to charity and has been a vocal campaigner for women’s rights in the Middle East. When he joined Liverpool back in 2017, academic research even concluded that he was responsible for a drop in race-related hate crimes in the North West. You’ll go a long way to find anyone who doesn’t quietly love Mo Salah – apart from the poor left-back trying to mark him, anyway.

Centre-forward – Didier Drogba (Chelsea)

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Drogba had the perfect striker’s skillset – strength, movement, pace, brilliant heading and some of the most lethal finishing the top flight has ever seen. Whether he was blasting them in from 20 yards or blasting past markers to nod home from inside the six-yard box, Drogba was perhaps the most consistently brilliant striker of his era. Plenty of other strikers shone while he was at Stamford Bridge, but very few scored so many, for so long.

And look, he did peter out after 2010, and coming back for a second spell at Chelsea was really just a bad plan all round, not that it stopped anyone in West London from adoring him. But he still won the lot, including a valedictory Champions League, and has a list of individual honours which runs off the page on Wikipedia. A record breaker, a champion, and most of all just a damned good goalscorer.