The biggest sporting event on the globe, the World Cup, gets underway three weeks from today in Russia, and once again it will be a constellation of the some of the brightest stars in world football. From Lionel Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, fans can’t wait to be treated by the crème de la crème of the beautiful game.
With five countries participating in the event – Nigeria, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia and Egypt – Africa also boasts some of the big name players set to dazzle in Russia.
Like Roger Milla in Italia 1990 and Asamoah Gyang in South Africa 2010, we take a look at seven African stars who could light up the Russia 2018 World Cup.
The Egyptian god needs no introduction. So far has Mo Salah come this season that he now draws comparisons with greats Messi and Ronaldo. The reigning PFA Player of the Year, Fans Player of the Year and Premier League golden boot winner, Salah’s debut season at Liverpool has surpassed expectations and, importantly, he’s being able to replicate the performances with the national team. The 25-year-old became a national hero when he struck a stoppage-time penalty to secure Egypt a World Cup spot for the first time in 28 years. He is one of the stars of the World Cup.
A strike partner of Salah’s at Liverpool, Saido Mane has shrugged off his early season lethargy to hit the heights that saw him make the PFA Team of the Year last season. Skilful, strong and speedy, Mane has been one of Africa’s top performers over the past three seasons. He played a massive role in securing Senegal their first World Cup berth since 2002, destroying South Africa in a crucial replay in Johannesburg to take the Teranga Lions past the finish line. He’s the undisputed leader in a new golden generation for Senegalese football, and could well power them past their last-eight best finish.
Often an unsung hero in the Egypt national team, Abdallah Said is one of the most technically gifted players on the African continent. The Al Ahly playmaker gives creative spark to the Pharaohs and provides the platform for the likes of Salah and Mahmoud Hassan ‘Trezeguet’ to excel. Nigerians won’t forget him in a hurry after he delivered a magnum opus as Egypt knocked out the Super Eagles in a 2017 AFCON qualifier in Alexandria. The bearded midfielder came big in seeing Egypt through a tough qualifying group that featured the DR Congo and Ghana. Sit back and enjoy his genius in Russia 2018.
For many, he’s the most prodigious youngster on the African continent. Blessed with pace, tricks and loads of swag, the attacking midfielder/winger is a handful for any defence on his day. He joins Mane and Biram Diuof in a fearsome attacking trident for Aliou Cisse’s Senegal. A move to Monaco in the French Ligue 1 last summer has seen him evolve into a more complete player – adding goals to his bags of tricks. Mane may be the undisputed leader of the team, Balde may yet prove to be the star attraction.
The Ajax playmaker has been a mainstay of the Moroccan team since switching allegiance from the Netherlands in 2015. His brilliance in midfield, backed by the strength of Nordin Amrabat, makes the Atlas Lions one of the most compact African sides going to the Mundial. A deceptive player with an eye for goal, the 25-year-old has been one of the stars of the Eredivise since he burst on the scene at FC Twente in 2014. He orchestrated Morocco’s famous 2-1 win at Ivory Coast to seal qualification on the last day, and will be at the heart of all things good from Herve Renard’s side at the World Cup.
The Star of Nigeria’s qualification campaign, Victor Moses has grown in stature in the national team and is no longer a polarizing figure for fans. The skilful winger/wing-back took the qualifiers by storm, scoring three goals and emerging as the major creative force for the Eagles. He overcame a slow start to finish the season on a high with a solid display as Chelsea pipped Manchester United to win the FA Cup – weeks after he netted the winning goal as Nigeria beat Poland 1-0 in an international friendly. Expect to see him in full flight at the World Cup as Nigeria look to surpass their round of 16 best finish.
Though plying his trade in the Chinese League these days, Nigeria skipper Mikel Obi remains a hugely popular player for fans on the continent and beyond. Having spent 10 trophy-laden years at Chelsea, the midfield maestro brings big game experience to the Super Eagles. His cool head and vision are invaluable weapons to the team as evident in the qualifying run and 4-2 friendly win over Argentina last year. The Tianjin TEDA midfielder will once again shoulder the creative burden of the side. He’s delivered in the past – and spurred on by the trumpets of Nigerian supporters club – he’ll hope to fly high in Russia, where incidentally, his wife hails from.