On domestic duty, for his club side, Olympique Marseille, the year has been particularly trying. Slumping to a 10th place finish in the French Ligue 1, their worst for 11 years, OM were barracked from all quarters, and had to watch on torturously as rivals PSG splashed the cash – enough to potentially dominate the domestic circuit for the visible future. Troubles were compounded by a galling maiden league title for south coast rivals Montpellier – OM forced to look on longingly as La Paillade celebrated their triumph.
The original shortlist of 34 has been narrowed down to a final 10, as the continent prepares to make its final decision on the CAF African Footballer of the Year 2012 award. Once again it’s been a sterling year for Africa’s finest, and the final field boasts stars who have made serious impacts in competitions worldwide.
With previous winners including the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Emmanuel Adebayor, and George Weah, Africa’s premiere player award has a long history and a proud heritage; in a terrific year for Africa’s performers, who will claim the title of its finest player?
John Obi Mikel – Chelsea/Nigeria
Has 2012 been the long-awaited breakthrough season in John Obi Mikel’s career? For years he was the much-maligned weak link in Chelsea’s midfield; Makélélé’s successor in the holding role, but without the nous, the vision, the positioning, nor the presence. It wasn’t looking good for Mikel, and many felt that the Nigerian would be soon for the exit at Chelsea.
And then the Blues came up against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final. Having displaced Oriol Romeu to muscle his way back into the first XI, Mikel put on a defensive masterclass against a Messi-inspired Barca, and was a crucial component in the Pensioners’ resilience and composure in victory. After years of overcoming criticism, he deserved the Champions League win as much as anyone in West London.
A return to international duty for Nigeria was capped with a goal in their 6-1 victory over Liberia, and Mikel can now look forward to the 2013 Afcon as a central part of the Super Eagles’ plans.
Defining Moment: Champions League semi-final display against old rival Leo Messi.
Didier Drogba – Shanghai Shenua/Cote d’Ivoire
Whilst Mikel was influential in Chelsea’s defeat of Barcelona, it was his teammate, Didier Drogba who was most responsible for victory against Bayern Munich in the competition’s final. Last season was Drogba’s Chelsea swansong, a memorable year at a club he has graced since 2004.
Drogba’s performance against Bayern was among his finest in a Chelsea shirt – he not only scored an equaliser in the 88th minute, a tremendous header from a rare set piece, he also had the courage and confidence to step up and seal the victory with the final, match-winning penalty. The performance prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to suggest that Drogba won the cup almost single-handedly.
The spotkick victory will have gone some way to erasing the memories of his penalty miss in the ill-fated Afcon final against Zambia, a chance which could have brought the title back to Abidjan.
Defining Moment: Inspirational man of the match performance against Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final
Demba Ba – Newcastle United/Senegal
As Didier Drogba’s Premier League goalscoring comes to a close, Demba Ba’s influence at the top level seems to be only just beginning. A brief spell at West Ham preceded his current, prolific period at Newcastle, and at times, the Senegalese frontman has been simply unplayable. Forming a delicious strike pairing with countryman Papiss Demba Cissé for club and country, the pair saw Newcastle climb into the upper echelons of the Premier League during a particularly impressive campaign.
This season has started slowly for the Magpies, and Ba has often found himself deployed on the left side of the field in a supporting role. Still, defences across the country continue to be wary of a strike force that is more than capable of humiliating the opposition on its day. Whilst Demba Ba can look back fondly on 2012, observers are confident that there is much more to come from this talented frontman.
Defining Moment: 4th January 2012 – Ba opens the scoring as Newcastle defeat Manchester United 3-0 at St James Park – a perfect opening to an impressive year for the forward
Gervinho – Arsenal/Cote d’Ivoire
It was against Ba’s Newcastle side that Gervinho made his Premier League debut back in the late summer of 2011. It was a fracas with Joey Barton that stole the headlines that day, but since then, the Ivorian frontman has dazzled as part of Arsenal’s forward line. Whilst there are still questions about his application, consistency, and efficiency, it’s been an important year in the Ivorian’s career, and he has gone a long way to proving himself to be a supremely talented competitor.
The African Cup of Nations proved to be a tournament to forget for Gervinho. Despite scoring the winner against Mali in the Semi Final, it was the Arsenal man’s penalty that proved decisive in the final; his miss allowing Stoppila Sunzu to step up to secure victory for Zambia. The talented forward will be hoping that the 2013 edition of the tournament will end with a fonder finale for the Elephants.
Defining Moment: 33% of voting Arsenal fans chose Gervinho as Man of the Match after his brace against Southamption in a 6-1 Gunners victory
Christopher Katongo – Henan Construction/Zambia
As Gervinho broke down on the turf of Libreville, Christopher Katongo celebrated ecstatically. The Zambian captain was at the heart of his team’s victory, and stood up to take – and score – the first penalty in that famous shootout. More than just a skipper in title, Katongo was a genuine leader, and his experience was one of the key features of a young Zambian team’s run to the African title; he also chipped in with crucial goals as well, in particular, a winner against Equatorial Guinea and an equaliser against Libya in Bata.
Zambia managed to overcome Uganda in qualifying for the 2013 edition of the competition after another thrilling shootout. Whilst Katongo failed to find the net this time around, he will once more be at the core of a Zambian team that will defend their title in South Africa early next year. This experienced campaigner can look back on 2012 with great pride and enormous contentment.
Defining Moment: Stepping up to open Zambia’s account from the spot in the 2012 Afcon final
Alex Song – Barcelona/Cameroon
Whilst Robin Van Persie stole all of the accolades last season as Arsenal overcame a dreadful early start to claim a third place finish in the Premier League, the striker identified Alex Song’s assured performances in midfield as a key factor in his record breaking year. As the season drew to a close, Barcelona came knocking on Arsene Wenger’s door, and before too long, the midfielder was off to Camp Nou – a fee of £15 million having been agreed for his services.
The move brought the midfielder’s style of play, and his overall contribution, into the public spotlight – resulting in intense debate. Some fans suggested that Song was a versatile midfielder that was equally adept as a creator or as a destroyer, whilst others suggested that he was an unhappy compromise and was neither an effective provider, nor a competent ball-winner.
Time will tell whether Barcelona’s purchase was a wise one, but I personally have little doubt that the Cameroon man can provide a valuable service for the Catalans. As a stand-in centre back, or as a physical holding midfielder, the player can hold his own, whilst also possessing a technical proficiency to slip in comfortably with Barcelona’s collection of pass masters.
Defining Moment: A delicious assist against Aston Villa in March which not only set up Theo Walcott for a delightful finish, but also confirmed Song to be an able artist with the ball, as well as a defensive stopper
André Ayew – Olympique Marseille/Ghana
Ultimately, 2012 has been a disappointing one in an otherwise glittering career. Nomination for the CAF award may well be considered a silver lining on a black cloud. The year started badly for the youngster as the much fancied Black Stars departed Afcon 2012 at the semi-final stage. Despite bagging two goals in the tournament, ‘Dede’ never quite managed to set the competition alight as he had threatened to.
Ayew retained his place in Marseille’s first 11, but without progressing as many around him had forecast after his celebrated initial years at the club. Big games against MHSC and Bayern came and went without Abedi Pele’s golden boy showing what he is capable of, despite a respectable scoring return. Hopefully 2013 can bring a return to form.
Defining Moment: A hat-trick against Lille in the Trophee des Champions…unfortunately this sublime display came over a year ago, Ayew has ground to make up
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – Saint Etienne/Gabon
Like André Ayew, Aubameyang has grown up, to an extent at least, in the spectre of a famous father. But whilst Abedi Pele is almost unrivalled as an African star, the younger Aubameyang may already be eclipsing the career of his own father, Pierre senior, who, despite clocking up 80 performances for the Panthers, never glistened in Europe quite like his son.
2012 has been quite a year in the development of the young Aubameyang. After impressing in loan spells at Monaco, Lille, and Dijon, Saint Etienne swept in to take him off Milan’s hands permanently. He hasn’t disappointed, and a goal to games ratio of nearly 1:2 has won him many admirers on the banks of the Loire.
Unfortunately, Aubameyang couldn’t prevent Gabon’s tragic elimination in the 2012 Afcon on home soil. Despite finishing as one of the tournament’s top scorers, he was powerless as his side were overcome by Mali on penalties in a tense Quarter Final.
Defining Moment: Aubameyang’s tears after his missed penalty cost his side a Semi-Final berth in front of home supporters in Libreville were seen worldwide, and the youngster won many admirers. He will return to fight another day.
Younes Belhanda – Montpellier/Morocco
Whilst many in Europe were stunned to see unfancied Montpellier seize the Ligue 1 trophy at the end of last season, those who frequent La Mosson weren’t shocked to see the impact that Belhanda and his talented teammates could have on the rest of France’s top division. Indeed, the Moroccan was one of the key figures in the side that wrested the title from the moneyed claws of PSG, earning many plaudits in the process.
With flawless technique, measured decision-making, and a creative vision that belies his young years, Belhanda has taken the league by storm since his debut in 2009. Montpellier’s side have begun to disintegrate, and the vultures are circling for Belhanda. Whilst his time with MHSC may soon be at an end, his career with Maroc promises to be long – already a key figure in the national set up, Belhanda will be hoping that his talents can make an impact at the continental high table in next year’s Afcon.
Defining Moment: An effortless twist of skill against Olympiacos in October, creating space for himself before firing towards goal – Belhanda takes to the Champions League like a duck to water.
Yaya Touré – Manchester City/Cote d’Ivoire
Perhaps the standout name in this year’s field, certainly for an English audience, is Yaya Touré. After leaving Barcelona in 2010, Touré has become a major player in the Premier League, as well as the dynamic heartbeat of a Manchester City that won England’s top division so breathtakingly last season.
Last year’s winner did endure a heartbreaking Afcon, as part of the Ivorian team that lost to Zambia on penalties in the final. However, the last 12 months have seen Touré establish himself as one of the planet’s finest midfielders, and a major player in world football. Time will tell if his inspirational, title-winning performances for City are enough for him to claim the Footballer of the Year award for a second consecutive season.
Defining Moment: A brace against Newcastle in late spring 2012 as the dynamic midfielder put City on the brink of a first title win since 1968
The Top Ten from Africa: Footballer of the Year shortlist announced