We look at the 8 greatest African players to grace the Premier League - with some surprising selections.
The continent of Africa has been home to some of the most iconic talents in football history. From the legendary George Weah plying his trade in Milan, to Samuel Eto’o winning back-to-back trebles with Barcelona and Inter.
Arguably though, the cream of the crop were stationed in the Premier League. From the Invincibles alumni to multiple Player of the Year awards, we take a look at the 8 best African footballers to play in the Premier League.
Didier Drogba – Chelsea
After a wildly successful debut season at Marseille which saw a return of 19 goals in Ligue 1, helping the club reach the 2004 UEFA Cup Final, Chelsea began its renaissance with the capture of the Ivorian who paved the way for his continent.
Drogba arrived as one of the first pieces to the puzzle in Jose Mourinho’s record-breaking season at Stamford Bridge following his £24m move from Marseille in 2004, though it wasn’t a match made in heaven straight away.
The Ivorian somewhat struggled in his debut season, scoring a modest ten goals in Mourinho’s title-winning debut season which saw a return of 95 points – a record at the time.
Despite returning the title to the Bridge for the first time in 50 years, Drogba admitted that after the first season he had doubts about his future at Chelsea after being out of his comfort zone.
The striker subsequently made Stamford Bridge his own comfort zone in the seasons to come.
By the time he left Chelsea, he became one of the clubs greatest ever players and arguably the greatest African to play in the Premier League, scoring 157 goals in 341 matches and being a pivotal part of their four titles and four FA Cup victories.
“As far as I was concerned, Didier Drogba won the Champions League for Chelsea”Sir Alex Ferguson on Chelsea’s Champions League victory in 2012.
But what firmly cemented his name into legendary status was his inspired performance in the 2012 Champions League final against Bayern Munich. In Bavaria. At the Allianz Arena.
The odds were firmly stacked against the Blues and yet the Ivorian rose above the rest to not only equalise in the final minutes, but score the winning penalty which proved to be the final kick of his illustrious first spell in London.
A poetic end to his first Chelsea spell – but it wasn’t finished there.
Two years later, he was reunited for a last dance with his beloved Chelsea alongside the manager that first brought the striker to England – Jose Mourinho.
Though it wasn’t a typically prolific season after arriving at age 36 with a return of four goals, he continued to harass the giants of the league with important goals against Manchester United and Newcastle United to seal his fourth and final Premier League title.
Drogba’s legacy has firmly made him not only a Chelsea great but one of the best Africans to play in the Premier League.
Sadio Mane – Liverpool
Following his move from RB Salzburg to Southampton in 2014, the rise of Sadio Mane has been nothing short of rapid.
After scoring the quickest hat-trick in Premier League history – in 176 seconds – the winger’s prolific nature and clinical touch was becoming an inevitable scenario in most games.
After just two years at the Saints, Liverpool agreed a £34m deal as Jurgen Klopp targeted the Senegalese to become a piece of what would become a devastating forward line.
In his debut season, Mane continued his sparkling form by winning their Player of the Year award after scoring 13 Premier league goals – however this was just the start of what was to come.
Alongside Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, Mane enjoyed his most prolific season in the 2018/19 campaign. After sharing the golden boot with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with 22 goals each, the winger then played a pivotal role in achieving European glory in 2019 against Tottenham to earn Liverpool their sixth European crown.
This was followed by perhaps his greatest feat with Liverpool – helping to bring back the league title for the first time in 30 years and becoming the African Player of the Year.
Mohamed Salah – Liverpool
It was torrid beginning to life in England at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, which resulted in the Egyptian being shipped out to Fiorentina in Italy after just 13 appearances for the Blues. Though his rise to stardom since then has been nothing short of phenomenal.
During his successful period in the city which saw the rise of the Roman empire, Salah was already embarking on his own takeover after an impressive return of 15 goals and 13 assists in his final season in Italy.
The £37m paid by Liverpool raised many eyebrows at the time, though turned out to be one of the shrewdest signings in Premier League history.
In his debut season in Merseyside, Salah finished the campaign with 32 goals in 36 games – the highest ever tally in a Premier League season.
“Since he joined us, what a player. He’s still hungry. He was still not happy for not scoring one or two more, that’s how top class players are”Jurgen Klopp following Mo Salah scoring 100 Premier League goals
Like Sadio Mane, the Egyptian became firmly cemented into Liverpool’s history as he helped secure their Champions League victory and bring the Premier League title to Anfield – alongside achieving two Golden Boots and came fifth in the 2019 Ballon d’Or.
In just five years, the ‘Egyptian King’ has become one of the best African footballers to play in the Premier League and one of Africa’s all-time greats. Not bad for a Chelsea reject.
Yaya Toure – Manchester City
Despite Toure’s love for Barcelona, a turbulent relationship with Pep Guardiola during his time in Spain brought a swift end to his Catalonia dream.
It was Manchester City’s lucrative opportunity to join their project backed by Sheikh Mansour which was the making of the Ivorian.
Following a £24m move to Manchester, then-City manager Roberto Mancini opted to use Toure in a far more offensive role in contrast to his holding midfielder days in Barcelona. This move turned out to be a masterstroke from the Italian, who began to truly unveil just how dangerous Toure can be.
“I did not want to go and wanted to end my career at Barcelona. However he [Pep Guardiola] had no faith in me”Yaya Toure on his relationship with Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. via Goal
Joining his brother Kolo at City meant not only the beginning of a famous chant – but the beginning of Manchester City’s most successful era – and Toure was pivotal in the rise of the Blue Moon.
With one great stride past Nemanja Vidic and a calm finish through Edwin Van der Sar in the FA Cup semi-final which led to Manchester City’s first trophy in 35 years, it proved to be the catalyst for the power shift taking place in Manchester.
Toure then inspired City to two Premier League titles scoring 20 league goals in the 2013/14 season in what was one of the greatest individual seasons in Premier League history.
It was safe to say that by this point, the Ivorian had become one of the most dominant midfielders in English football history.
The midfielder did add a third title to his cabinet in 2018 despite history repeating itself where he once again found himself falling out of favour with Pep Guardiola. Though this spelled the end of his City tenure, he firmly remains one of the greatest African players to play in the England.
Jay-Jay Okocha – Bolton
So good they named him twice. There aren’t many free transfers which made an impact quite like Jay-Jay Okocha when former Bolton manager Sam Allardyce signed him from Paris-Saint Germain in 2002.
Allardyce eventually convinced the Nigerian to switch the city of love for a rainy town in the North-West.
In his first season, the club narrowly avoided relegation by two points though having returned seven goals, it would be the early signs of what was to come from the Nigerian.
“I could watch him [Jay-Jay Okocha] all day. He could drag-backs, flick-overs, double step-overs. There’s been no one else like him, not even Cristiano Ronaldo”Sam Allardyce on Jay-Jay Okocha in his autobiography – Big Sam’s Autobiography
The faith in Okocha was apparent very early in his Bolton career when he was made captain by Allardyce in just his second season – becoming an influential character both on and off the pitch.
The following seasons transformed the Trotters from relegation fighters to European flyers where they finished in the top eight for four successive Premier League seasons and enjoyed a run in the UEFA Cup where they reached the last 32.
The legacy left by Okocha wasn’t that of silverware and accolades, but his role in galvanising a team made up of multiple nationalities. He was able to inspire a previously spent team to dream as well as bringing the distinctive and unique flair football fans grew to admire.
If his feet were the brushes, the ball the paint, then the opponents were merely the silent models he used to paint his own picture.
Kolo Toure – Arsenal
The defender was at the heart of Arsenal’s Invincibles which went 49 games undefeated with the Ivorian playing 55 games in all competitions during their history-making run.
Toure is one of only two Africans to win the Premier League title with two different clubs – Riyad Mahrez being the other – and marks a typically shrewd signing from Arsene Wenger who signed the defender after a successful trial with the club.
The Ivorian subsequently spent seven years at Highbury winning two Premier Leagues – which included one with his brother Yaya – plus three FA Cups and the African Cup of Nations trophy.
To mark a decorated career, Toure went on to achieve invincible status again during his time in Scotland with Celtic, winning the title and Scottish cup under the tutelage of Brendan Rodgers which capped off a career few will ever match.
From trialist to one of the best African footballers to play in the Premier League – not bad.
Riyad Mahrez – Leicester City
The signing of Riyad Mahrez from Le Havre for a fee of just £400k in 2014 may have gone well under the radar of many as he joined Championship side Leicester City, but no one could have predicted the turn of events for the Foxes and the talented winger.
Nigel Pearson brought into the club someone who would become a vital cog to the most incredible feat achieved in English football, yet the Algerian started from the bottom in what was two initially subdued seasons with a return of 6 goals in 49 games.
After narrowly avoiding relegation in Pearson’s final season in charge, the impossible then became possible as Claudio Ranieri guided Leicester City to their first ever Premier League title against all odds – 5000/1 odds to be exact.
Mahrez suddenly rose to stardom in impressive fashion, becoming a pivotal player in the Foxes’ title success – becoming the first Algerian to do so – scoring 17 Premier League goals and becoming to first African to win the PFA Player of the Year award.
The following season brought title hangover for Leicester as Mahrez returned a disappointing six goals, though it was clear the Algerian wanted out.
After signing for Manchester City for £60m in 2018 – a then-club record – the winger was forced into a squad role though added another Premier League to his list and is now a vital part of Guardiola’s City team.
The Algerian’s story of beginning life at the bottom of the football pyramid and slowly working his way up to become one of the best African footballers to play in the Premier League should be a story in the hearts of all young footballers – with just a ball and a dream.
Michael Essien – Chelsea
The first African to win Chelsea’s Player of the Year and Goal of the Season? No, it wasn’t Didier Drogba. That award belongs to Michael Essien.
The Ghanaian arrived from Lyon as a highly-promising player as Chelsea beat off interest from Manchester United to sign the midfielder for £24.4m in 2005.
Though a persistent knee injury hampered much of the latter stages of the midfielders Chelsea career, Essien played a pivotal role in winning two Premier League titles, four FA Cups and a first Champions League trophy for the club.
Though injuries may well be the last memory of Essien to many, his impact at Chelsea in being a driving force in the midfield and scoring memorable goals – namely against Arsenal and Barcelona – his influence on the pitch leaves him as one of the best African footballers to play in the Premier League.