In almost all spheres of life, Africans do not always get the recognition they deserve. The same thing applies in football, as players from the continent mostly get overlooked.
That’s one of the major reasons why only a single African footballer has ever been named as the best in the world (George Weah in 1995).
So many factors can be attributed to why African players get underrated, some of which are: lack of quality equipment and infrastructure at youth level, the late start to a career, inadequate media publicity and racism.
Here, TOP SOCCER BLOG brings you the 10 most underrated African footballers of all time.
1. Mohammed Aboutrika
Aboutrika is an Egyptian football legend who was part of the golden generation of the Egyptian national team that won three consecutive AFCON titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010.
Aboutrika played in the latter two of the three tournaments, though, famously scoring the winning goal in the 2008 final against Ghana.
He won more than 25 trophies in his career, including two AFCON, seven Egyptian Premier League and five CAF Champions League titles and a bronze medal with Al Ahly at the 2006 FIFA Club World Cup.
The major reason why Aboutrika was underrated was because he never played abroad as he spent his entire career in his native Egypt. He is one of the most decorated African football players.
2. Michael Essien
Essien was one of the best players on the pitch when fully fit. A very physical, industrious and intelligent box-to-box player with a very powerful shot, he was named the “Bison”.
Due to his versatility, he can play anywhere in midfield and in defence. He is one of the best utility players of all time.
Essien played for teams like Lyon, Chelsea, Real Madrid and AC Milan and won the Ligue 1, Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Champions League in his career.
He could have easily won the African Footballer of the Year numerous times, but he was unlucky to play in the same era with the likes of Samuel Etoo and Didier Drogba.
3. Emmanuel Adebayor
Adebayor played for top European teams like Monaco, Arsenal, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspurs and Real Madrid, winning a handful of trophies.
He was a fairly reliable striker at his prime, especially at Arsenal. He was one of Man City’s first big-name signings.
Perhaps Adebayor’s decision to play for Togo instead of Nigeria at the international level somehow affected his career, but his huge achievements with Togo cannot be overlooked.
He led the tiny West African nation to its first and only FIFA World Cup appearance in 2006, and he is the country’s all-time leading goal scorer.
Adebayor won the African Footballer of the Year in 2008.
4. John Obi Mikel
Mikel broke through as an attacking midfielder at the 2005 FIFA U20 World Cup in Holland, helping Nigeria to a runners-up finish behind a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina.
Mikel also won the Silver Ball as the 2nd best player of that tournament behind Messi, who won the Golden Ball.
Most expected both players to continue challenging each other at the highest level, but Messi would go on to create a name as arguably the greatest player of all time while Mikel got converted to a defensive midfielder by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea.
Mikel’s career was also glorious as he spent eleven years at Chelsea, playing 249 matches and winning various trophies, including the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, Europa League and the UEFA Champions League, but the comparisons with Messi always overshadowed his achievements.
He also won the AFCON with Nigeria in 2013 and led the country to a Bronze medal finish in the Men’s Football at 2016 Olympics in Brazil but never won the African Footballer of the Year.
Another factor that contributed to Mikel being underrated is that he came in an era where football fans are very obsessed with goals and assist stats, with most always judging him with that criteria.
I dare say that John Obi Mikel is not just one of the most underrated African footballers, but also one of the most underrated football player ever in history.
5. Sadio Mane
Mane came into the limelight during his time at Southampton before earning a big move to Liverpool.
At Anfield, he went a gear better, rubbing shoulders with the best players in the world. Sadio Mane is undoubtedly one of the best wingers in football right now.
He helped Liverpool to break their 30-year league trophy drought in 2018/19, with the club also winning the UEFA Champions League the same season.
He also finished as the joint top scorer in the Premier League, sharing the Golden Boot with his teammate, Mohammed Salah.
Mane is one of the only three players to have scored 100 Premier League goals, with the other two being Didier Drogba and Salah.
He is the 2nd highest all-time goal scorer for Senegal, helping the country reach the AFCON final in 2019, which they lost to Algeria.
However, he successfully led Senegal to the 2021 AFCON title.
Now at Al Nassr in the Saudi Pro League, Sadio Mane has achieved all he needs in football and is still underrated.
Mane’s achievements always get overshadowed by that of Salah, and he is also unlucky to be in the same era with the likes Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Eden Hazard and Kylian Mbappe.
6. Frederic Kanoute
Kanoute played for the likes of Lyon, Westham United, Tottenham as a striker. His most notable spell was at Sevilla, where he wrote his name in the club’s history as he helped them win the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) consecutively in 2006 and 2007.
He is also the highest goalscoring foreign player in the club’s history.
Kanoute opted to play for Mali ahead of France at the international level and featured in various tournaments. He scored a total of 23 goals in 39 caps for Mali, which is an impressive goal ratio.
7. Seydou Keita
A utility player who can play in midfield and defence, Keita played for teams like Marseille, Sevilla, Valencia, AS Roma and Barcelona.
He was most notable for his time at Barca, where he won 14 major trophies as part of Pep Guardiola’s golden generation.
Seydou Keita also played in Seven AFCON tournaments, with Mali leading the team to 3rd place finishes in 2012 and 2013.
8. Austin Jay-jay Okocha
The list won’t be complete without mentioning Okocha.
A master dribbler and one of the most skillful players in football history, Okocha always wowed the crowd whenever he played. The Nigerian midfielder maestro was a true African football legend.
He was often criticised for his inconsistency, carefree attitude, lack of trophies and the fact that he didn’t play for the top clubs in the world during his prime.
He was the greatest player, never to have been named as the African Footballer of the Year!
9. Yakubu Aiyegbeni
Aiyegbeni’s career was marred and will always be remembered for his miss at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa — it is one of the most shocking misses in football history.
With Nigeria needing victory in their last group match against South Korea to qualify, Yakubu missed an open goal from just three yards!
The miss was a blemish on an otherwise fine and illustrious career. He started his career in Nigeria before moving to Maccabi Ben Haifa in Israel. At Maccabi, he starred in the UEFA Champions League and was subsequently signed by Portsmouth.
He was instrumental in Portsmouth’s promotion to the English Premier League. He also played for Middlesbrough, Everton and Blackburn Rovers.
In his Premier League career, Yakubu scored 96 goals, and to date, he is the fourth-highest scoring African in the EPL, behind Salah, Drogba and Mane.
With Nigeria, he played in 4 AFCON tournaments.
But that particular miss always overshadows his achievements.
10. Salomon Kalou
Kalou is simply a victim of the era he played in. It’s hard to get much individual recognition when you share the spotlight with players such as Didier Drogba, Samuel Etoo, Frank Lampard, Andriy Shevchenko, John Terry, Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Gervinho etc.
He was considered one of the best young talents in football, while at Feyenoord, he scored 35 goals in 69 appearances in a famous strike partnership with Dirk Kuyt.
After three years in Holland, his talents caught the eye of Chelsea, who shelled out £9million for his signature in 2006, and although he would mostly play on the wing, because his compatriot, Didier Drogba, was the striker for the Blues, that didn’t stop Kalou from contributing goals.
Kalou managed 156 appearances for Chelsea in six years, scoring 36 times and winning the Premier League, Champions League, and League Cup title, with four FA Cups as well.
Kalou played a crucial role for Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea side of 2009/10 and was criminally underrated and underappreciated despite his high work rate, winning tackles all over the pitch, scoring goals and providing assists for his teammates in that Chelsea set-up.
For Ivory Coast, Kalou was an important member of the golden generation despite the headlines favouring the likes of Drogba and Yaya Toure.
Kalou amassed 93 international caps and represented his country at two FIFA World Cups, six Africa Cup of Nations tournaments and the 2008 Olympics.
He was part of the side that won the AFCON in 2015.