By Nana Frimpog
At the end of the opening weekend of the 2013-14 English Premier League season, quite a few African players enjoyed a fair taste of the characteristically exciting football that would thrill the world for the next 37 matchdays.
Yakubu Aiyegbeni vies for the ball against Benfica's Sidnei back in 2011
In fact, only a negligible fraction of the 20 clubs contesting the Premier League this term do not have at least one African in their ranks, while as many as 25 African countries have been represented in England's elite division over the years. How contrasting this is to the reality that was on the birthday of the EPL when, of the 11 non-British footballers that featured, not one was African.
Only on the second match-week - specifically on August 19, 1992 - was that disparity arrested when Zimbabwean striker Peter Ndlovu started for Coventry City, and it took another fortnight for the first African goal in the Premier League to be registered, quite unsurprisingly by the Bulawayo-born himself.
The early exploits of the likes of Ndlovu sparked a fire that has blazed wildly ever since, a trickle that has steadily become a torrent. In the years that have followed, players from the ‘dark continent’ have grown in importance as well as in stature, and now command plenty in terms of transfer fees and wages.
Chelsea, for instance, broke their transfer record twice in successive years to sign Didier Drogba (£24m; 2004)
"As English clubs have increased the numbers of African footballers on their books, so have they boosted their own popularity in Africa. For the average soccer-obsessed African, there could not be a finer way to wind down at the end of a busy working week than watching a live Premier League game"
Of course, most of those already mentioned have played starring roles in the recent success stories of the clubs they have represented. Drogba and Essien proved instrumental in the golden decade enjoyed by the Blues which climaxed in the club's maiden Champions League conquest two seasons ago. For good measure, the Ivorian was voted by Chelsea fans as the club's best player of a century not too long after that monumental triumph.
Toure has also justified his fat salary by establishing himself as the force behind the Citizens' new-found streak of success, claiming a Premier League and FA Cup winners' medals in three years, among other laurels. His brother, defender Kolo, along with Cameroonian Lauren and former African Player of the Year Nwankwo Kanu, were essential members of the famous and highly successful 'Invincibles' that represented Arsenal in season 2003-04. Still others such as Joseph Yobo (Everton), Lucas Radebe (Leeds United), and Austin Okocha (Bolton) have been deemed worthy enough to be entrusted with the captaincy of some of England's finer sides.
As English clubs have increased the numbers of African footballers on their books, so have they boosted their own popularity in Africa. For the average soccer-obsessed African, there could not be a finer way to wind down at the end of a busy working week than watching a live Premier League game - at home, in a pub, or at any of the many viewing centres across the continent - over a bottle of chilled beer. On the markets, paraphernalia of English outfits, especially those with greater clout, sell very well. And, although little of the revenue ultimately ends up in their coffers, these clubs could certainly do with the adulation and support.
There are a few other reasons why African players have been esteemed in a regard so high. As the EPL has grown ever more physical and energy-sapping with each passing season, clubs have sought players who can adapt to its rigors, and none have proved as capable in that regard as African footballers. Their delightful celebratory moves, too, have been a definite turn-on and have proved as attractive a part of the package as anything else they come along with. Premier League audiences, to illustrate, would forget in a hurry neither the customary acrobatic flips of Nigerian pair Celestine Babayaro and Obafemi Martins nor Ghana international Asamoah Gyan's skunk dances. At least they have added some colour and fun to a league that has otherwise proved dull on occasion.
That said, there have been instances for which few have been enthused by the heavy influx of African talent in the Premier League. Consider, for one, the biennial phenomenon known as the Africa Cup of Nations which often robs English clubs of their finest African personnel at a stage in the season when the top flight gathers heat. Back in the Premier League's infancy, the situation was not so pronounced as only Norwich City's Efan Ekoku departed - ultimately to help Nigeria win the Nations Cup in 1994 - and even his absence was barely noticeable. These days, things are more than a little different as the many high-profile departures tend to influence affairs at either end of the league table in ways not so subtle.
|For every moment Didier Drogba's winning penalty against Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League final is re-lived on Stamford Bridge's big screen, England is reminded in quite vivid terms how it simply could not have reached the heights it presently occupies without Africa’s contribution
Those demerits, however, hardly negate the positives that African players have brought to the English game. For every shirt that a member of the so-called Big Four sells at the Accra Mall, for every goal Yakubu Aiyegbeni ever scored while in the colours of Everton/Portsmouth/Middlesborough, and for every moment Didier Drogba's winning penalty against Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League final is re-lived on Stamford Bridge's big screen, England is reminded in quite vivid terms how it simply could not have reached the heights it presently occupies without Africa’s contribution.
And so may it be for long.
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