Afcon: Top 10 Unheralded Africa Cup of Nations stars to watch

Joseph Okumu of Harambee Stars.
Many of the players heading to Egypt aren’t household names, but for these 10, that could soon change

  1. Abdoulaye Paye Camara
    Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

    Abdoulaye Paye Camara

    The defensive midfielder could be one of the key beneficiaries if Naby Keita fails to return to full fitness in time for Guinea’s opener, and he certainly won’t let the Syli Nationale down if called upon.

    Camara has excelled this term during Horoya AC’s run to the Caf Champions League quarter-final, notably stepping up in some of the domestic heavyweights’ biggest matches.

    His long-range passing is excellent, while he reads the play well, intercepts with poise and composure, and has the presence to drop into the defence when his team are under pressure.

  2. Ronald Pfumbidzai

    Ronald Pfumbidzai

    The explosive left-back will likely start for Zimbabwe during the Nations Cup, where he’ll attempt to demonstrate the form he’s shown with CAPS United and Bloemfontein Celtics at the top table.

    Zim may well require his prowess going forward as they look to escape from an ominous Group A, and a delicious effort against the Democratic Republic of Congo in qualifying was an example of what he can offer in the final third.

  3. Fiston Abdul Razak

    Fiston Abdul Razak

    Fiston is no stranger to Burundi fans, who will surely recognise the lively forward as one of the key reasons why they qualified for their first Afcon.

    The attacker scored seven in the Botola for JS Kabylie last term, and netted six during the qualifying campaign—finishing second only to Odion Ighalo in the top scorers charts.

    He’s long been prolific for Les Hirondelles at the lower levels of the African game, but now, flanked by Saido Berahino and Cedric Amissi, he’s primed to demonstrate he can do it at a higher level.

  4. Joseph Okumu
    Real Monarchs.

    Joseph Okumu

    Kenya’s defence needs some work ahead of the Nations Cup, with key centre-back Brian Mandela ruled out with injury.

    The Harambee Stars have various options to fill the gap, with the likes of Joash Onyango, David Owino and Ismael Gonzalez all contenders to replace Mandela.

    However, an outsider for the role to partner Musa Mohammed—who’s also picked up a knock—is new boy in the squad Okumu.

    The defender, who plays for Real Monarchs, the reserve team of Real Salt Lake, only made his debut in the recent friendly victory over Madagascar, but performed with such confidence and presence in that showing that he may have played his way into Sebastien Migne’s first-team plans.

  5. Joseph Aidoo
    Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

    Joseph Aidoo

    While Kenya may think they have injury problems heading into the tournament, no team have been as ravaged by injuries as Ghana.

    The Black Stars have a swathe of key players absent, with the likes of Jeffrey Schlupp, Daniel Amartey, Alfred Duncan, Richmond Boakye and Harrison Afful all sitting out the tournament due to fitness problems.

    Their misfortune represents opportunity for other players, however, and Genk’s Aidoo is one of those who could benefit.

    The 23-year-old started back-to-back friendlies against Mauritania and Namibia, and the former Inter Allies skipper is realising the promise he demonstrated as a youngster in the Ghana Premier League.

  6. Youssef Ait Bennasser
    Getty Images

    Youssef Ait Bennasser

    Ait Bennasser has been with AS Monaco since 2016, so while he’s hardly an unheralded player, he isn’t truly appreciated as he ought to be—either in France or in Africa.

    At club level, the arrival of Cesc Fabregas at Monaco prompted Ait Bennasser to move on loan to Saint-Etienne, where he duly struck up a fine partnership with Yann M’Villa to help ASSE qualify for continental competition.

    For Morocco, his versatility mean that he’s occasionally been played in a deeper, defensive role, but his passing ability should ensure he’s the long-term successor for Mbark Boussoufa.

    With the elder statesman now 34, could Ait Bennasser even replace him during the Nations Cup campaign?

  7. Deon Hotto

    Deon Hotto

    Namibia scored a series of late goals during the qualification campaign, and this could be a key part of their strategy during the Nations Cup, where they’ve been pitted in the Group of Death alongside Ivory Coast, South Africa and Morocco.

    They’ll absorb pressure, remain tight and organised, and then strike on the break.

    Wideman Hotto could be one of the players with the guile to give the Brave Warriors an offensive edge, and he demonstrated his ability to bag important goals when he struck a 90th-minute winner away at Mozambique during the qualifiers.

    The Bidvest Wits man impressed as Namibia won the 2015 COSAFA Cup, and scored five for the Clever Boys this term.

  8. Youcef Belaili

    Youcef Belaili

    Belaili is no stranger to African audiences, who have witnessed the wideman tearing up the Caf Champions League with Esperance in recent seasons.

    The winger was a Caf CL winner with the Tunisian giants last term, after returning to North Africa from Angers, and was one of the competition’s top performers again this season.

    Indeed, had the result of the final not been annulled in such controversial circumstances, it would have been Belaili’s first-half goal in the second leg in Rades which would have settled the tie in Esperance’s favour.

  9. Elia Meschak
    Backpage pix

    Elia Meschak

    The diminutive forward has the quality to be an effective option off the bench for Democratic Republic of Congo coach Florent Ibenge.

    Margins will be tight in Group A, where any of the DRC, Egypt, Zimbabwe and Uganda are capable of escaping into the knockouts, and the ability to change a contest with substitutions could be key to success.

    Meschak came off the bench to net a late equaliser away in Liberia during the qualifying campaign, and will be keen to prove himself at the Nations Cup after starring during the Leopards’ success at the 2016 African Nations Championship, where he was both top scorer and Player of the Tournament.

  10. Mohamed Dellahi Yali
    Backpage pix

    Mohamed Dellahi Yali

    Mauritania are a physical and rugged outfit, and midfielder Yali encapsulates their powerful approach under Corentin Martins.

    The 21-year-old has had a rough time of things in North Africa after leaving his home land following a brief stint in Latvia, where he hasn’t always received the support of his club despite consistent performances in the Algerian top flight.

    He’s comfortable in possession, where his passing from deep is a key—underrated—weapon for Mauritania, he reads the game well, and much of Les Mourabitounes’ game will go through him.