Big stars like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez or Emmanuel Adebayor are certainly going to shine in Gabon. To avoid a failure in the road to the success, they will need to play at their highest level.
But many young African players will be newer to the tournament and will want to make their mark too. Here’s a list of the eleven young talents who could cause a upset in the tournament.
Baldé Diao Keita can already feel relieved by his first months with the Senegalese national team. He overstepped what could have been his biggest issue in the locker-room: the lack of communication.
Born in Spain and currently playing in Serie A, Baldé Diao Keita isn’t able to speak with his partners in French or Wolof. Formerly from la Masia of Barça, he only masters Spanish, Italian and Pulaar.
Nevertheless, since his first call by the head coach Aliou Cissé last March, he looks very comfortable on the pitch. Keita already scored two decisive goals. The winger of Lazio Roma has already earned respect in the streets of Dakar.
Two years ago, Mario Lemina was playing for Olympique de Marseille, trying to convince his coach Marcelo Bielsa of his potential. He learned so much from the obsessive Argentinian that he publicly thanked him after his first season with Juventus.
The midfielder also took his time to accept his first call with Gabon. At first the Panthers’ supporters doubted his love for his homeland. But he responded with a huge statement when he scored against Tunisia for his first cap.
At home during this AFCON 2017, Lemina has a great opportunity to shine along his captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
If you leave the stadium or switch off your TV while Banou Diawara is on the pitch, you might regret it. The Smouha striker has scored three goals in his last three games with Burkina Faso. Two or them happened after regular time.
In September, he sent The Stallions into AFCON with a very, very late goal (2-1) against Botswana… after nine additional minutes. One month later, he equalised again in stoppage time during another dramatic game against South Africa (1-1).
Four years after the loss against Ghana, he aims to bring back his country to the top of African football.
When the president Yoweri Museveni posted a tweet – ‘You have done us proud!’ – after Uganda’s first qualification in 38 years, Farouk Miya should have been prouder than his teammates. The teenager, then 18, scored the goal which ended the drought.
His success with Cranes of Uganda helps him forget his difficulties in Belgium. Miya’s adaptation is far from smooth and he struggles to gain minutes with Standard Liège.
At least, his lack of competition means they’re looking forward to AFCON in Bulo, the striker’s hometown.
Ghezzal is one of the numerous players lost by French national team. Born and raised near Lyon like Nabil Fekir, he chose to play for Algeria after ‘a difficult choice’. His teammate decided to wear the French jersey.
In either case, the competition is tough for a spot in the starting XI, especially at the attacking midfielder position. But the future looks bright for Ghezzal, 24, who is negotiating with his actual club – and a president who cherishes him – for a renewal of his contract before it expires next June.
Atletico Madrid is already knocking at the door in case it doesn’t work out.
After his failures in Bundesliga with Hoffenheim and Augsburg, ‘The Smiling Assassin’ hasn’t lost his nickname nor his talent. Of course, he was still able to score and he did three times to lead Zimbabwe for its first AFCON in a decade.
The 26-year-old striker will be missed while KV Oostende pursues the fight for a spot in Belgium league playoffs. The club has already renewed the contract of Musona until 2020. But the management may struggle to keep him in West Flanders. The best striker of Oostende so far in the season has a dream to achieve with the Warriors: the first quarter-final in Zimbabwe’s football history.
Like Didier Drogba, Jonathan Kodjia has had a few ups-and-downs in his French second-tier clubs. The comparison doesn’t stop there because the 27-year-old forward is finally showing his talent in England. He became last summer the most expensive transfer (£15 million from Bristol City to Aston Villa).
In the meantime, Kodjia started so fast with the Ivorian national team – three goals in five games – that he’s giving his coach a headache. Who should start on the bench between Bony, Kalou, Gervinho and him? Good luck Michel Dussuyer!
Juventus, Manchester United, Arsenal, Barcelona: the defensive midfielder, 19, has already interested some of the greatest clubs. Meanwhile, he is wearing Atalanta’s jersey after a year on loan in Cesena.
He’s used to jumping the gun: he earned his first international cap in 2014 while he was only 17 years old. Heir of Yaya Touré’s position, his characteristics are slightly different though. Franck Kessié is more powerful, closer to Wilfried Bony, but he shares with Ivory Coast’s former captain an ability to score goals.
Second-best striker of a CHAN 2016 he won, Jonathan Bolingi didn’t rest on his laurels. When he watched from the bench his teammates win the African Champions League last year, TP Mazembe’s forward was impatient to prove what he can bring to the best club of the country and probably of Africa.
So there was no surprise to see him score six goals this season to help the team of Moïse Katumbi lift its first Confederation Cup. And the 20-year-old forward widely contributed to the qualification of DRC’s Leopards for the 31st edition of the AFCON, two years after a stunning third-place in Equatorial Guinea.
After Mohamed Aboutrika’s retirement in 2013, Mohamed Salah became without a doubt the new idol of Egyptian football.
Fast, hard-worker, humble, efficient: finally, a Pharaoh fulfills the expectations around him in a major European league. Before him the winger of AS Roma, Hazem Emam, Hani Said or Mido had struggled to mark their presence in Italy (and England for the latter).
Either in Italy or with his 27 international goals, Salah follows the right path for greatness.
If you like Sadio Mané of Liverpool or Naby Keïta of RB Leipzig, you should keep an eye on this midfielder.
These three African players have been scooped up by Salzburg’ scouts. For Samassekou, the turning point was the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand where Mali bagged a bronze medal.
He scored two stunning goals during the tournament and a few months later his European career was launched. After a year in Austrian second-tier, the 20-year old defensive midfielder is now a full member of Salzburg first team.
‘As every Malian, my idol is Seydou Keita’, he admits shyly.