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Top 10 African Players in Premier League History

Since its inception in 1992, the Premier League has been home to some of the best players from every continent in the world. From Park-Ji Sung to Harry Kewell and Lucas Radebe, the Premier League has provided a platform through which various cultures can see one of their own whilst picking fragments of other cultures from players they watch on various media.

The first African player to play in the Premier League was Peter Ndlovu. The Zimbabwean striker had been in England since 1991 and made his Premier League debut on 19th August 1992. He played for four clubs in England, and is best remembered for his time in the top-flight with Coventry City.

Since Ndlovu, 245 African players have played in England’s premier division since 2016. Thankfully, this list will be focusing on the very best the African continent has blessed the Premier League with, some are true legends of the sport:

10. John Obi Mikel

Mikel’s reputation started to grow after performing well in the 2003 FIFA U-17 World Championship. This led to him signing for Norwegian side Lyn 1896 in 2004. The midfielder then burst onto the global stage at the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Championship. Mikel starred as Nigeria reached the final, losing to Argentina 2-1. He was rewarded for his performances with the silver ball, being crowned the tournament’s second-best player behind Lionel Messi.

This led to the fiasco in 2005 between Manchester United and Chelsea in which United signed the Nigerian midfielder without representation in April, and rushed him out in a press conference wearing a Red Devils jersey. His agents meanwhile negotiated a deal with Chelsea. This saga lasted for slightly over a year, with Chelsea eventually paying £16 million to settle the future of the player (£4m for Lyn, £12m for Manchester United).

With 11 years of service for the Blues, that fee was made to look like a bargain in the end. Mikel was a reliable presence in the centre of midfield, making 249 league appearances for the London side. Good in the tackle with an expansive range of passing, Mikel would often keep things simple and recycle possession whilst maintaining his defensive positioning. He often left attacking to the more offensive players, and his 1 goal in the EPL serves as evidence of this.

Mikel is one of the most successful African players to have played in the Premier League. He won 9 trophies with Chelsea, including 2 Premier League titles and 4 FA Cups. His success extended to European stage also, with UEFA Champions League and Europa League honors. He left Chelsea in 2017 to join Tianjin TEDA in China, and has played in Turkey and the EFL Championship since his departure from Stamford Bridge.

9. Lauren

Lauren was the child of a family fleeing from war. His parents fled Equatorial Guinea due to persecution. The family then settled in Seville, Spain where he grew up. His football career began through luck and bravery, as an 11-year old Lauren told a Sevilla kit man he wanted to play for the club. It worked, and so his career began. His first experience of first-team minutes came at fourth-division side Uretra, where he played 30 league games in 1995/96. The Cameroonian then began playing for Sevilla’s reserve team the next season, registering 17 appearances.

Lauren moved down the Spanish second division to get more minutes, and he became a starter at Levante for the ‘97/’98 season. Playing 34 games in the league, he was ever-present for Los Granotas. This led to a move to Mallorca. At Los Bermellones, Lauren also became the starting right-back, with over 30 league appearances in his two seasons at the club. His 2nd season was his first in the Champions League. Lauren’s work ethic at right-back impressed bigger clubs, and Arsenal signed the Cameroonian in May 2000.

Injuries hampered Lauren’s first season at Highbury, but he soon replaced Lee Dixon as first-choice right back the next season. He remained the first-choice right back for 3 more seasons, playing over 25 EPL games in each and starting 30+ in the Invincibles season of 2003/04 and the subsequent FA-cup winning season. A knee injury in January 2006 sadly cut his time in an Arsenal shirt, with the right-back having started all 22 league games till that point. He never played for the Gunners again, leaving for Portsmouth in January 2007. While not a regular starter for Pompey, he formed part of the 2007/08 FA Cup winning team, playing a part in the prior rounds enroute to the final.

A reliable right-back willing to work hard for the team, Lauren was defensively solid but also contributed in attack. His performance in the Invincibles season was so immense that he was rewarded with a place in the ‘03/04 PFA Team of the year. In 184 Premier League games, he scored 6 goals and had 8 assists. He won 2 Premier League titles and 3 FA Cups with Arsenal, as well as winning another FA cup with Portsmouth.

8. Michael Essien

Essien began catching the eye of scouts at the FIFA U-17 World Championship of 1999. Ghana came in 3rd place at the tournament. A contract with Manchester United was almost signed when Essien was a teenager, but work permit ineligibility prevented the move. He ended up signing for Ligue 1 side SC Bastia in 2000. After 3 years, the Ghanaian moved to Lyon in July 2003. He scored on his first appearance for Lyon, helping OL win the Trophée des champions vs Auxerre. Essien was only at Les Gones for 2 years, but he was ever-present whilst at the French club. OL won Ligue 1 in both years Essien was there, while he also won Ligue 1 Player of the Year in 2005.

Essien had scored 5 goals in 10 appearances for OL in their 2004/05 Champions League run to the quarter-finals, leading to interest from the biggest clubs in Europe including Chelsea and Manchester United. This led to him signing for Chelsea in August 2005, ending a three-month transfer saga which started with an initial £10 million bid in May and concluded with a £24.4 million transfer fee. This made him Chelsea’s most expensive signing at the time.

Nicknamed The Bison whilst at Chelsea, Essien hit the ground running, playing 30+ games in the EPL in his first two seasons. Replacing Tiago in the midfield three also consisting of Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele, Essien was the perfect box-to-box player. He could progress the ball with either passing or running whilst still retaining a reputation as a tough tackler and hard worker.

Not a great goal scorer, Essien compensated for this by being a scorer of great goals. He twice won Chelsea’s goal of the year, once for an outside of the foot shot from over 25 yards vs. Arsenal in 2006/07 and the other for a left-footed volley against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final of 2008/09. The Bison was also named Chelsea’s Player of the year for 2006/07, becoming the first African to win the award.

Essien played 168 times for Chelsea in the Premier League across 8 years of service, scoring 17 goals and providing 10 assists. He was nominated for the Ballon d’Or for 3 consecutive years, with two of these occurring whilst he played for Chelsea (2005/06,2006/07). Essien won 9 trophies while playing for Chelsea, with 2 Premier League titles and 4 FA Cups among them, as well as the UEFA Champions League. Two anterior cruciate ligament injuries post-2007 meant Essien wasn’t at his best for large portions of his spell at the Blues, but he was near-on unstoppable when in his pomp.

7. Nwankwo Kanu

Fondly known as Papilo; Kanu was born in Owerri, Imo state of the West-African nation Nigeria in 1976. Kanu scored 5 goals as Nigeria won the 1993 FIFA U-17 World Championship, beating Ghana 2-1 in the final. This led to global attention, and Ajax signing the Nigerian forward. Kanu scored double figures in the Eredivisie in two of three seasons at Ajax. He won the Dutch league in each of the three seasons, also appearing as a sub as Ajax won the UEFA Champions League in 1994/95. The Nigerian was sold to Inter Milan in July 1996, but went to the Olympic Games in Atlanta before his medical.

He captained Nigeria to Olympic Gold in football, scoring 2 important goals in extra time of the semi-finals vs. Brazil, overturning a 2-3 loss to a 4-3 defeat. Upon returning to Milan for his medical, a heart defect was spotted by the doctors. There was a possibility of Kanu never playing again, but he underwent surgery in November 1996 to replace the ineffective aortic valve in his heart. Papilo then did not return to training until April 1997. Kanu ended up playing only 17 games in 3 years for Inter, scoring 1 goal. Arsenal signed Kanu in February 1999.

He quickly developed a reputation as a super-sub, scoring 6 league goals in 12 appearances in 1998/99, with only 5 starts. His good form carried over to the next season, where the forward scored 12 league goals in 31 games, with 24 starts. This season also included a fifteen-minute hat-trick against Chelsea, overturning a 2-0 defeat single handedly.

However, the emergence of Thierry Henry led to Kanu’s minutes decreasing annually. By the year of the Invincibles in ‘03/04, Kanu only managed 10 appearances and 1 goal in the EPL, with 3 starts. A transfer to West Brom followed, but it was his subsequent move to Portsmouth which cemented his status as a Premier League legend.

After not hitting double figures in the EPL in two years at West Brom, Papilo scored 10 in his first season at Pompey. He followed this up with winning goals in the FA Cup semi-final and final in the next season. Remembered as a tall player with an excellent first touch, Kanu also had fantastic timing in his movement, allowing him to score important goals. With the third-most substitute appearances in EPL history, his super-sub status is also cemented. He scored 54 goals in 247 games in the top-flight of England, winning 2 Premier League titles and 3 FA Cups along the way.

6. Riyad Mahrez

Riyad Mahrez was often told he was too skinny to become a professional footballer. He played for his local side, AAS Sarcelle from 2004 till his move to then-Championnat National 2 side Quimper in 2009 via a trial. Mahrez spent six months with their second team and lived with Mathias Pogba. It didn’t take long for the Algerian to get noticed, and with his pick of the big teams in France, he instead joined Le Havre in 2010 due their youth system. Talents such as Paul Pogba and Dmitri Payet had been developed at Le club doyen.

Mahrez progressed from playing for Le Havre II only in his first year to the first team in the next. By his departure in 2014, he had become an undisputed first team player. He left Le Havre having scored 6 goals in 60 games in Ligue 2. Joining Leicester for an undisclosed fee, he wasn’t even their initial target. The Foxes had been watching his teammate Ryan Mendes, but Mahrez’s technical quality caught their eye. Mahrez, on the other hand, thought Leicester were a rugby club.

It took Mahrez a few years to fully adapt to the English game. He started 37 of his first 49 league games in England (Championship and EPL), yet only scored a combined 7 goals in his first 2 years. However, Mahrez exploded in the title winning season of 2015/16, scoring 17 league goals and laying on 11 assists in 36 starts as Leicester won the EPL against all odds. Mahrez was rewarded for his performances with the PFA Players’ Player of the year for ‘15/16, the PFA Fans POTY and an inclusion in the ‘15/16 Team of the year. Only 9 goal involvements in the next season led to speculation of a one-hit season, but the Algerian winger silenced the naysayers with 12 goals and 10 assists in 34 starts in 2017/18.

‘17/18 was Mahrez’s last season with the Foxes. He had been agitating for a move since the league-winning season, and finally got his wish as Man City paid £60 million, making him City’s most expensive signing. He also became the most expensive African footballer of all time.

A left-footed right winger, Mahrez has silky dribbling and a first touch which enables him to beat a man and cut inside to either cross or shoot. A la Arjen Robben, Mahrez has used this move frequently, leading to devastating results. His first two seasons at Man City have yielded double figures for goals in all competitions, while he is currently in his third. In 210 Premier League appearances, Mahrez has scored 61 times and laid on 41 assists. He has 2 Premier League titles, 1 FA Cup and 2 League cups to his name so far.

5. Sadio Mane

After beginning his career at the Académie Génératìon Foot academy, he eventually moved on to FC Metz thanks to a partnership between the two teams. He made his pro debut aged 20 in Ligue 2. After 19 games and 1 goal in the French second division, Mané went on to play for the Senegal team for the 2012 Olympic games, starting every game as the U23s lost in the quarter-final. His performances at the tournament put European clubs on notice, and Red Bull Salzburg paid Metz their third-highest ever transfer fee to acquire the services of Mané. The fee was €4 million, and Metz were obliged to accept having been relegated to the Championnat in Mane’s debut season.

In Austria, Mane flourished. The Senegalese forward scored 31 league goals in 63 games for Salzburg. He was an undisputed starter from his first year at Salzburg, and scored double figures in both full seasons in the Austrian Bundesliga. Following interest from abroad, Mane forced a transfer out of RB via being MIA for training and a crucial UCL qualifier. The forward moved to Southampton in September 2014, in a deal worth £10 million. Mane needed no adaptation period at St. Mary’s, scoring 10 goals in 30 games. This season included Mane scoring the Premier League’s fastest ever hat-trick in a 6-1 trashing of Aston Villa; he scored three in 2 minutes and 56 seconds.

Mané’s good form continued into his second season at Southampton. The winger scored 11 goals and assisted 6 in 30 starts as the Saints finished in the top 6 of the EPL, their highest ever finish. Having scored against big clubs in his first season, Mané continued that trend in ‘15/16 with a brace against Liverpool and a hat-trick vs Man City. It was then Liverpool who swooped and paid £36 million. Klopp claimed to have watched Mané since the 2012 Olympics. Mane didn’t disappoint the Reds, scoring the decisive goal on his debut in a 3-4-win vs Arsenal, the winner in a 0-1-win vs Everton and 2 goals in two minutes vs Tottenham.

Mane scored 13 league goals in 27 games in his debut season at Anfield (26 starts), winning Liverpool’s player of the season. He has hit double figures in the Premier League for the next 3 seasons afterwards, even winning the Golden Boot in 2018/19 with 22 goals in 36 games (35 starts). He is a Champions League winner with Liverpool in ‘18/19, and won his first Premier League in ‘19/20. A winger capable with either foot and his head, Mane is quick and direct with good decision-making, leading to prolific goal tallies. In 210 Premier League appearances, Mane has scored 90 goals and laid on 31 assists.

4. Mohammed Salah

By the age of 12, Salah joined his local team, Ittihad Basyoun. Scouts from Cairo – the capital – came to watch another child, but noticed 14-year old Salah due to his speed and twinkle toes. This led to the Egyptian signing for the youth team of Al Mokawloon, an Egyptian Premier League club. Salah made his senior debut 4 years later in May 2010, and scored his 1st professional goal in December of that year. He became a regular the next year in 2011/12, starting every game until the cancellation of the Egyptian league due to a massive riot by fans which led to fatalities. With 7 league goals and 3 assists in 15 games in his last season in Egypt, Salah left having scored 11 league goals in 38 overall.

FC Basel had been scouting Salah, and used the cancelation as an opportunity to organize a friendly with Egypt U23s. Salah scored 2 in a 4-3 win, despite only playing the second half. This led to him being invited to train at Basel, and a 4-year contract was eventually signed. Salah scored double figures in all competitions in 2 seasons/18 months in Switzerland. More importantly, he scored against Chelsea in the Europa League semi-final in 2012/13, then scored in both home and away wins against the Blues in UEFA Champions League in 2013/14. This led to Salah moving to Chelsea in January 2014 for £11m, making him the first Egyptian to sign for the London club. Salah was rarely used at Stamford Bridge, making 13 appearances with many being as a substitute. He scored 2 goals in these brief cameos, before joining Fiorentina on loan on transfer deadline day, 2 February 2015.

Salah scored an important goal vs. Tottenham, the winner vs. Inter Milan and a brace in the Coppa Italia semifinal vs. Juventus. This prompted Fiorentina to activate the option to buy Salah, but the forward rejected the move. Salah instead joined Roma on a loan worth 5m euros in August 2015, with the option to buy for around 15m euros. Fiorentina filed a complaint to FIFA, which was eventually rejected by CAS. Salah came of age in Rome, scoring double figures for league goals in both his loan season and the season the loan was made permanent. He won Roma’s player of the year in his 1st season, and scored his first career hat-trick in his 2nd season.

Salah returned to the Premier League in June 2017 via Liverpool, who paid £43m to bring him to Anfield. Salah scored on his league debut in a 3-3 draw vs Watford, and never looked back. 32 goals in 36 league games, 44 in 52 for all competitions. Salah’s first season was record-breaking, as he became the EPL’s highest goal scorer in a 38-game season. This won him his first Golden Boot, PFA Player of the year, and PFA team of the year honors. He also won Liverpool’s player of the year. Salah has hit 10+ league goals in every season since, even winning a second Golden Boot in the subsequent year with 22 league goals. A rapid winger with good dribbling; flair and an eye for goal, Salah is a Premier League and Champions League winner, with 88 goals and 32 assists in 137 Premier League games.

3. Kolo Toure

The current Leicester City coach began his professional career with Ivorian club ASEC Mimosas after developing in their youth academy. He made his debut in 1999, and began receiving call-ups to the national team swiftly after in 2000. By the time his move to Arsenal came about, he had become a regular for his club, and had over 10 caps for the Cote D’Ivoire. The move to London was secured on 14 February 2002  due to Toure impressing on trial at the club, and his international status made him eligible for a work permit. The fee was £150,000, with Wenger a fan of his versatility and fearlessness.

Kolo did not appear for the first team until the next season, coming on as a sub in the 1-0 Community Shield win vs. Liverpool. Seen as a utility player initially, he was played in defensive midfield and right-back in his first full season at Highbury. This changed in 2003/04, however, as Toure formed the backbone of Arsenal’s central defense alongside Sol Campbell as the Gunners went unbeaten the whole league season. Toure played 37 EPL games that season, starting 36. In his next 5 seasons at Arsenal, Kolo never played less than league 29 games in each season. His partnership with Philipe Senderos led Arsenal to the 2006 Champions League Final. Toure became one of the team’s captains soon after.

Toure eventually left Arsenal after a bust-up with fellow defender William Gallas, joining Manchester City in July 2009 for £14 million. He was also appointed club captain by then-manager Mark Hughes. The armband was stripped from him by new manager Roberto Mancini the next season, who handed it to Carlos Tevez. Toure started off as an invaluable starter in his first season with 31 league appearances, but then became a squad player after the change in manager. A six-month suspension for failing a drugs test in March 2011 didn’t help, but he had already lost his starting place by then. The Ivorian was allowed to leave to join Liverpool on a free transfer in May 2013.

He made his Premier League debut for the Reds on opening day in a 1-0 victory vs Stoke at Anfield. He played 20 league games, starting 15 of them as Liverpool almost won the Premier League. Whilst his EPL game time reduced in his 2nd and 3rd season at Anfield, he still made 20+ appearances in each season before he departed for Celtic on a free transfer. Toure was a dependable, consistent defender who was also comfortable on the ball. He was known as an attacking center back during his early days at Arsenal, and he showed his versatility when needed by his team. What is most understated about Toure were his leadership qualities. Toure made 353 Premier League appearances, with 108 clean sheets and 12 goals. He is a two-time Premier League winner, with 3 FA Cup medals as well.

2. Yaya Toure

Younger brother to Kolo; Yaya Toure joined the ASEC Mimosas youth academy in 1996 and remained there until 2001. He then moved to Beveren, a now-defunct Belgian team who played in the Belgian lower leagues. Beveren was used as a feeder club for Ivorian players to showcase their talents in Europe. Toure had a trial at Arsenal, like his brother, but wasn’t signed by Arsene Wenger due to work permit issues. Toure then moved Metalurh Donetsk in December 2003, a Ukrainian football club (also now-defunct). After 18 months in Ukraine, Olympiacos swooped and acquired Toure’s services.

Yaya impressed in Greece, and after a strong showing at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Monaco paid €5.75m so Toure could play for principality side in August 2006. Initially, the Ivorian midfielder had issues with manager Laszlo Boloni playing him out of position, as Monaco flirted with relegation. This led to Boloni’s sacking and the return to form of Toure, who’s 5 goals after January played a part in saving the team from Ligue 2. Toure made 24 starts that season, scoring 5. His upward trajectory continued, as Barcelona came calling. He signed for the Catalans in June 2007, with a fee in the range of €10 million.

For Barca, Toure initially began in midfield, but was given more defensive responsibility upon the arrival of Pep Guardiola as manager. As Sergio Busquets was preferred in the CDM role, Toure was often used as a makeshift CB at the Camp Nou. He played 20+ league games in each of his 3 seasons at Barcelona, and over 30 in all comps for each. He was an important part of the treble-winning side of 08/09, as well as playing a role in other triumphs. However, his best was yet to come. Man City acquired the services of Yaya Toure in July 2010, a year after bringing his brother, Kolo, over to Manchester as well.

At City, Toure either played as an 8 in a midfield 3, one of the double pivots in 4231 formation or the number 10 in the aforementioned formation. This newfound freedom allowed the Premier League to enjoy the best of the Ivorian midfielder. He scored over 5 league goals for 7 consecutive seasons, with his piece de resistance coming in 2013/14 when he scored 20 league goals in 35 games from midfield while laying on 9 assists as Man City romped to a League and League Cup double. Truly a complete midfielder, Yaya Toure was unstoppable in his pomp. His long strides belied his true speed as he ran through midfield lines; he could pass, dribble, finish, shoot from distance and take set pieces on a world-class level. Lest we forget, defending was also in his arsenal. In 230 games in the Premier League, the younger Toure scored 62 goals and laid on 32 assists. He is a 3-time Premier League winner, with 2 League Cup medals and 1 FA Cup.

1. Didier Drogba

The third Ivorian in a row, clearly the Francophone nation and the English League are just meant to be. This Ivorian, though, is arguably the most iconic African player in Premier League history. Drogba alternated between France and Cote D’Ivoire in his developing years. He moved to France permanently at 11 years-old to live with an uncle due to economic hardships in the Ivory Coast. Drogba lived with this relative till he was 15, when he then moved in with his parents who had settled in Paris after moving some years ago. Here, he began to play football more frequently, joining the local youth team. Initially beginning as a right-back, he was encouraged to play further forward by his uncle.

Drogba then signed for now-defunct semi-professional club Levallois, where his good attitude and prolific record impressed the coaches. These factors led to him playing briefly for the first team, but the first team coach wasn’t convinced. This led him to move to Ligue 2 club Le Mans as an apprentice. It took the Ivorian four years to get his body used to daily training and weekly games, dealing with myriad injury problems initially. A lack of academy training also worked against him at first, but a good attitude, being attentive and the realization at 21 that time was running out to go pro pushed Drogba to better himself. He signed his first professional contract soon after in 1999, as well as making his first-team debut for Le Mans.

The striker showed glimpses of his talent at Les Mucistes, with 12 goals in 64 games in Ligue 2. Guingamp showed interest and acted upon it, signing Drogba for £80,000. His 3 goals saved the club from relegation to Ligue 2, and his 17 goals in 34 games in the subsequent season led Guingamp to 7th place, their highest league finish. The bigger French clubs took notice, and Marseille swooped in to secure a £3.3 million deal in 2003. While in the south of France, Drogba continued his fine form. He scored 19 league goals in 35 games, with 11 other goals scored in both the UCL and Euro League as Marseille reached the Euro League final. With 32 goals in 55 games in all comps, his prolific form led to an even bigger club moving in for him.

Chelsea signed Didier Drogba in July 2004 for £24 million. A powerful striker who could occupy an entire back four on his own, Drogba was as much a great goalscorer for the Blues as he was a scorer of great goals. He only ever scored 20+ in 2 seasons (‘06/07, ‘09/10), but hit double figures in 5 of his 9 Premier League seasons. Known as a big-game player, he scored 10 goals in 10 cup finals, many of them winners. He scored the equalizing header in the 2012 Champions League Final, and the winning penalty. In 254 Premier League games, Drogba scored 104 goals and laid on 54 assists. He is a 4-time Premier League winner, 4-time FA Cup winner, 3-time League Cup winner and a Champions League winner.

About the author
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Aanu Omorodion

22 year-old football analyst and content creator. Lover of the beautiful game.

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