The Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals taking place in the middle of the European club season is inconvenient for clubs and players, but it also provides a powerful platform for previously underappreciated talent.
It begins on January 9 in Cameroon with 24 competing countries and 672 footballers, with squad numbers now extended to 28 per team.
Many are already world-class players, such as Liverpool’s Sadio Mane (Senegal) and Mohamed Salah (Egypt) or Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez (Algeria), who won the most recent tournament with his country in 2019.
The majority of the players will be unknown, but they are hoping that the competition would help them break into the spotlight. Winning a continental title is one of life’s greatest achievements, and the Nations Cup attracts a global broadcast audience beyond the continent’s borders.
Unheard Players to Look Out For in AFCON 2022
Here is our list of prospective tournament heroes, players whose profiles are projected to skyrocket after the tournament concludes on February 6th:
Franck Kessié (Ivory Coast)
He is a lively, industrious midfielder who exudes maturity and experience far above his 24 years and leads the Ivorian side from midfield. He’s shown to be a logical successor to Yaya Touré, who led the Ivorians to the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations victory. It’s widely assumed that he’ll go from Serie A to a major English club.
Amadou Haidara (Mali)
Mane is one of the finest African prospects to emerge from the Red Bull system, which propelled him to England. After joining RB Leipzig from Salzburg, the 23-year-old Haidara took a bit to settle in, but he is now regarded as a quality Bundesliga midfielder.
A cruciate ligament injury hampered his start in Germany after a €19 million transfer. Last season, though, he received regular playing time and is now a reliable option, having recently competed in the Champions League against Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.
Denis Bouanga (Gabon)
The 27-year-old has scored multiple goals for Gabon in qualifying play, often filling in for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as the main attacker. He has been one of the few bright spots for struggling St Étienne this season, and he will undoubtedly relish the respite from the tribulations of lying in the Ligue 1 relegation zone.
The flying fullback has had a disappointing season at club level, having been left out of the FC Porto team and appearing only once in a lower-profile Portuguese Cup fixture in October. However, he was a constant for Guinea-Bissau in both their Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifications this year, demonstrating his match-winning ability.
His tremendous speed means he could be the fastest player at the Cameroon tournament, and he provides a huge attacking danger when he goes forward, preferring to attack rather than defend.
Nayef Aguerd (Morocco)
The 25-year-old central defender made an immediate impact in Ligue 1 last season and has continued to shine at the back for Stade Rennes this season, helping them to a top-three finish in the French league.
He is one of the few home-grown players in the squad, having come through a Moroccan academy and failed to secure a contract in Europe on many occasions until breaking through in France.
He possesses an imposing presence at 1.9m and is at the peak of his game, earning his position in the national squad during the last two years.
Youcef Belaïli (Algeria)
For his efforts on the right side of Algeria’s attack, Riyad Mahrez gets the headlines and the most of the praise, but his counterpart on the left proved just as deadly this year. Belali, 29, is proving to be a late bloomer, having been banned by Fifa for two years between 2015 and 2017 after testing positive for cocaine use.
It hampered his chances of playing in Europe, but he is now playing club football in Qatar and is a regular member of the Algerian national team, where competition for spots is fierce.
Karl Toko Ekambi (Cameroon)
Ekambi, who was born in Paris, made his Indomitable Lions debut six years ago and was part of Hugo Broos’ 2017 Cup of Nations-winning squad, as well as the recent finals in Egypt.
In mid-2018, Villarreal paid €20 million for him, and despite scoring 10 goals in his maiden LaLiga season, he did not have a very joyful time, and his star began to fade. After returning to France, he has rediscovered his form this season and was Lyon’s top scorer in the Europa League group stage.
Kamaldeen Sulemana (Ghana)
Despite being only 19 years old, he is already being tipped as a future African superstar in the mold of Didier Drogba or Samuel Eto’o. Sulemana was officially able to compete in the Danish league a day after becoming 18 years old.
Since then, he’s been working hard on his physical conditioning in order to gain a spot with Rennais this season. A player’s first season in Ligue 1 is considered a stepping stone to LaLiga, the Premier League, or Serie A.
Edmond Tapsoba (Burkina Faso)
Tapsoba, who has a market worth of €40 million based on his age and form, is a vital player for Bayer Leverkusen, who are among the Bundesliga’s frontrunners this season. He came to Germany via Portugal, where he moved quickly from the junior squad at Leixes to Vitória de Guimares before making a €4.5 million move to Germany just over two years ago.
The Africa Cup of Nations is a powerful stage for previously unheralded talent. The tournament kicks off on 9 January in Cameroon with 24 competing countries. Many are already world stars, like the Liverpool pair of Sadio Mane (Senegal) and Mohamed Salah (Egypt) or Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City and Algeria, who won the last tournament with his country in 2019.
But now we have a new set of stars on our hands and we are looking forward to their epic performances.