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Inside FutbolInside Futbol


2012 African Player of the Year: Toure, Song and Drogba Lead Pack

Betemariam Hailu

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has announced the names of ten players under consideration for the 2012 African Player of the Year award. Out of those in the running, it is perhaps Christopher Katongo that stands out as a surprise. The shortlist usually contains names from large European sides – but the Zambian comes from a different world altogether: China.

Ivorians are plentiful on the list, with Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure and Gervinho all included. Cameroonian Alex Song, Nigerian John Obi Mikel, Moroccan Younes Belhanda, Senegalese striker Demba Ba, Ghanaian winger Andre Ayew, Gabonese hitman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Katongo complete the list.

At the end of this month, the CAF will trim the list down to just three names, with the winner announced in December. Last year, Yaya Toure scooped the accolade for his achievements with Manchester City. The Ivorian played a big role at the Etihad Stadium, with key goals in key games crucial to the club winning the FA Cup. This year Toure has arguably become even more important at Manchester City, as manager Roberto Mancini built his side around the former Barcelona player, and the Premier League title was won. Toure was indeed the nucleus of the title-winning team.

He played decisive roles starting from deep in midfield, acting as a playmaker pushing high up the pitch and even playing behind the strikers. The Ivorian is a good passer of the ball and retainer of it, while taking it from him is always tough. His physical presence and ball-winning ability means he is always a difficult player for opponents to face. Manchester City have struggled at times when Toure has been at less than his best. And there is no doubt that he is the number one candidate to be crowned African Player of the Year, despite Ivory Coast’s failure to win the African Cup of Nations; individually, Toure has had a superb season.

A two-time African Player of the Year and another Ivorian who has a good chance of winning the accolade is veteran striker Didier Drogba. The former Chelsea man started the season on a poor note, missing time through injury and sitting on the bench. But at the end of it, with Roberto Di Matteo appointed midway through the season, he helped Chelsea to win the Champions League for the first time in their history, ending his Blues adventure on the perfect note.

Drogba played a big part in Chelsea winning both the Champions League and the FA Cup. His performance and goal was crucial in the Blues downing of then-reigning European champions Barcelona in the semi-final. The fairy tale continued in the Champions League final itself, where Chelsea recovered from one goal down, with Drogba scoring the equaliser and then the winning penalty kick. Combined with a goal in the FA Cup final, as Liverpool were beaten, Drogba boasts a fine season which puts him well in the running.

Song meanwhile is another player whose performances could see him scooping up the award. The Cameroonian was one of the main men in Arsenal’s midfield and then crowned a good season with a dream switch to Barcelona in the summer. At the Gunners, Song saw himself not just protecting the defence, but also supporting the attack too, with long passes often picking out Robin van Persie. Arsenal’s failure to win a trophy may diminish his chances, but on an individual level, Song made his class known as a starter and shield in Arsene Wenger’s midfield.

Another African who shone in England is John Obi Mikel. The Nigerian, like Drogba, rose to the challenge late in the season for Chelsea, after manager Andre Villas-Boas was sacked. Mikel was a permanent fixture in Di Matteo’s 4-2-3-1, playing a holding role alongside the experienced Frank Lampard. When Lampard moved up the pitch, Mikel’s defensive abilities offered good protection to Chelsea’s defence. His physical presence and tackling talent makes for a fine choice for the dirty job in front of the back four. The Nigerian’s role in Chelsea’s success will help his bid to become African Player of the Year.

If other candidates make the final three cut it will be a surprise, but each can make a solid case. Moroccan midfielder Younes Belhanda enjoyed a memorable season with Montpellier, winning the Ligue 1 title. He scored goals, registered assists and is rated as one of the best attacking midfielders in France.

Zambia international Christopher Katongo may be the shock inclusion in the top ten, but it is easy to understand why he has been included. The forward led the Copper Bullets to the 2012 African Cup of Nations, a historic victory for the nation. An excellent captain and attacker, Katongo scored three times in Zambia’s outstanding campaign. However, he did not enjoy the best of years at club level, with his Chinese side Henan Jianye being relegated from the top flight.

Marseille star Andre Ayew was another to have a club campaign to forget. Even though Ayew had a role in helping the French side into the last eight of the Champions League, he had a poor Ligue 1 season and also failed to shine at the African Cup of Nations, despite scoring two goals. His 2012 African Player of the Year chances appear slim.

Also plying his trade in France is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who owes his inclusion primarily to a fine African Cup of Nations with Gabon, who co-hosted the tournament with Equatorial Guinea. Aubameyang finished as joint-top scorer, even though Gabon were knocked out in the quarter-finals at the hands of Mali. The forward’s role at club side Saint-Etienne is also growing, but it will be hard for Aubameyang to compete with those who have collected trophies.

Ivorian Gervinho is also on the list, despite not having the impact hoped for at Arsenal. The forward can be wasteful in front of goal and poor in his decision making, although runs down the flank have created danger for opposition defences.

While Gervinho has not wowed the English Premier League, Newcastle striker Demba Ba has. The Senegalese established himself as one of the league’s most potent options last season as the main man in the Magpies run into a European place. He cooled a little as the campaign wore on however and was disappointing at the African Cup of Nations. After sky high expectations, Senegal failed to shine in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, being eliminated in the group stage. Ba could not make the difference and may not make the final three shortlist either.

Senegal forward El Hadji Diouf is the only player to be crowned Africa’s best in consecutive years since the inception of the award in 1993, winning it in 2001 and 2002. Yaya Toure could well join Diouf, but potential candidates Didier Drogba and Alex Song look worthy competition. The decision will be made on 10th December in Accra.