Football was brought to Africa by British colonials in the mid-1800's and the continent's first documented match took place in 1862 in South Africa. Today, over 150 years later, it is the most popular sport in almost every African country. Despite this, Africa has not been a wellspring of world class players over this period, and African nations have tended not to perform very well at World Cups.
The quality of football throughout Africa seems to have improved dramatically in recent years, and that is reflected in this list, featuring a number of recent players. Pele predicted that by 2000 an African nation would have won a World Cup. Pele's prediction proved untrue, but in 1990 Cameroon became the first African nation to reach the World Cup Quarter-Finals; shocking the world and defeating the reigning champions Argentina as they topped their group. Since then the feat has been repeated twice; firstly by Senegal in 2002 and secondly by Ghana in 2010. All those teams came agonizingly close to a berth in the semi finals, all losing either in extra time or on penalties.
South Africa hosted the first World Cup on the continent in 2010 and it is hoped that the legacy of the tournament will continue the sharp progress of African football. Domestic soccer in Africa is still of a poor standard however, with the possible exception of the South African league, and around 80% of African national team players at the World Cup play their soccer in Europe. Many ply their trade in the top European leagues or even venture out to Asia. Neverthless, here are the top 10 African footballers of all time.
10 Nwankwo Kanu
Nwankwo Kanu is one of the most decorated players in the history of African football, having won the Eredivise, Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, Intercontinental Cup, UEFA Cup, Premier League, FA Cup, Community Shield, an Olympic Gold Medal and the African Footballer of the Year Award, some of which he won on multiple occasions. Renowned for his fine technique for a man of his stature, Kanu stood at a towering 6-foot-5 and had an unusual style of play but undoubted skill and ability to score goals. He has played for the likes of Ajax, Inter Milan and Arsenal, spending his best days in North London where he became Arsenal's so-called 'super-sub'. He was voted African Footballer of the Year in 1996 and 1999 and picked up 87 caps for Nigeria.
9 Essam El-Hadary
You can be forgiven for having never heard of Essam El-Hadary, given that he has only played a single season outside of Africa, for Swiss side FC Sion. El-Hadary spent his prime and the vast bulk of his career at Egyptian giants Al-Ahly, where he made 510 appearances, spending 12 of his 22-year ongoing career there. He is currently 42 and playing for Ismaily SC. His four African Cup of Nation wins is a record no other player can match, and over the course of three tournaments he didn't concede a single goal and was named in the 'Team of the Tournament' on each occasion. Still going strong, he currently has 148 caps for Egypt. In 2012 Didier Drogba described him as the "toughest opponent" he ever played against.
8 Lakhdar Belloumi
Lakhdar Belloumi's ability is often overlooked as he never played for a major European team, although that all could have been very different in 1985 when he had agreed to sign for Juventus, only for the deal to fall through after Belloumi broke his leg. He invented the so-called 'Blind Pass' and made 147 caps for Algeria, featuring in two World Cups, four African Cup of Nations, two Mediterranean Games and an Olympic Games. He scored the winner as Algeria beat West Germany 2-1 in their first ever World Cup in 1982. Managers of Barcelona and Juventus had expressed interest in Belloumi and he even received high praise from the great Pele after the Brazilian witnessed him play.
7 Yaya Toure
At 31, there is still time for Yaya Toure to climb this list but he is already one of the greatest African footballers of all time. A titan in the center of midfield, Toure is one of the most complete players in world soccer and has the ability to change a game in the blink of an eye. Since 2006 he has moved from Monaco, to Barcelona, to Manchester City where he has made history in establishing the club as a powerhouse in world soccer. He has won African Footballer of the Year every year over the last four years, making him the joint record holder. As well as his individual honors, Toure has also won La Liga, Copa del Rey, Champions League, Super Cup, FA Cup and Premier League titles.
6 Jay-Jay Okocha
'So good they named him twice', Jay-Jay Okocha has been immortalized by the incredible things he could do on the football pitch. Okocha pulled of pieces of skill and trickery others wouldn't even attempt with ease, making him a joy to watch. Playing remarkable football with a smile on his face, Okocha became loved throughout the game. One of only five African players to be named on Pele's list of the 125 greatest living footballers and twice BBC African Footballer of the Year, Okocha's list of club honors is not as impressive as it should be due to him spending four of his finest years at Bolton Wanderers where he became a cult figure, although many believed such an outstanding talent should have looked to play for a more competitive team.
5 Roger Milla
Roger Milla was one of the first African players to achieve worldwide acclaim, largely down to his performances in three World Cups in a staggering international career spanning almost 22 years. At the 1990 World Cup, despite being 38 years of age, Milla made history with Cameroon as they became the first African team to reach the Quarter-Final stages as Milla scored four goals, the third most at the tournament, joint with a 29-year-old Gary Lineker. Four years later, Milla became the oldest player to ever score at a World Cup, aged 42. As well as his footballing ability, Milla is also regarded as the founder of the modern, unusual goal celebrations that have become common place in the game today. In 2007, he was voted the best African player of the past 50 years.
4 Abedi Pele
Three-time African Footballer of the Year, Abedi Pele found fame in France before enjoying spells in both Italy and Germany. He spent three years at Marseille where he won three Ligue 1 titles (one was later revoked) and a Champions League. Born Abedi Ayew, Pele was named after the Brazilian legend whose playing style he is said to have resembled. He scored 33 goals in 67 games for the Ghanaian national team, and his sons Andre and Jordan have gone on to become revered African footballers in their own right, both playing for Marseille and Ghana like their father.
3 Samuel Eto'o
Samuel Eto'o is the most decorated player in the history of African football and could lay rather a strong claim to being the greatest player in the continent's history as well. He has won a record four African Footballer of the Year Awards (joint with Yaya Toure), three La Liga titles, two Copa del Rey's, two Champions Leagues, 2 African Cup of Nation titles and more. He was the first player to ever win continental trebles with two different teams, he has more African Cup of Nation goals than any other player as well as being Cameroon's all-time record appearance and goal holder, with 56 goals in 118 caps. He has played for European powerhouses such as Barcelona, Inter Milan and Chelsea, and currently plays for Sampdoria; Eto'o has over 360 career league goals in over 750 career games.
2 Didier Drogba
Narrowly pipping Samuel Eto'o into second place is fellow striker of the same generation, Didier Drogba. Drogba returned to Chelsea in 2014 where he played between 2004 and 2012. Now 37, he is more of a peripheral figure, but in his first 8-year spell he was anything but peripheral. A dominant striker, Drogba had pace, power, trickery and a lethal finish from almost any range. In 2012, he was voted Chelsea's greatest player of all time, he is their fourth top scorer of all-time and the Ivory Coast's all-time top scorer. Drogba has won everything at Chelsea; three Premier League titles, 4 FA Cup's, 3 League Cups and a Champions League, becoming African Player of the Year twice in the process. His 29 goals in the 2009-10 Premier League season is a record for the league and he has 65 goals in 104 caps for the Ivory Coast.
1 George Weah
The case for George Weah as the greatest African player in history is compelling. He is the only African to ever win a Ballon d'Or, the only African to ever become European Footballer of the Year and finally, the only African to ever be named FIFA World Player of the Year. Weah won league titles in Liberia, France and Italy, as well as an FA Cup in England, in a career which saw him turn out for the likes of Monaco, PSG, AC Milan, Chelsea, Manchester City and Marseille. At international level, his achievements are limited by the quality of the Liberia team around him, he managed 13 goals in 30 caps. In 1996 he was named the African Player of the Century.