The influx of foreign players into the Premier League is often talked about negatively.
Some people say it’s the reason why English young players aren’t making it and subsequently why the national team often fails. On the other hand, it’s argued that managers are always under pressure, so don’t have the time to risk playing a youngster over experienced players from abroad because the game is so cut-throat these days that a string of bad results can cost a manager his job.
While both points are interesting, I’d like to look at just the positives for now. Here’s my selection of the greatest African Premier League starting XI. In an odd 3-4-3 formation:
Goalkeeper: Bruce Grobbelaar
I struggled for a keeper, but Bruce Grobbelaar kept a young, emerging David James out of the Liverpool first team for a couple of seasons at the start of the Premier League.
He was known for his athleticism, as well as his personality. But ultimately, he won a lot of trophies at Liverpool and is easily the greatest African goalkeeper in English football history.
Defence: Kolo Toure
There’s a reason Touré has played for Arsenal, Manchester City and now Liverpool. He is a rock-steady defender who is unbeatable on his day. Strong, quick and good on the ball; he is the modern defender. In only his second season in England he formed a formidable partnership with Sol Campbell which led to the Gunners going unbeaten all season.
Defence: Lucas Radebe
Radebe is a Premier League legend. When Nelson Mandela calls you his hero, you’ve done something right. His tenure as captain of Leeds United corresponded with a successful patch in the club’s recent history. This included several top four finishes, one of which resulted in a Champions league semi-final.
He rejected offers to join Manchester United, AC Milan and AS Roma which spawned Sir Alex Ferguson to say ‘Everyone should be interested in Lucas’. A very high recommendation indeed.
Defence: Christopher Samba
Samba is a beast of a man. He was occasionally deployed as a striker by Sam Allardyce when both were a Blackburn, due to his dominating presence in the air.
However, it was his performances at the back which earned him the justified links to bigger clubs.
He was Blackburn’s stand out player during his time there - an absolute monster that strikers had no chance against. Being from the mould of an old school, physical centre-half meant he slotted in perfectly in England.
However, after an unsuccessful spell at QPR last season, which saw the club relegated, Samba has returned to Anzhi.
Midfield: Michael Essien
Essien, during his first few seasons at Chelsea, was the best central midfield player in the world, in my opinion.
He was often nominated for the Ballon d’Or, African Player of the Year and other accolades, all of which were justified. He was very strong, energetic and tough in the tackle, nicknamed ‘the bison’ by adoring fans.
His arrival came at a good time and he was the perfect replacement for Claude Makelele as a workhorse, tightening a midfield. However, Essien was also comfortable on the ball, scoring a few wonderful goals too. A truly classy player who stood out at that time.
Midfield: Jay-Jay Okocha
In 2002, if somebody had told you that PSG’s multi-million pound signing had joined a Premier League club, you probably wouldn’t have guessed it was Bolton Wanderers.
The skilful Nigerian instantly became a fan favourite at The Reebok. With his step-overs, skills and moments of genius, he was a class above. He was more than just a novelty trickster though.
After being named Bolton’s captain, he led them to the League Cup Final in 2004. He was widely adored and will always be regarded as the man so good, they named him twice.
Midfield: Steven Pienaar
Pienaar has been a very consistent player since he joined the Premier League from Borussia Dortmund. Initially signed on loan by Everton, he impressed so much that they signed him permanently.
He is a skilful winger who can operate on either flank. He is also very hard-working which is why he’s a fan favourite at Goodison. He was named Everton’s player of the year in 09/10 due to several stand out performances.
These performances also resulted in interest from other clubs. Offers were made by Chelsea and Tottenham; the latter sealing the deal.
But an injury hit time at White Hart Lane meant he soon returned to Everton in January 2012, where he recaptured his form and finished the season with Everton’s most assists despite only playing 14 games.
Midfield: Yaya Toure
Touré, brother of Kolo, was instrumental in re-shaping the Premier League.
His man of the match performance in the 2011 FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United led Man City to their first major trophy in 34 years.
The following season, the African Player of the Year was arguably City’s best player and, along with other candidates (Kompany, Silva, Agüero), he helped Manchester City to win the Premier League on a thrilling final day.
Initially deployed as a defensive midfielder, his greatest performances have come when he’s been allowed attacking freedom. Usually this was at the expense of Nigel De Jong or Gareth Barry.
His immense physicality coupled with his great passing ability meant he could change a game from defence to attack in an instant. He is a truly world class player.
Forward: Emmanuel Adebayor
Unlike a lot of players in this team, Adebayor is not really a fan favourite. His sometimes lethargic style and off the pitch personality can hinder how he is perceived.
Nonetheless, he is a very good player and this is proven by how many good clubs have taken a punt on him. Spells at Arsenal, Man City, Spurs and even Real Madrid have all allowed for a few reminders of why he is good.
A series High scoring league campaigns at Arsenal, City and Spurs respectively show he can produce when given the chance. Not only was he a good scorer of goals, but he was a scorer of good goals too, broadcasting his good technique on numerous occasions. As they say, he has very good feet for a big man.
Forward: Tony Yeboah
The second Leeds player to make the team is Yeboah. A cult hero in the Premier League famed for his corkers. To this day, goals scored in his trademark fashion are still called ‘Yeboahs’ which is testament to his class.
Although he only had two full seasons at Leeds, he managed to knock up an impressive 32 goals in the 59 games in that time. Injuries and a change of manager at Leeds meant Yeboah was sold, however he is immortalised in the Premier League. It’s got to be Tony Yeboah.
Forward: Didier Drogba
Drogba is undoubtedly the best African player the Premier League has ever seen.
Unplayable on his day, he is a machine with the skills to match. Inside or outside of the box, left foot, right foot, header, penalty, free kick, league game, cup game, derby, top of the table clash, final, he’s done it all.
It’s not very often you can say this but in this instance, £24 million was a bargain. He had an incredible ability whereby he’d shine in the biggest games, which in my opinion makes you world class. Nation aside, I think he was the greatest striker of his generation.
At his peak he could’ve walked into any team in the world. It’s a shame the Premier League didn’t have him for longer, because he could’ve gone down as the best in Premier League history.
Player for player, that’s a very good side. It may not do too well in an actual game due to my tactical ignorance but each player is worthy of his place.
There are several notable omissions though, and I’m afraid these players will have to be content with a place on the bench.
Shaun Bartlett, Mark Fish, Didier Zokora, Alex Song and Freddie Kanouté are good examples of other African greats from the Premier League. Many more have gone unnamed; such is the cruel yet fun nature of picking merely XI.
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