Africa’s World Cup representatives will all head to Russia confident that they can make an impact, but while several of the continent’s top names will be part of the tournament, many have been left behind.
The quintet who have secured their spots at the global high table – Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal – may be among the continent’s strongest teams and best organised units, but they boast relatively few of Africa’s genuine superstars.
Indeed, only a third of the players named in CAF’s recent 30-man shortlist for the African Player of the Year award are in the running for a World Cup berth, with many big names set to watch on from the outside.
In this feature, we present our African dream team of players whose nations haven’t qualified for the World Cup.
Goalkeeper: Denis Onyango – The reigning Africa-based Player of the Year and current Uganda skipper Onyango was one of the star performers during the qualifying campaign, but his Cranes side always faced an uphill struggle to escape from a group containing Egypt and Ghana.
The stopper vowed to KweseESPN that he’d silence Mohammed Salah during the first match between Uganda and the Pharaohs, and he was true to his word, delivering an outstanding individual display as the Cranes stunned their loftier opponents in Namboole.
While the Mamelodi Sundowns No. 1 also excelled in the return match in Alexandria, Salah ultimately got the better of him, as Egypt took a giant step towards top spot in Group E.
Right-back: Serge Aurier has endured a tricky start to life at Tottenham Hotspur, but he’s comfortably one of Africa’s best right-backs today – if not the very best.
Capable of explosive attacking play in wide areas, Aurier appeared at times to be on a one-man mission to drag the Ivorians to Russia during their ill-fated final qualifier against Morocco, but his efforts were in vain.
Centre-back: Eric Bailly – Another Ivorian defender whose presence will be missed is Bailly, for whom failure to reach Russia represents the second major failure of his international career.
In contrast to his steady progress at Manchester United, the centre-back and his Elephants teammates haven’t kicked on from their 2015 Africa Cup of Nations triumph, with World Cup failure following on from their dismal title defence in Gabon.
Centre-back: Joel Matip is currently taking a hiatus from international football, but having already sat out the 2017 Nations Cup success – a career decision that he will surely regret – the centre-back might have been coaxed back to the fold for a shot at the big one.
Liverpool’s Matip, one of the most composed centre-backs in the continent, would also surely be desperate to write new World Cup memories after he was a part of the Indomitable Lions squad that bombed at the 2014 showpiece.
Left-back: Faouzi Ghoulam – Currently ruled out of action with an anterior cruciate ligament injury, there are no guarantees that the defender would have returned in time to have earned his spot on the plane for Algeria.
Ultimately, the Fennecs‘ failure to qualify for Russia makes this a moot point, but it’s hard to argue Ghoulam’s status as Africa’s pre-eminent left-back in the world today.
His performances for Napoli last term led to reported interested from Chelsea and Liverpool among others, while he was one of the key figures in the Partenopei‘s perfect start to the Serie A campaign.
Midfielder: Jean Seri is enduring a truly dismal 2017-18 season. After the highs of the last campaign, when he guided OGC Nice to third in Ligue 1 and demonstrated his magnificent playmaking skills on a consistent basis in the French top flight, the Ivorian has had a horrid few months.
Nice failed to reach the Champions League group stages, his proposed move to Barcelona fell through, and the Ivory Coast failed to reach Russia.
At least things can’t get too much worse for one of the continent’s technical and creative masters!
Midfielder: Franck Kessie – The Ivorian powerhouse splits some observers, and claims that his talents are over-hyped can be fuelled by evidence from a disappointing Nations Cup campaign and several average showings in qualifying.
However, Kessie demonstrated his class in Serie A with Atalanta last term, and once he finds his feet at AC Milan, expect his powerful midfield style to be a key asset for the Rossoneri as they look to return to their former status within the Italian game.
Midfielder: Naby Keita – One of the great emerging talents in the African game, Keita has already inspired RasenBallsport Leipzig to the Champions League in their maiden Bundesliga campaign and earned a big-money future transfer to Liverpool.
His place in the five-man shortlist for the BBC African Footballer of the Year award cements his status among the continent’s heavyweights, but he was always up against it to drag Guinea to the World Cup…despite a few exceptional showings in qualifying.
Forward: Yacine Brahimi is one of three superb African talents at FC Porto – along with Vincent Aboubakar and Moussa Marega – to miss out on the World Cup.
The talented playmaker hasn’t always had it his way since starring in Algeria’s run to the Last 16 at Brazil 2014, but he’s back in form this season, and has been showcasing his dribbling skills both in Portugal and the Champions League.
The global showpiece will be a drabber affair without a player of his exquisite quality.
Forward: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – Arguably Africa’s most high-profile player in the world today, Aubamayeng is coming off the back of a hot season with Borussia Dortmund in which he pipped rival Robert Lewandowski to the Bundesliga top scorer award.
However, despite starting this season in style as well, he’s been unable to translate his club form to the international arena and lift Gabon from their current malaise. The Panthers finished third in qualifying Group C.
Forward: Riyad Mahrez – Despite coming off the back of a tricky season at club level in which his stock has fallen dramatically, Mahrez remains one of Africa’s stand-out talents…even if he was snubbed for CAF’s African Player of the Year shortlist.
Few of the continent’s stars could match his outstanding display in the Fennecs‘ 2-2 draw with Zimbabwe at the Nations Cup…even as all around him crumbled…and expect Mahrez to be one of the key figures in the national team as Rabah Madjer looks to build Algeria back up to their former glory.