Every two years, Africa’s best soccer players leave take a three-week hiatus from their club teams to compete in the Cup of Nations. While their club managers may loathe the tournament, it’s a great chance to see the continent’s premier players all in one place. Here’s a player to watch from each of the 16 competing nations:
1. Yacine Brahimi, Algeria
It’s been a quick rise to the top for Yacine Brahimi. The Paris-born midfielder switched national allegiance to Algeria in February 2013 and ended 2014 with an African Player of the Year award. He scored three goals during AFCON qualifying and will likely add to that tally during the tournament, but it’s his dribbling ability that makes him such a great player. Whether he’s in the midfield or on the left wing, Algeria’s attack will go through him.
2. Asamoah Gyan, Ghana
For a second straight World Cup, Asamoah Gyan was the best player on the pitch for Ghana. He’s scored in the last four AFCON tournaments and it’s a safe bet that he’ll make it five. And with midfielders Sulley Muntari and Kevin Prince-Boateng still banned and Kwadwo Asamoah out with an injury, he’ll need a few goals for The Black Stars to win it all.
3. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Gabon
Borussia Dortmund forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang likely has redemption on his mind coming into this year’s tournament. Back in 2012, Aubameyang missed a penalty kick in the quarterfinal match against Mali which ultimately led to Gabon’s exit. While he’s been Gabon’s finest player for quite some time, 2014 was the year that became one of Africa’s best. He finished second in fan voting for BBC’s African Footballer of the Year. Gabon’s greatly depends on the 25-year old to carry the goalscoring load and he is one of the tournament’s must-see players.
4. Papiss Cissé, Senegal
What a way to spend a four-game suspension. Papiss Cissé received a four-game ban in Newcastle’s last match of 2014 for elbowing an opponent. Lucky for Senegal, he’s still available for selection during the tournament. His striking partner Demba Ba was left off of the AFCON squad, but with nine goals in his last 13 Premier League matches, carrying the scoring load shouldn’t be a problem.
5. Serge Aurier, Ivory Coast
Realistically, you should be watching the entire Ivorian national team. Even without Didier Drogba, they are the most talent-rich sides in the tournament. But instead of 2013 African FOTY Yaya Toure or Gervinho, look out for Serge Aurier. The right back was one of the best young performers during the World Cup, but hasn’t been a consistent first-team choice for PSG. This is a chance for him to regain his Brazil form and set up the aforementioned players with his superb crossing.
6. Eric Choupo-Moting, Cameroon
While Vincent Aboubakar and Stephane M’Bia may be better players for Cameroon, neither can match the current form of Eric Choupo-Moting. He’s scored ten goals in all competitions since joining Schalke over the summer and netted a hat trick last month against Stuttgart. With Samuel Eto’o now retired from international play, the goals have to come from somewhere and Choupo-Moting is their biggest scoring threat right now.
7. Seydou Keita, Mali
Roma midfielder Seydou Keita is Mali’s greatest soccer product. The former Barcelona man has the most caps (94) and goals (34) for the national team and will play in his seventh (and maybe last) AFCON tournament. Still, he remains their most important player on the pitch. Whether they need to go forward and score or sit back and defend, they’ll look to their versatile legend for leadership.
8. Emilio Nsue, Equatorial Guinea
The decision to award hosting duties to Equatorial Guinea was a controversial one. The nation was originally barred from qualification for fielding an ineligible player. This has been an ongoing problem for the hosts, as they did the same thing back in 2013. Middlesborough midfield Emilio Nsue was the player in question that time around. Watching him, it’s easy to see why they’d want the 25-year on the field. He’ll serve as their lone striker and if he can play close to the video above, the hosts are in good hands.
9. Jonathan Pitroipa, Burkina Faso
It seems like Jonathan Pitroipa does is score goals. The former Hamburg winger was was named “Man of the Tournament” at AFCON 2013 and was the top goalscorer during 2015 qualifying. While he may not be “The African Giovinco”, Pitroipa can finish in a myriad of ways.
10. Aymen Abdennour, Tunisia
Tunisia’s defense was stellar during qualifying, allowing just two goals in six matches. Along that stout back line, Aymen Abdennour has the most international caps. Group B isn’t exactly knows for its attacking options, but should Tunisia advance, they’ll face one of the previously mentioned Group A players. Abdennour’s willingness to throw himself in front of shots will come in handy there.
11. Fernando Varela, Cape Verde
Speaking of ineligible players, Cape Verde was barred from World Cup qualifying for fielding a player who was still on suspension. That player was Fernando Varela. The defender scored a crucial equalizer in 2013, which helped Cape Verde pull off a comeback win. The center back loves to push forward and attack, but as one of their most experienced defenders, it will also be up to him to stabilize the Cape Verdean back line.
12. Tokelo Rantie, South Africa
Their most experienced striker Bernard Parker is in the squad, but hasn’t played for the national team since last January. So look for Tokelo Rantie to start up top. Rantie scored both goals in the 2-2 draw with Nigeria. The 24-year old, who plays for Bournemouth in the English Championship, has made 24 caps since debuting for South Africa in June 2012.
13. Youssouf Mulumbu, DR Congo
West Brom’s Youssouf Mulumbu has fallen in and out of love with the national team a number of times. He boycotted the squad back in 2009, saying that they lacked professionalism. After returning soon after, he “retired” from international play in 2011. But despite all of the twists and turns he’s still one of DR Congo’s best midfielders. He’s an Alex Song-type player. A holding midfielder with attacking sensibilities.
14. Delvin N’Dinga, Congo
The Congolese midfielder seems to have the winning touch. He was part of the 2012-13 AS Monaco side that gained promotion to Ligue 1. He followed that up with a Greek Superleague title while on loan at Olympiacos. He’s currently on a second loan spell with the club and you’ll never guess who’s atop Superleague Greece. He’ll serve as the main setup man for Congo’s two strikers.
15. Ibrahima Traore, Guinea
Guinea were bounced from the 2013 tournament early, but Ibrahima Traore played his part. tallied a goal and assist in their three matches. The 26-year old reportedly turned down multiple Premier League offers last December to stay in the Bundesliga. That’s a shame, considering how many clubs could use his blazing speed on the wing.
16. Stophira Sunzu, Zambia
AFCON 2013 saw Zambia make an unlikely title run. While the chances of them repeating are slim, some of that team will return to action, including center back Stophira Sunzu, who scored the winning penalty in the final. This group is characterized by its defenders and Sunzu is right there with them. There may not be a better aerial ball winner in this tournament.