The Best AFCON Players in the History of the EFL Championship
The African Cup of Nations has had a long and rich history affiliated with Europe’s top leagues, and the inherent quality that comes with playing at the elite level as well as the subsequent exposure leads to at least one representative from the big five leagues within most AFCON squads.
In England’s second-tier specifically, this has meant that a host of iconic African players, we’re talking Riyad Mahrez, Jay-Jay Okocha and Papa Bouba Diop among others, came and conquered the Championship on their way up to or down from their peak.
Before we get into the meat of this squad, it’s important to set some ground rules. Whilst it would be easy to throw in a midfield three of Okocha, Diop and Cheick Tiote, this wouldn’t be a fair reflection of the Championship’s AFCON representation, instead, it would be a second-hand Premier League XI.
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So to be clear, this is an attempt to build a team of players that have been influential in Africa’s major international tournament whilst spending a sizeable chunk of their career in England’s second-tier during the Championship era (2004-present). It’s quite a niche Venn diagram, I know, but as you’ll go on to find, it is one worth delving into.
Seny Dieng (GK)
Bear with me here. You might be thinking that this instantly brings into question the rules implemented a few seconds ago, but as of January 10th 2022, Seny Dieng became the only ever goalkeeper to both play in the Championship and at AFCON when starting for Senegal in their opening group game vs Zimbabwe.
Whilst the 27-year-old has only been playing Championship football since the start of the 2020/21 season, he has been a mainstay in a QPR team hot on the heels of the promotion candidates this term and has rightfully earned a place in Aliou Cisse’s 23-man squad.
Would Dieng have made an AFCON 2021 appearance if not for an outbreak of COVID-19 in the Senegal squad? Probably not. But full credit to him for stepping up to the plate in Edouard Mendy’s absence and putting in two faultless performances.
It remains to be seen whether Dieng will cement his competence for the set criteria and go on to get more AFCON appearances under his belt beyond this year’s tournament, or indeed earn promotion to the Premier League with QPR, but he’s the best we have as things stand, and a very safe pair of hands at that. An AFCON winners’ medal is also within touch at the time of writing, with Senegal in the final four.
Honourable mention for Wolves legend and Nigeria international Carl Ikeme, who featured for the Super Eagles in their 2015 and 2017 AFCON qualification campaigns and would undoubtedly have made the squad for the finals on both occasions if they had managed to qualify.
Gaetan Bong (LB)
Gaetan Bong has had a very sporadic career on both accounts. For Cameroon, he made his debut back in 2010, going on to feature at the 2010 World Cup against eventual finalists Holland, but had to wait until 2019 for his first and only AFCON outing, a 0-0 draw against Ghana.
In England, the left-back would often float along the periphery of the Premier League. He had his best spell at Brighton, where he helped the Seagulls to the play-offs in 2015/16 before going one better and getting promoted with them the following campaign, both of which saw him injury-stricken.
Injuries have been somewhat of a theme throughout Bong’s time in England, the now 33-year-old Nottingham Forest fringe player has failed to reach 25 appearances in any of his six seasons in the Championship, but makes it into the team because of his impressive spell at Brighton where he not only played a part in them getting to the top-flight for the first time since 1983, but also in them establishing themselves at that level.
Three AFCON appearances and three clean sheets for our two entries into the team thus far, it’s far from glamorous but that’ll soon arrive in abundance.
Bong provides some much-needed defensive dynamism alongside two centre backs that will collectively eat all opposition strikers alive, it’s the nimble figure needed to tuck in and scurry back to help out our next colossal duo.
Sol Bamba (LCB)
We’re really getting into the spirit of this cross-section now. Sol Bamba has amassed over 200 Championship appearances across nine seasons, and has featured in three separate editions of AFCON with Ivory Coast.
In 2012, Bamba partnered Kolo Toure in every minute of the Elephants’ run to the final without conceding a single goal. The then Leicester City defender even scored a penalty in the shootout for the trophy, but a missed spot-kick by Gervinho gave Zambia a historic victory.
Second place has also been Bamba’s best effort to date in the Championship, and was incredibly another successful campaign in which he played every single match, becoming the only man in Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City side to make the division’s PFA Team of the Year for 2017/18.
The Ivorian played for two seasons at Leicester City and Leeds United before joining Cardiff in 2016, where he enjoyed five years before reuniting with Warnock at Middlesbrough two years ago.
Now 37-years-old, Bamba had to overcome Non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2021 to fight back and continue playing and is currently a crucial cog in Chris Wilder’s pursuit of bringing Premier League football back to the Riverside.
A true warrior, a Championship legend and an AFCON finalist. If this team needs a man to set an example and lead from the back, then look no further.
Danny Shittu (RCB)
Between the years of 2008 and 2010, Everton’s Joseph Yobo was well into his prime and deservedly earned the spotlight as the focal point of the Nigeria defence, however, fellow stalwart Danny Shittu was similarly influential in a team that made it to the last eight in ’08 and the final four in ’10 only to be knocked out in successive tournaments by that Ghana side that reached a World Cup quarter-final in South Africa.
Although this was a squad famed for its attacking prowess courtesy of Obafemi Martins, Nwankwo Kanu and Yakubu Aiyegbeni to name but a few, it’s worth pointing out that Nigeria conceded only once in the 480 minutes Shittu was on the pitch at AFCON 2010, letting in four and keeping six clean sheets in his nine AFCON outings.
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As for his time in the Championship, Shittu was widely regarded as the perfect foil in an era which brought rise to the likes of Grant Holt, Ricardo Fuller and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake. A time that welcomed a hefty mid-wrestle shirt pull and palpable excitement for long throw-ins, a time when being built like a brick and behaving like a shithouse meant you were virtually unbeatable.
The Nigerian won the second-tier with QPR in 2011, and as multiple different spells at Loftus Road and also The Den with Millwall would suggest, Shittu was the man you loved having on your team, partly because your subconscious, forever traumatised by the times you had to face the mountainous man, still felt fearful of him.
Whilst the chances of a red card are highly likely with this centre-back pair, so is the chance of scoring from a set-piece as Shittu proved with his tally of seven league goals for Watford in 2007/08. Therefore, that is a tightrope I’m willing to tread carefully across.
In fairness, the third option was Cameroon’s Andre Bikey which feels equally chaotic. Just imagine a Bamba, Shittu, Bikey back three. Frightening.
Ahmed Elmohamady (RB)
From the brutish, we move swiftly onto unrivalled brilliance when it comes to this bridge between Algeria and Ashton Gate, Egypt and Ewood Park or any other alliterative comparisons you can make.
Three promotions from the Championship to accompany three AFCON finals with the Pharaohs, two of which they won, not a lot else needs to be said in order to cement Elmohamady into this eleven.
Interestingly enough, the winger-turned-right-back only featured in four Championship campaigns compared with eight Premier League seasons, which only makes his achievements more spectacular.
During his time in the second tier, first with Hull City then Aston Villa, Elmohamady averaged more than 40 appearances per season with two of the promotions he achieved coming via the play-offs.
His AFCON career spanned from 2008 to 2019, and although he was only a small part in Egypt’s 2008 triumph, Elmo quickly became a mainstay when they lifted the trophy in 2010, and continued to be when they lost in the 2017 final.
For the length of time he performed well for his country and the legacy which he maintains to this day in the English second division, without question, Elmohamady has to be the captain of this team. If anyone can lead a Championship-AFCON squad to glory, it’s the Egyptian.
Adlene Guedioura (LCM)
The first of our midfield three, and the first and only member of the eleven to feature in an AFCON Team of the Tournament. But as was also the case in Guedioura’s promotion to the Premier League with Watford in 2014/15, the Algerian had to overcome a lot of obstacles on the path to victory.
The midfielder’s first introduction to English football was with Wolves in the Premier League, where he spent three years, the third of which saw the club relegated in 20th back in 2011/12 which is reminiscent of his AFCON career, where Algeria went winless in the first six matches involving him over two tournaments, exiting at the group stages on both occasions in 2013 and 2017.
Setbacks have never been something that stopped Guedioura from battling back twice as hard, however, as he proved when joining a Watford team sitting in 7th in November 2014 before playing an important role in them finishing second, losing only once in the 13 matches he started under Slavisa Jokanovic.
On the contintent, he was instrumental as the Fennecs lifted the trophy in 2019, conducting the play from deep to facilitate Mahrez and Islam Slimani among others further upfield.
The former Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough and now Sheffield United man provides some steel as the enabler for the exceptional talent to come.
Adel Taarabt (CM)
On this AFCON-Championship see-saw we find ourselves on, Adel Taarabt’s feet are planted firmly on the ground at the side of the club competition. He may have only amassed 67 minutes with Morocco at the major tournament, but Taarabt strolls into this team on the basis of one season alone.
After going through three different managers before appointing Neil Warnock in a 2009/10 campaign that saw them finish 13th, QPR were in desperate need of some structure and stability to support their one shining light in Taarabt. Like a dark, featureless room with a lamp on the floor.
When that bedside table arrived in the form of Warnock, who brought veterans Paddy Kenny, Clint Hill, Shaun Derry and even Danny Shittu along with him, the light illuminated the entire house, weaving through seemingly impenetrable walls and blasting through the roof on its way.
Nothing could stop the Moroccan that season, and no one before or since has come close to that level of consistent performance in the Championship. 19 goals, 21 assists, Football League Player of the Year and a league title to boot. Not bad for 21-years-old.
For the outrageous skills, the sensational solo goals and all-round showcase of sheer superiority from Taarabt over the course of the entire 2010/11 season, the subsequent disappointment in the Premier League counts for absolutely nothing in this instance. In Championship terms, this is the pinnacle.
Seyi Olofinjana (RCM)
In bringing the grit of Guedioura and the trickery of Taarabt together with a unique combination of elegance and diligence, Seyi Olofinjana is the glue of this team as he so frequently was in his playing days.
This was a man who played alongside Peter Whittingham at Cardiff City in the second tier, and with Jay-Jay Okocha at AFCON.
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He knows how to bring out the magic in a teammate by not only doing the hard graft, but also by bursting forward and making the most of one’s technical gift. He wasn’t the genius everyone adored, but was almost telepathic in unleashing those that were and reaping those benefits himself.
Olofinjana spent the bulk of his Championship days with Wolves starting in 2004, which was also the year he helped Nigeria to a third-place finish after hosts and eventual champions Tunisia knocked them out on penalties.
A semi-final was also as close as the Nigerian got to promotion in the Championship when Mick McCarthy’s Wolves were beaten by West Brom over two legs in 2006/07. Even from midfield, he was the club’s top scorer that campaign which emphasises his impact further forward.
He brings guts and an incessant work rate, he brings goals and an interminable talent in getting the best out of those around him. What a way to round off the midfield.
Albert Adomah (LW)
There is very much a QPR core within this team which is only added to by Albert Adomah, but this is a man for whom the West London club is his sixth at the Championship level.
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The Ghanaian started four times at AFCON 2013 before a semi-final bout with Burkina Faso, the only game he didn’t play, was where the Black Stars fell short. But this only serves to bolster a place the winger already cemented through his iconic status in England’s second tier.
From the get-go, it was evident that Adomah’s longevity at the Championship level would never be in question. The 22-year-old Bristol City signed from Barnet missed just one league match in two seasons for the Robins, earning the club’s player of the season in 2010/11, his first term at Ashton Gate.
After thriving in a struggling Bristol City side over three years which culminated in relegation in 2013, Adomah moved to Middlesbrough, where he helped transform them from mid-table to promotion contenders until they eventually reached the promised land in 2016, but he wasn’t done with the Championship just yet.
Following two Premier League appearances, the winger made the switch to Aston Villa to repeat the cycle once more: three successful seasons, the third of which ended in triumph via the play-offs. Legendary Championship status: confirmed.
Since then, Adomah dropped a division once more, and after short stints at Nottingham Forest and Cardiff City, finds himself integral to another promotion push with the Hoops. If he pulls that off, we’ve got a Championship Hall of Famer on our hands.
Jonathan Kodjia (ST)
In regards to the direct correlation between the trajectory of one’s respective AFCON and Championship careers, no other player deserves to be included in this article more than Jonathan Kodjia.
The centre forward arrived in England from Angers in July 2015, and like Adomah made an instant name for himself in a Bristol City team battling at the wrong end of the table.
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Kodjia’s 19 goals that season was enough to keep the Robins up and earn him a first international call up in May 2016.
Aston Villa also came calling for the French-born Ivorian, who had a similar impact for club and country during the 2016/17 season, netting 19 again in the league, as well as three for Ivory Coast, securing him a place in an AFCON 2017 squad which underwhelmingly exited at the group stage.
A major ankle injury would keep Kodjia out of action for the lion’s share of 2017/18, but he would bounce back to play a crucial part in Villa’s aforementioned return to the top-flight, and another great season would again coincide with important contribution to Ivory Coast’s road to AFCON 2019.
Two goals and an assist in four starts, including an equaliser in the quarter-final defeat to Algeria stood Kodjia in good stead for the Premier League, but injury stammered his momentum once more, and by January 2020, the striker was plying his trade in the Qatar Stars League.
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There’s something quite endearing to a Championship audience about a player who never quite makes it in the Premier League, as the theme throughout suggests. Kodjia fits nicely into that category, despite proving that he was probably a level above at his best. A certainty to score goals at AFCON and in the second tier when he stays fit.
Yannick Bolasie (RW)
The final spot in this eleven could only be between two players. A pair who, along with Glenn Murray who scored 30 times, formed one of the most formidable attacking trios in Championship history with Crystal Palace in 2012/13. That is Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha.
However, only one can make the grade.
For the fact that not only did he play alongside Adomah at Bristol City in 2011/12, but also partnered the Ghanaian international as well as Kodjia and Elmohamady in that 18/19 Villa team, Bolasie rightfully claims the freedom of the right flank. Plus, Zaha is a bit too Premier League isn’t he?
On top of that 2019 play-off promotion you’re sick of hearing about, Bolasie also made nine AFCON appearances with DR Congo, finishing in third place in 2015. Considering that this is further than Zaha got in three AFCON attempts, Bolasie trumps him in every criteria.
Even before the Villa, Palace, and Bristol City days, Bolasie spent his formative years suffering back-to-back relegations from the Championship to League Two with Plymouth Argyle. Combine that with his ostentatious play style, then this addition encapsulates the gritty, gaudy chaos of this team to perfection.
Verdict: Whilst we’re deep down this rabbit hole, it would be remiss of me not to create a hypothetical scenario in which this team, with each player at the peak of their Championship career, is competing in this year’s AFCON.
Firstly, having witnessed Ghana get knocked out at the expense of Comoros in Group C and holders Algeria also fall at the first hurdle, this team feels more likely of producing a catastrophic collapse of that calibre than a smooth sail through the rounds, especially when Taarabt is sent off on 34 minutes of the group opener after brazenly squaring up to Shittu when a mistimed slide tackle from the centre-back sees the Moroccan caught in the crossfire which also leads to an opposition goal.
A deflected Olofinjana effort and a moment of Bolasie magic is enough to earn them a 2-1 win in the third group game, scraping through with four points, but they’re quickly disposed of in the round of 16 when an early mixup between Bong and Bamba sets the tone for an abysmal 3-0 defeat.
The potential is monumental, but the personality clashes within means this is a car crash waiting to happen.
By: Brad Jones / @bradjonessport
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / John Walton – EMPICS – PA Images / CAF