As the most popular sport in the world, football blends with each nation’s culture, population, and geography, and as a result, produces heroes, landmarks, and values intrinsic and unique to the nation, and, over a broader scale, the continent.

Each continent has their own relationship and stereotypes regarding football. Europe has the finest and fanciest academies, but the mean streets of South America have produced some of the greatest strikers in history. Nonetheless, it is in Africa where we often see children brave a million adversities, life or death circumstances, and travel thousands of miles away from their home to pursue their dreams of becoming professional footballers.

Not every player in this list, a list of the best U23 African players in football, had a treacherous upbringing. Not every player grew up in Africa, and some, apart from their international call-ups, do not regularly visit Africa.

Certain players on here were training in some of Europe’s finest academies before they were teenagers. Others came to Europe as refugees, some impressed scouts while playing in notorious African slums, and others went home hungry every night.

Every player on this list is either playing in a top 5 league or playing Champions League football, or both. All except one, but that one also started a European final this year, so touché. Every player has earned an international cap. Every one of these players, by any extension or cultural definition, is living the dream. They’ve made it to the top.

In this constantly globalizing society, it’s often hard to pin someone down to a singular nationality, language, and background. Thomas Anderson, the co-founder of Breaking The Lines, was raised in Holland, attended university in England, and lives in Wales. He’ll still tell you he’s Ghanaian.

The issue of African nationality is often complex and multidimensional. A little more than a century ago, King Leopold II of Belgium carried out a brutal genocide on the Congo, pillaging the nation for its ivory, rubber, and human labor. Still, you’ll find players of Congolese descent, be it Romelu Lukaku or Vincent Kompany, choosing Belgium over Congo when it comes to international duty. Why? Why do they choose Diables Rouges over….Les Diables Rouges?

That isn’t a character flaw–just because you choose to play for a European nation rather than an African nation–doesn’t mean you wholeheartedly support colonialism and gentrification. It’s more complex than that. But it still frustrates us, because we think it’s simpler.

Maxime Lopez, of Marseille, recently chose France over Algeria. I remember thinking, ‘Seriously Maxime? Vincent Koziello and Wylan Cyprien can’t even make the French senior squad! What makes you think you can?’

Still, how many times has Maxime visited Algeria? Does he eat Algerian food, does he watch Algerian television? I don’t have the answers, and while it’s easy to presume that he isn’t as in touch with his Algerian heritage as his brother Julien Lopez, who played for Algeria in the 2009 U-17 World Cup, it’s always accurate.

It’s easy to ridicule players like Ademola Lookman and Jordan Ibe for choosing England over Nigeria, when it is highly unlikely that they will ever play for the English national team. Still, they were born in England, they were raised in England, so apart from playing time, what would make them inclined to choose Nigeria?

That being said, they should’ve chose Nigeria.

I regret that I couldn’t put Amadou Diawara on this list, but I cannot wait to see him don the Azzurri colors for the first time. I regret that I couldn’t get more African writers on this list, but I’m hoping this list will rectify that for the next time. I created Breaking The Lines to highlight football in every corner of the world–with a special focus on exciting young talents. This is a huge step for us, a huge undertaking, and a massive success.

I want to thank my tremendous writers and artists for contributing to another superb list. I want to thank our followers for being so devoted to our project–no matter what angle we go for, or what we pursue, you’ve always been behind us. This project has taken weeks of hard work and research, but you make it worth it.

This is more than a list about Africa. This is a story about belonging, culture, and above all, the rags to riches tale that connects and brings goosebumps to every person in every section of the world.


Zach Lowy

Player visuals designed by the fantastic:

@NxDzn, @cottodesign, @AIexFoxx.

(TIP: On mobile – turn your phone orientation horizontally so you can see the visuals in full!)