The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has whittled its list of candidates for this year’s Men’s Player of the Year award down to just ten potential winners — and there’s still a shortlist to come — one of whom would be crowned at next week’s event.
The perfect season doesn’t exist in football, they say, but few players have come as close to achieving it as Mane did in 2021/22.
He scored the all-important penalty that saw Senegal win the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) for the first time – being adjudged the tournament’s MVP for good measure – and that which secured only the country’s third-ever ticket to the FIFA World Cup.
With Liverpool, Mane played his part in winning England’s two domestic cups, while also going all the way – right till the very end – in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League, before switching clubs after securing a summer move to Bayern Munich.
It’s hard to think of any African who has ever had a better season, in terms of pushing on all fronts, and despite the near misses, Mane not winning his second consecutive CAF Player of the Year gong would be the greatest injustice ever.
#2 EDOUARD MENDY
Had the awards been held last year, there is little doubt that Senegal’s Mendy would almost certainly have been the first goalkeeper named Africa’s finest by CAF, following a phenomenal debut campaign with Chelsea that saw Mendy win the UEFA Champions League and emerge Europe’s best goalkeeper.
Rather than sink in disappointment, however, Mendy has carried on where he left off and continued to excel for both club and country. He added the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup to his collection as Chelsea No.1, before teeing off international teammate Mane for the aforementioned match-winning, history-making spot-kicks with just-as-decisive saves.
Club fortunes may have been quite underwhelming – Chelsea lost their footing in the Premier League title race and only finished a distant third, lost two finals, and the bid to defend their European title crashed agonisingly against eventual champions Real Madrid – but Mendy has surely done enough to merit the first runner-up spot, right behind his compatriot.
#3 MOHAMED SALAH
Salah and Mane shared joys and sorrows on Merseyside, but their respective fortunes couldn’t have contrasted more when the pair clashed in the AFCON final and, a month later, for a place at Qatar 2022. Salah’s Egypt were vanquished on both occasions, leaving him with no reward for his international activity in the year under review.
On a purely personal level, though, the Liverpool forward would feel content with a third Premier League top-scorer’s prize in five seasons – some of his goals, most memorably that against title rivals Manchester City, were truly incredible. Salah matched that with a league-high tally of 13 assists to achieve a rare double, while also making a near-clean sweep of England’s various Player of the Season honours.
Had he been victorious in either meeting with Mane and his all-conquering Lions of Teranga, in fact, Salah’s claim for a third African Player of the Year prize might have been just as strong. But, alas…
#4 VINCENT ABOUBAKAR
Take Aboubakar out of the equation, and Cameroon may well have had nothing to show for hosting the 2021 AFCON.
Six Aboubakar goals in the Indomitable Lions’ first four games set Antonio Conceicao’s men well on their way to win a sixth continental title, their very first on home soil. Strike partner Karl Toko Ekambi borrowed the scoring baton for the quarter-final date with Gambia, before Cameroon drew blanks and came up short in the next game.
But even in that gut-wrenching semi-final defeat, Aboubakar distinguished himself as the only one on his team to convert a penalty in the shootout that saw Egypt advance at the hosts’ expense, though it ultimately counted for nothing.
And just when Conceicao felt he could do without his captain in the match for bronze versus Burkina Faso, giving those 30-year-old legs a deserved rest after about a month’s exertions, it was Aboubakar who came off the bench to score two late goals that helped clinch a hitherto improbable third-place finish and salvaged some pride.
With eight goals in all – the most scored by any player at the AFCON in nearly five decades – Aboubakar won the Golden Boot, and there is no reason he shouldn’t crack the top five when CAF recognises the most excelling Africans of the year.
#5 SEBASTIEN HALLER
Expectations weren’t so high when Haller joined Dutch outfit Ajax Amsterdam halfway through the 2020/21 season, given how underwhelming his previous big-money move to West Ham United had gone.
He quickly proved the skeptics wrong, however, carrying his impressive form into the next campaign. Haller top-scored in the Eredivisie, but it was really in the Champions League that he made the biggest waves.
The Ivorian led the competition in goals at the end of the group stage, with 10, and only Ajax’s failure to advance much further denied him the chance to add significantly to that number. He still finished with a total of 11 – good enough for third on the scoring charts, good enough to go down as the best-performing African in last season’s Champions League, and good enough for fifth-best on this list.