Can you recall Zimbabwean goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, who played in one of Liverpool’s finest teams during the 1980s, Ivorian Didier Drogba, winning three EPL titles and the UCL with Chelsea or Samuel Eto’o from Cameroon, a four-time African Footballer of the Year? There is no doubt that, amongst other players currently active in Europe, the likes of Liverpool’s Egyptian Mohamed Salah, Manchester City’s Algerian Riyad Mahrez or Senegalese Kalidou Koulibaly playing for Napoli will join such an all-time top African players list. In addition, the next generation is already knocking on the door, with players like PSG’s Moroccan defender Achraf Hakimi, Bayer Leverkusen‘s Burkina Faso centre-back Edmond Tapsoba or Napoli’s Nigerian forward Victor Osimhen all below 23 years of age.
The next calendar year provides a great stage for African star players to showcase their talents: in January-February, the Africa Cup of Nations will see 24 national teams compete in Cameroon, while five African countries will be eligible to participate at the World Cup in Qatar.
In order to assess the significance of African footballers in Europe, we looked at 11 prominent top tier leagues* and their African nationals. It is important to note that the primary nationality was the key criteria; players of African origin who play for non-African national adult teams are excluded from the analysis.
Currently, more than 500 African footballers are contracted by these clubs’ first teams in the 11 leagues, which constitutes approximately 6% of their total player base. Unsurprisingly, most of them come from West-African countries.
Looking at the European leagues by the number of African players employed, we find France’s Ligue 1 at the top.
However, the chart also reveals that the average market value of Ligue 1’s African players is little over half of that in the English Premier League. Indeed, Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané being on top of the list of the most valuable players gives a boost to the average value of African footballers in the English top tier. In addition, the proportion of EPL players among the more valuable footballers is also higher: for example, concerning the 21 players with a market value over EUR 30m, we find 13 players from EPL clubs and only two from Ligue 1 clubs.
The top ten African players’ list by market value in these leagues also demonstrates the dominance of the EPL, as five of them play in England.
With Salah and Mané in their ranks, it is unsurprising that Liverpool are also the club with the highest total squad value attributed to African players, with Guinean midfielder Naby Keita and Cameroon defender Joel Matip also part of the team.
French side Metz, who currently employ 13 players with African origins, run a recognized youth academy, which produced star players, including Emmanuel Adebayor, Papiss Cissé, Sadio Mané and Kalidou Koulibaly.
Of these clubs, only two, Metz and Watford, are included in the ranking in which we consider the clubs’ African players’ value compared to their total squad value. It is notable that most clubs in this selection have relatively low total squad values (seven of them with squad values below EUR 50m). The chart also reveals that the Belgian and the Turkish top leagues are popular markets for African talents.
Speaking about African players, it is worth noting, that it is not uncommon that a player chooses to represent an African nation due to family roots without ever playing in the professional league of that country. Such players either moved to a European football academy at a young age, or were born and raised in Europe but later decided to represent the nation of their ancestors. For example, SSC Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly was born in France to Senegalese parents, thus he was eligible to represent both nations at international level. Koulibaly actually played for the France national under-20 team before ultimately deciding that he would play for Senegal from 2015 onwards – today he is the captain of the team. Similarly, Liverpool’s Joel Matip was born in Germany and started his career there with FC Schalke 04, before opting to play international football for Cameroon.
Stay tuned – we will give similar overviews of South American or Asian footballers playing in Europe in the coming months.
*Our analysis covers the following European domestic leagues; English Premier League; Spanish La Liga; Italian Serie A; German Bundesliga; French Ligue 1; Dutch Eredivisie; Belgian Pro League; Portuguese Primeira Liga; Turkish Süper Lig; Russian Premier Liga and Austrian Bundesliga