Africa Cup of Nations: Andre Onana, Sebastien Haller, Bamba Dieng… Six players to watch

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Cameroon

By Alexis Billebault

Posted on Monday, 10 January 2022 12:23, updated on Thursday, 13 January 2022 15:37
Anthony Bibard/FEP/Icon Sport via Getty Images; Jed Leicester//Sipa; Ozan Kose/AFP; Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images; Issouf Sanogo/AFP; James Williamson/AMA/Getty Images

Here are six particularly promising players to watch closely during the 2022 African Cup of Nations: André Onana (Cameroon), Sébastien Haller (Côte d'Ivoire), Hannibal Mejbri (Tunisia), Bamba Dieng (Senegal), Saïd Benrahma (Algeria), Ayoub El Kaabi (Morocco).

At every African Cup of Nations finals the spotlight is fierce; a chance for new stars to reveal themselves, for old hands to confirm their status, or let stuttering talent shine again.

André Onana (Cameroon)

Andre Onana, the goalkeeper of the Indomitable Lions
Andre Onana, the goalkeeper of the Indomitable Lions. Action Foto Sport/NurPhoto via AFP

The Indomitable Lions and Ajax Amsterdam goalkeeper has been sidelined for most of 2021. Andre Onana (26) tested positive during a doping control on 30 October 2020, explaining that he had taken a diuretic belonging to his wife “by mistake”. This argument did not convince Fifa, which suspended him for a year on 5 February, a sentence later reduced to nine months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

The Barcelona-trained player returned to the national team in November, in the crucial match against Côte d’Ivoire (1-0) in the framework of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, which enabled the Lions to validate their presence in the third round.

Onana, who should leave Ajax next summer, will undoubtedly be one of the main assets of Cameroon, considered as one of the favorites of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).

He has been performing well since his return, despite spending many months training alone. And he seems to want to draw a line under his misadventure which made him lose almost a year, an eternity in a high level career.

Sébastien Haller (Côte d’Ivoire)

Sébastien Haller, striker. © Ivorian Football Federation

Born in France to a French father and an Ivorian mother, Sebastien Haller (27) chose to play for the Elephants in November 2020, after having worn the blue jersey of France in various youth teams. The striker has played for Auxerre, FC Utrecht (Netherlands), Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany) and West Ham United (England) and returned to the Netherlands – more precisely to Ajax Amsterdam – in January 2021.

The Ivorian international (8 caps, 3 goals) has been particularly successful with the Lanciers, especially in the Champions League group stage where he scored 10 goals in 6 games.

Patrice Beaumelle, the French coach of Côte d’Ivoire who was behind the striker’s decision to play for his mother’s country, is pleased every day that he was able to convince him. “He agreed to come because he wanted to, it was not a choice by default. He has adapted well; he is a player who already brings a lot to Côte d’Ivoire and who will continue to do so in the coming years.

Hannibal Mejbri (Tunisia)

Hannibal Mejbri, Carthage Eagles midfielder.
Hannibal Mejbri, Carthage Eagles midfielder. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP

It was on 23 May 2021, during a friendly match won by Tunisia against DR Congo (1-0), that Hannibal Mejbri wore the Carthage Eagles jersey for the first time. He could also have chosen to play for France, the country where he was born in January 2003. Since this first selection, the young midfielder has been regularly called upon by Mondher Kebaier, the Tunisian coach.

Trained at INF Clairefontaine and then passed through Monaco – without ever having played in Ligue 1 -, Mejbri joined the prestigious English club Manchester United in 2019 for a fee – including bonuses – of around 10 million euros. He made his English Premier League debut last May and, although he plays mainly for the Red Devils’ Under-21 team, new coach Ralf Rangnick seems determined to make more use of his talent.

The German coach said he was impressed by the young player, who put in some brilliant performances for his country at the Arab Cup of Nations last December, where the Eagles reached the final against Algeria (0-2).

Bamba Dieng (Senegal)

Bamba Dieng, Lions of Teranga striker.
Bamba Dieng, Lions of Teranga striker. Anthony Bibard/FEP/Icon Sport via Getty Images

Olympique de Marseille can look back on a close partnership with Diambars, the highly regarded Senegalese training centre from which PSG midfielder Idrissa Gueye graduated. In the summer of 2021, the Marseille club recruited promising 21-year-old striker Bamba Dieng, whom Diambars had loaned out to OM for the 2020-2021 season, for a very reasonable sum of €400,000.

Noticed in Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 in Senegal, the player has adapted quite quickly to his new environment, as evidenced by the few goals he has scored in the league (4) and the French Cup (1) since his arrival in France.

Aliou Cisse, the coach of the Lions of Teranga, called him up for the first time last October, during the qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, with the stated objective of preparing a bright future that the native of Pikine embodies. And even if Dieng is not yet a full-fledged starter, his appearances in Cameroon will inevitably be followed closely, as several European clubs have already looked at his profile.

Saïd Benrahma (Algeria)

Saïd Benrahma, Fennecs striker.
Saïd Benrahma, Fennecs striker. Adil Benayache/SIPA

At 26 years of age, Algerian striker Saïd Benrahma has been one of the pleasant surprises of the first half of the premiership season in England.

The West Ham United player has put in a string of good performances, and Djamel Belmadi, the Fennecs coach, holds him in high regard. He is also one of the few Algerian internationals to have been born in his homeland, in Aïn Temouchent. However, it is in France, where he arrived at the age of 15, that he was trained, and more precisely at OGC Nice.

Often loaned out (Angers, GFC Ajaccio, Châteauroux) and rarely used by Nice, Benrahma’s career took off when he moved to Brentford, a modest English Championship club (Ligue 2), in 2018. Quickly spotted by West Ham, the Algerian quickly won over Hammers’ fans.

He scored his first international goal for Algeria last November in a 4-0 win over Djibouti in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.

Ayoub El Kaabi (Morocco)

Ayoub El Kaabi, Atlas Lions striker.
Ayoub El Kaabi, Atlas Lions striker. Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images

He is one of the most in-form strikers in recent weeks. Ayoub El Kaabi (27) finished as the second-highest scorer in the second round of African Zone qualifying for the 2022 World Cup (5 goals), and the Moroccan is also proving effective with his club Hatayspor (Turkey), which he joined in the last summer.

The Casablanca native made a name for himself during the 2017-2018 season, collecting goals with the Renaissance Sportive de Berkane and with the Moroccan national team, with whom he won the African Nations Championship organised by the kingdom. After scoring nine goals in that competition, El Kaabi signed a lucrative contract with Chinese club Hebei Fortune a few months later, but his performances did not live up to the investment made.

The striker returned to Morocco, and more precisely to WAC Casablanca, where he recovered before going into exile once again, to Turkey. And Vahid Halilhodzic, the coach of the Atlas Lions, will rely heavily on his efficiency in Cameroon.

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