The first round of the African Cup of Nations had it all: drama, penalties, referee errors, goals, saves, upsets, and more.
However, whilst superstars such as Sadio Mane stole the show, many lesser known players put in performances that could well see them move onto bigger teams. In the AFCON Preview, I mentioned multiple players who performed so well at previous tournaments that they had earned moves.
Because of the sheer amount of talent in Africa, scouts from all over the globe will be watching this tournament eagerly. But who are some players who started off the tournament on the right foot?
Mohamed Kamara, GK, Sierra Leone
Perhaps the most impressive performance so far, Sierra Leone’s goalkeeper Mohamed Kamara had a whopping seven (!) saves and some Manuel Neuer-esque sweeper keeper moments to keep defending AFCON Champions Algeria off the board in a 0-0 draw. No goalkeeper had more saves in a game so far, with just Aly Keita of Guinea finishing with over five saves.
Kamara currently plies his trade with East End Lions in Sierra Leone, having never played abroad. Just 22 years old, he could be on the move soon if he continues this form.
Jefferson Encada, RB, Guinea-Bissau
Whilst technically a right winger at club level, Encada put in a very good shift at right back against Sudan. He played all 90 minutes for Guinea-Bissau, getting five interceptions (the joint-highest with Mali’s Massadio Haidara) and winning three tackles – only three players earned more. Encada also proved troublesome when attacking, putting in multiple crosses and earning three free-kicks. Unfortunately Guinea-Bissau were unable to make this count, drawing 0-0.
A free agent since December, Jefferson Encada shouldn’t remain without a club for long: he’s versatile (having played in three different positions for Guinea-Bissau), has international experience, and has played for some noteworthy clubs including Sporting Lisbon and Vitoria Guimaraes. Did I mention he’s only 23?
Gustavo Sangaré, CM, Burkina Faso
Another versatile player, Sangaré can play almost anywhere in midfield and his versatility showed itself in Burkina Faso’s match against Cameroon. Sangaré opened the match with an impressive volleyed strike against the host nation after just 24 minutes, which ended up being Burkina Faso’s sole goal of the game. Burkina Faso eventually lost the game, but through no fault of Sangaré: his crosses proved to be constant threats, he won multiple free kicks, and he tracked back defensively to win multiple interceptions and tackles.
Sangaré recently turned 25 and is currently having a breakthrough season with Quevilly FC in the French Ligue 2. Currently in the middle of the table, a strong tournament could see Sangaré work his way up the French footballing pyramid.
Vincent Aboubakar, ST, Cameroon
There was a surprising lack of goals throughout the first round, with only 31-year old Vincent Aboubakar finding the back of the net more than once. Aboubakar was able to score twice, both times ice-cold penalties, and ultimately was able to lead Cameroon to victory against Burkina Faso.
Now playing in Saudi side Al Nassr, Aboubakar has won his fair share of silverware throughout tenures in Turkey, France, Cameroon, Portugal, and Saudi Arabia, and continues to score at an elite rate. A successful tournament could see the Cameroonian possibly head back to Europe, but he’s undoubtedly quite content with how his career has panned out up to now.
The African Cup of Nations will continue to see new stars be discovered and old players rediscovered, but it’s exciting to see how many quality performances there have been after just one round of fixtures. Anyone you think I left out? Let me know in the comments!
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