When Liberia’s George Weah became the first African to win the FIFA World Player of the Year title, in 1995, many thought that it was going to be the first of many for the continent’s players.
With their ascendance and growing impact in European club football – which, fairly or unfairly, remains the yardstick for picking the best on the planet – it was taken as a given at the time.
But nearly 20 years have passed since the former AC Milan forward earned the game’s top individual award and it does not appear that another African will be following in Weah’s footsteps anytime soon.
Considering the fact that the Liberian is the only non-European or South American to have won the FIFA award, other regions of the world can, perhaps, look at African football with a degree of envy.
That is hardly any consolation for players like Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, who has not hidden his feelings about the perceived lack of recognition and respect for the achievements of African players in world football.
Samir Nasri, his club mate, certainly stoked controversy when he said Toure would have been regarded as the world’s top midfielder, but for the country and continent of origin.
“If he wasn’t African everyone will say he’s the best midfielder in the world,” said the Frenchman.
“He can do everything, he can score goals, he can defend, he can attack. When he gets the ball he is so powerful.
“Of course it counts against him being from Ivory Coast. If he was Argentinian or Brazilian everyone will talk about him…
“You have some Brazilians or Argentinians, I don’t want to say anything wrong, but just because they are from this country you pay them £40 million or £50 million.
“A guy like Yaya, he [has] won every trophy, he is always there. Tell me one defensive midfielder who can go forward like him who can score 16 or 17 goals in a season. Tell me one and then we can talk,” challenged Nasri.
“What Samir was saying was definitely true… I don’t want to be hard and I don’t want to be negative, but I want to be honest,” Toure said in support.
“If you go to any part of Africa now, people will say, ‘yes, we know him (Lionel Messi)’, but when you come to Europe and say ‘Yaya Touré’ people will say, ‘who is that?’ Some will say they know my name but not know my face. But they will know Messi’s face,” Toure said.
“I am very proud to be African, I want to defend African people and I want to show to the world that African players can be as good as the Europeans and South Americans.”
If Toure actually intended to use the words “can be” rather than the words “are as” in that statement (English, not being his first language, he could have used them in error), it would be revealing a deeply held feeling or perception that his ability – and the ability of some of Africa’s top players in Europe – are unfairly questioned.
And one cannot say that Toure’s feelings are without merit.
When one examines, for instance, the sterling achievements of Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o in European football (which I do not think I should have to chronicle, for any serious follower of the game) particularly the phenomenal scoring form that he displayed whilst with Barcelona, serious questions can be asked about why he has failed to win FIFA’s top award, especially in 2006, when he was arguably the best striker in the world.
In that year, in which Italy’s World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro won – the only one given to a defender – Eto’o didn’t even manage to make the shortlist.
And when he did, in 2005, the Cameroonian was third, behind Brazil’s Ronaldinho and England’s Frank Lampard. That placing is one that any serious follower of the game would find hard to justify.
Besides Weah, Eto’o is the only non-European or South American to have been in serious contention for the FIFA prize, since they began nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Would the achievements of strikers like Didier Drogba and the long-retired Ghanaian Tony Yeboah – undoubtedly one of the best strikers in the history of the German Bundesliga – have received a lot more global attention and respect, if they were European or South American?
Or is Toure just guilty of sour grapes? It is a question that the fraternity needs to ponder and answer honestly.
That a player of his undoubted talent seriously believes his achievements are denied the respect they deserve, just because of his country and continent or origin, is something that cannot – and should not – be dismissed with a wave of the hand.
Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.