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Ten breakout players from the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations group stage

The Africa Cup of Nations is an excellent venue for Africa’s most prestigious footballers to display their skills, but it is also a competition where players from a wide range of leagues can establish themselves and turn into key contributors for their national side. What makes the tournament truly special is when players such as Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mané of Liverpool can play alongside players who are based in African leagues and the lower tiers of European football. Pan-Africa Football compiled a list of players from a variety of backgrounds who have turned in breakout performances in the 2021 AFCON in Cameroon to become key members for their national sides. The main qualification for this list is the inclusion of players who have not previously been a major contributor for their country in an international competition.

Little was known about Cameroon forward Christian Bassogog until he broke out at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, winning Best Player of the Tournament during Cameroon’s title run.

Jim Allevinah – Gabon (Clermont Foot [FRA])

Less than three years ago, the now 26-year-old was playing his club football in France’s 4th tier when he helped Le Puy Foot 43 earn promotion to the Championnat National and made his Gabon debut. A winger/forward who can operate on either flank, Allevinah’s skill on the ball and ability to sneak behind defenses has helped Gabonese supporters forget about the poor behavior of exiled stars Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mario Lemina. The crafty winger is here to stay for a Panthers team that has confounded the experts.

Joe Aribo – Nigeria (Rangers [SCO])

The English-born midfielder won his starting position in the Super Eagles lineup over the course of FIFA World Cup and AFCON qualifying, beating out worthy candidates such as Frank Onyeka and taking advantage of Oghenekaro Etebo’s injury to become a regular fixture next to Wilfried Ndidi in the center of midfield. Aribo compliments Ndidi well because he has the ability to drive forward with the ball and initiate attacks so that Ndidi can focus more on his strengths of breaking up attacks while sitting in front of the defensive line. The versatile 25-year-old has established himself as a valuable squad member going forward for Nigeria.

Roberto Lopes – Cape Verde
(Shamrock Rovers [IRL])

In a competition that features plenty of technique and skill, the Irish-born center back known as “Pico” is a welcome sight with his no-nonsense defending and crunching challenges. Many news publications have covered the interesting story of how the 29-year-old ended up representing Cape Verde but the Shamrock Rovers player has proven on the pitch that he can go toe-to-toe with African football’s physically imposing strikers.

Mohamed Kamara – Sierra Leone (East End Lions)

Goalkeeper is the position where domestic-based players are afforded the most opportunity at the AFCON and Kamara has grabbed the spotlight with both gloves. The diminutive 22-year-old’s reflexes have been excellent, and he showed off cat-like agility in saving a penalty kick from Ivorian star Franck Kessié. Kamara has shown remarkable improvement since he was given his opportunity by Leone Stars manager John Keister in the team’s miraculous comeback 4-4 draw against Nigeria during qualifying.

Esteban Obiang – Equatorial Guinea
(Antequera [ESP])

The 23-year-old Real Betis youth product has spent his entire career playing in the fourth tier of Spanish football but is now showing his ability to position himself in the right place at the right time on Africa’s biggest stage. Capable of playing as a defender either centrally or out wide on the right flank, Obiang started every match in AFCON qualifying and returned to the starting lineup late in FIFA World Cup qualifying to help the Nzalang Nacional to a 1-0 win over Tunisia. Capped off excellent performances with the winning goal in Equatorial Guinea’s historic victory over Algeria.

James Gomez – Gambia (AC Horsens [DEN])

With veteran leader Omar Colley alongside him in the center of Gambia’s defense, the former Real de Banjul player’s confidence continues to grow as the Scorpions move along on their quest to make a deep run in Cameroon. Gomez possesses confidence in his distribution when playing the ball out of the back and has gained valuable experience against Mali and Tunisia. Playing regularly at international level and with Horsens in Denmark’s second tier, the 20-year-old’s trajectory continues to climb.

Nouhou Tolo- Cameroon
(Seattle Sounders FC [USA])

Nouhou’s energy and defensive contributions have made the left back a fan favorite over five seasons at Seattle Sounders in Major League Soccer, but the Douala-born defender waited patiently for his chance in the Indomitable Lions starting lineup since making his senior national team debut in 2017. The 24-year-old seized his spot during 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying and is showing his improved confidence going forward, drawing the foul that set up Cameroon’s winning penalty kick in their AFCON opener against Burkina Faso.

Bouna Sarr – Senegal (Bayern Munich [GER])

Senegalese supporters have not been impressed with their squad in Cameroon, but the attack minded right back was a major reason why the Lions of Teranga still won Group B. Different from the rest of the list in that the 29-year-old born in France is a veteran at the top levels of European football, Sarr recently committed to play for Senegal and has played just about every competitive minute since debuting against Namibia in World Cup qualifying. One of the few bright spots propping up an underperforming Senegalese attack.

Moreto Cassamá – Guinea-Bissau
(Stade Reims [FRA])

The former Portugal youth international and FC Porto product made his debut as a substitute in the final game of Guinea-Bissau’s 2019 AFCON participation and was one of the few bright spots in 2021 as the Djurtus again went out in the group stage. Cassamá’s increased role in Guinea-Bissau matches his growth in club football, appearing regularly in his favored central midfield playmaking role for Reims in France’s Ligue 1. If Guinea-Bissau is able to find a capable finisher up top than the excellent passes Cassamá provides will not go to waste so often.

Gustavo Sangaré – Burkina Faso
(US Quevilly [FRA])

A central midfielder who prefers to sit deeper and use his passing vision to locate attacking teammates, Sangaré helped Quevilly earn promotion to France’s Ligue 2 for the 2021-22 season and made an excellent impression in World Cup qualifying. The 25-year-old is a set piece specialist for Les Étalons whose confidence continues to increase for club and country. If Burkina Faso want to advance far, Sangaré is an essential connection between the defense and attack.

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