Mohamed Salah is enjoying a remarkable debut season for Liverpool, having joined the club for a £36.9 million fee from Roma last June. He is poised to break Robbie Fowler’s single season goal scoring record for Liverpool, with his 32 goal tally in all competitions leaving him just 4 behind Fowler’s total, with at least 11 games still to play. Salah has also impressed on the international stage; the Egyptian scored the winning penalty against Congo in October to take the nation to their first World Cup since 1990, and will carry the hopes of his nation in Russia.
All of these feats are impressive, and were not to be expected of a player who never hit real heights in his previous spell at Chelsea, scoring only 2 goals in 19 appearances for the club before being sold to Roma in 2016. But Steven Gerrard (not the most unbiased source of commentary on this issue), when asked if Mo Salah is the greatest African player in Premier League History, let it slip that he “probably” already is, and that if he continues to get goals and set a record “you would have to say yes”.
This isn’t as asinine as Gerrard’s claim that Joe Cole could do “anything that Messi does, if not better”, but it is absolutely wrong nonetheless. Understandably, he is obviously biased due to his affinity with Liverpool, but this cannot excuse the crazy assertion that he has made. The Premier League was formed in 1992, and has seen several legendary footballers from the African continent. The 90’s saw the arrival of Tony Yeboah and Nwankwo Kanu, both scorers of iconic Premier League goals, with Kanu in particular starring for title-winning Arsenal sides alongside the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, later becoming an ‘Invincible’ in 2004.
In fact, Arsenal have probably been the club most spoilt by the presence of quality African players, mainly due to Arsene Wenger’s expert scouting network in French football, who often spotted talented Francophone African players before other European giants. Cameroon’s Lauren replaced Arsenal legend Lee Dixon at right-back, winning two Premier League titles and three FA Cup titles, and his 6-year spell saw arguably the finest performances at right-back that the country has seen in the Premier League era.
Kolo Toure’s best days in football were also at the North London club, forming a great centre-back partnership with Sol Campbell that saw Arsenal reach the 2006 Champions League final after keeping a European competition record 10 consecutive clean sheets.
Emmanuel Adebayor is much less popular at Arsenal these days, but he was a very good striker for them on his day, scoring 30 goals in 48 appearances in 2007/2008. He also went on to score 61 goals in 158 appearances for Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.
Who can forget the mercurial Jay-Jay Okocha, Africa’s own answer to Ronaldinho, who lit up the Premier League with Sam Allardyce’s Bolton side that has been criminally underrated by history, achieving a 6th place finish in 2005-06 and a UEFA Cup spot.
During his spell at Chelsea, Michael Essien was arguably the Premier League’s most dominant defensive midfielder of all time, and perhaps if he were Irish and wore a permanent scowl on his face, he may have etched himself in Premier League folklore more. Essien was capable of scoring goals that world class forwards could only dream of, yet could control the tempo of a game by himself, relying upon his technical ability and physical prowess to overrun his opposing midfielder. He was named Chelsea Player of the Year in 2006/2007, ahead of the likes of Frank Lampard, John Terry and Didier Drogba.
Yet Drogba and his Ivorian compatriot Yaya Toure should share the title as the greatest African Premier League player of all time, as their CVs are inseparable, yet far ahead of the rest. Didier Drogba was the complete forward, and Toure was the complete midfield player. Drogba was prolific in the air, physically strong, and capable of scoring all types of goals. His record of being the only player to score in 4 different FA cup finals, as well as scoring 10 goals in 10 finals means he can be referred to without exaggeration as the ultimate big game player. His hold-up play was expert, and was able to occupy two defenders at once whilst bringing his teammates into play. He has been named by legendary defenders such as Nemanja Vidic and Carles Puyol as their toughest opponent, the ultimate compliment from a fellow professional.
Yaya Toure was capable of doing anything in midfield, be it a holding role, playing as a number 10 behind a striker, or performing a box to box role. He is the most technically gifted player in league history, with an ability to strike the ball in whichever way he pleased, be it to play a key final pass or score from distance. He combined close control and dribbling skills with a 6’2″ frame that allowed him to surge past opponents, and although his acceleration wasn’t mind-blowing, his top speed was amazing for a man of his size. He had a barely believable season in 2013/2014, reaching unprecedented productivity levels in leading Manchester City to their second Premier League title.
Yaya Toure’s remarkable 2013/14 statistics (Source: Sky Sports)
Mo Salah has a long way to go before being mentioned in the same breath as these illustrious names. Although his season so far is one of the best single seasons in Premier League history, that alone will not be enough to earn himself the title Gerrard has ascribed to him. After all, Riyad Mahrez was Leicester’s best player during their fairy-tale title win in 2016, with 18 goals and 11 assists in 33 appearances. He was also voted Players’ and Fans Player of the Year. Consistency, alongside personal and team honours could yet see Mo Salah joining the pantheon of African stars in the Premier League era.