Football Features

2021 Africa Cup of Nations: Wonderkids and potential breakthrough acts to watch

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 12:00, 8 January 2022

It goes without saying a major international tournament is the perfect showcase to discover the stars of tomorrow.

While this is usually reserved for youth competitions, the same does apply at senior level. The upcoming Africa Cup of Nations is a perfect example. Laced across the 24 participating squads are talents in their formative years. Some are more seasoned, while others have shown glimpses of what they’re capable of doing.

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We’ve taken a look at eight: a combination of wunderkinds and those ready to break through for their respective national teams.

Kamaldeen Sulemana (Ghana)

Age: 19

Club: Rennes

International caps: 7

This past summer there was reportedly a bidding war for Nordsjaelland forward Kamaldeen Sulemana and with good reason. The teenager scored 14 goals and recorded seven assists in 43 appearances across all competitions for the Danish club. Among those interested were Ajax and Manchester United but in the end Stade Rennais acquired his services, and he’s since produced four strikes in 18 league outings. This rise has since earned him seven international caps, but the Techiman-born winger is yet to open his account. He’s likely to be in the Black Stars’ starting lineup given his recent prominent role, starting in five of Ghana’s last six international matches.

Mohamed Camara (Mali)

Age: 22

Club: Red Bull Salzburg

International caps: 10

History was made last month when Red Bull Salzburg earned a first Champions League round of 16 spot, so with a team averaging just 23 years old. Among the very talented bunch is defensive midfielder Mohamed Camara, who featured in each group stage outing. A product of the club’s impressive youth set-up, Camara keeps things simple and his ability to mesh individual skill with stamina holds him in good stead. Exuding the swagger of a veteran he’s already earned 10 international caps, though there’s no guarantee he will be in Mohamed Magassouba’s starting lineup when Les Aigles face Tunisia on the opening week. But if he does, expect him to be a difference-maker.

Omar Rekik (Tunisia)

Age: 20

Club: Arsenal

International caps: 1

Omar Rekik’s big brother Karim came through at Manchester City before winning an Eredivisie title while on loan at PSV but since then he’s been wandering and currently plies his trade at Sevilla. Omar, meanwhile, is yet to make his senior professional debut at club level, now at Arsenal after spending time at various youth teams including Feyenoord and Man City. Even so, he’s part of Tunisia’s squad — after choosing to represent them over the Netherlands where he was born and raised — and there’s every chance of him adding to his one international cap.

Zakaria Aboukhlal (Morocco)

Age: 21

Club: AZ

International caps: 6

Another Dutch-born youngster representing a North African nation is Zakaria Aboukhlal, who has been a revelation at AZ in the Eredivisie. So far in 68 appearances for the Cheeseheads, Aboukhlal has scored eight goals including one in their 2-1 win at defending champions Ajax last month. The native of Rotterdam, who previously spent time in PSV’s academy, had represented the Netherlands at various youth levels before opting to play for Morocco at senior level and debuted in November 2020 against Central Africa Republic which also saw him net his first international goal. That strike remains Aboukhlal’s only effort for the Atlas Lions; a backup option at the moment, he’ll be seeking to maximise any minutes that come his way.

Mohammed Kudus (Ghana)

Age: 21

Club: Ajax

International caps: 10

We are staying in the Eredivisie where Mohammed Kudus continues to work his way back into Erik ten Hag’s starting XI at Ajax. Having joined Ajax from Nordsjaelland in August 2020, the Ghanaian earned an immediate spot in the starting XI before a devastating knee injury curtailed his momentum. He returned at the backend of last season but the dynamic box-to-box midfielder remains an option from the bench. Although, it’s clear whenever Kudus plays that he brings another dimension to Ajax’s game through powerful runs from deep and exemplary distribution. Milovan Rajevac is not exactly short on good midfield options and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Kudus add to his 10 caps which has already seen him bag three goals for the four-time AFCON champions.

Hannibal Mejbri (Tunisia)

Age: 18

Club: Manchester United

International caps: 9

If there’s one thing Manchester United pride themselves on, it’s their youth academy, which has served them well down the years. Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood are two recent examples of youth products breaking through and holding down a place in the senior team. Both certainly inspire teenager Hannibal Mejbri who’ll be part of Tunisia’s set-up this month. Despite playing just eight minutes for Man Utd’s first team,  he’s already featured nine times for the Eagles of Carthage with the bulk of those coming in the recent FIFA Arab Cup in which they went all the way to the final. Mondher Kebaier’s men fell to reigning AFCON champions Algeria after extra-time, but the experience was invaluable to an ever-present Mejbri who showed he’s ready to make that next step.

Maduka Okoye (Nigeria)

Age: 22

Club: Sparta Rotterdam (on loan from Watford)

International caps: 13

It remains to be seen whether Maduka Okoye will be a Premier League footballer next season. The young Nigerian goalkeeper recently penned a deal at Watford before being loaned back to Sparta Rotterdam, where he’s kept just two clean sheets across 16 league outings this season. Even though Okoye’s numbers aren’t eye-catching, the Düsseldorf-born international comes into the 2021 AFCON as the Super Eagles‘ first-choice shot-stopper after keeping six shutouts across his previous nine outings.

Saïdou Sow (Guinea)

Age: 19

Club: Saint-Étienne

International caps: 7

Described as a modern-day hybrid centre-back, Saïdou Sow is following in the footsteps of Wesley Fofana and William Saliba, both of whom shone at Saint-Étienne before moving onto pastures new. The former Sainté Les Verts academy graduate has featured 11 times for his boyhood club this season — netting twice in the process — and is was recently linked to AC Milan following Simon Kjaer’s season-ending injury. However, according to reports, Paolo Maldini felt Sow wasn’t ready for a Serie A move. But his mind could be changed if the 19-year-old gets an opportunity to steal the show in Cameroon.

Honourable mentions: Ilaix Moriba (Guinea), Pape Matar Sarr (Senegal), Abdoul Tapsoba (Burkina Faso), Imran Louza (Morocco).