Ndidi, Oyekuru among African football’s breakout stars in 2017


In this feature, we review the last 12 months of African football, and pick out our top five breakout stars in the continental game.
For the purpose of this piece, we’ve defined a ‘breakout player’ as someone whose popularity and profile has increased dramatically this year based on their performances.
Which of these players have impressed you this term, and who among this quintet appear destined for the top?
Henry Onyekuru: At the beginning of the 2016-17, many Super Eagles fans hadn’t even heard of Onyekuru, let alone the broader footballing fraternity.
However, a remarkable campaign of goal scoring in the Bundesliga with KAS Eupen – he was top scorer in the Jupiler League with 22 goals in 38 matches – the 20-year-old was signed by Everton on a £7 million deal.
Of course, the youngster could yet be a one-season wonder, but his performances on loan at Anderlecht this season have suggested that he has the quality to be a hit upon his return to Goodison Park.
Despite being employed in an unfamiliar left wing-back role at times this term, the wideman already has nine goals in 18 outings for the Jupiler League giants, and should have done enough to earn a spot in Gernot Rohr’s Nigeria squad this summer.
Keita Balde: Unlike some of the other players on this list, Keita has long been considered one of the brightest young prospects in the African game, yet only over the last 12 months has the Senegal international truly suggested that he can be one of the continent’s superstars.
Indeed, while there were always flashes of brilliance from the troubled wonderkid during his first season at Lazio, last term he began to demonstrate a consistency and an effectiveness in the final third that had previously been missing.
Indeed, he ended the year with 16 goals and three assists in 31 outings, and also broke a Serie A record when he netted the division’s fastest-ever hat-trick against Palermo.
It should have been more had he not been embroiled in a contractual dispute with the club at the start of the campaign.
He duly earned a big-money move to Monaco, and while he hasn’t truly established himself in Ligue 1 yet, the forward has at least done enough to suggest that he could be a long-term replacement for Kylian Mbappe.
Joris Gnagnon: Watching Gnagnon in action, it can be hard to believe that he’s still only 20. The Ivorian boasts both refined anticipation and composure in possession, and already has over a half-century of Ligue 1 apps under his belt.
He first truly caught the attention towards the end of 2016, delivering outstanding performances as Stade Rennais kept clean sheets against Toulouse and Saint-Etienne.
He’s admirably managed to maintain a high level of performance, and was the outstanding player on the park in February as Rennes beat Lorient.
He was introduced to the international fold under Marc Wilmots but is yet to make his international debut. That will certainly change in 2018, and while Rennes have been bullish about keeping him to date, expect bigger teams to circle in the transfer windows to come.
Wilfred Ndidi: It’s been a magnificent year for Ndidi, who’s experienced a host of emotions both at club and international level.
After Nampalys Mendy and Daniel Amartey had both failed to replace N’Golo Kante in the heart of Leicester City’s midfield, the Foxes turned to Genk’s Nigerian battler.
He was a key figure as the reigning Premier League champions pulled away from the relegation zone following the departure of Claudio Ranieri, and appeared remarkably unfazed by life in the English top flight or the unfamiliar climes of the Champions League knockouts.
Ndidi commanded authority in the heart of the park right from his arrival, and translated this form to the international arena where he quickly established himself as a key man in Rohr’s new Nigeria side.
Recently, the midfielder has demonstrated another element to his game, contributing three assists during the East Midlanders’ revival under Claude Puel.
Amine Harit: When Morocco secured the international commitment of Harit in 2017, it was a major statement of intent for the Atlas Lions and a refreshing reversal of the ‘talent drain’ that typically benefits European nations at the expense of their African counterparts.
Pontoise-born Harit was, after all one of France’s star performers at the U-20 European Championships in 2016, and duly broke into the Nantes first team at the start of last season.
However, 2017’s been his real breakout campaign; he established himself as a regular in the Canaries’ starting XI – making 30 appearances as they finished seventh last term – before securing a summer move to Schalke.
The 20-year-old has adapted seamlessly to life in Germany, with his versatility and composure making him a key figure in Domenico Tedesco’s side.
Expect more – much more – in 2018, while for Morocco, a Harit-Hakim Ziyech-Sofyan Amrabat midfield has the potential to be Africa’s best.

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