Mo Salah. Sadio Mane. Riyadh Mahrez.
All three footballers are household names across the planet, transcending the cities in which they play, and the Premier League itself, to exist as global superstars.
All three also began their careers in their home continent of Africa, before descending upon European football with electric reputations and big money price tags.
And so it often goes with the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s premier international tournament, that every edition sees a new batch of superstars plucked from relative obscurity to the lofty heights of the UEFA Champions League.
From time to time, players are already in Europe but at lesser known sides, while some still ply their trade in Africa, but almost always they are catapulted to super stardom overnight.
With that, though, comes risk.
A rapid increase in earning potential, exposure and publicity manifests both personal and professional risk, while an increased value as an asset carries with it the chance of manipulation and exploitation.
So, with that in mind, we take a look at the top five players that are expected to emerge from AFCON 2021 on to the world stage.
Kamaldeen Sulemana, Ghana, Rennes
The transfer of Kamaldeen Sulemana from FC Nordsjælland to Rennes wasn’t headline news outside of Denmark, but the move - for a reported €20 million came - has proven money well spent for the Ligue 1 side so far.
Still only 19 years old and the third youngest name in Ghana’s squad for this tournament, Sulemana has been tasked with bringing his enthusiasm, speed and touch to a Ghana team looking for a resurgence in Cameroon.
At Rennes he’s scored four goals and assisted two more in just 996 minutes of Ligue 1 action, and while he remains a prospect, he’s exactly the young athlete that could be catapulted from obscurity to stardom during the tournament.
Europe’s elite have already been tracking the winger, and the numbers would suggest they better move quick. In his final season at FC Nordsjælland, only Lionel Messi attempted more takeons than him in Europe’s top 5 leagues, while the only player to take more shots per 90 minutes is Kylian Mbappe.
Chidera Ejuke, Nigeria, CSKA
Ejuke has grown from being relatively unknown to bearing the weight of expectation for the entire Nigerian nation.
The explosive CSKA Moscow forward stirs memories of Jay Jay Okocha - a livewire who will likely be expected to handle the number 10 role, coordinating movements between the midfield and attacking line.
There’s a long history of Nigerian footballers coming through the ranks for Russian football before emerging on to world football’s biggest stage, including Peter Odemwingie, Emanuel Emenike and Ahmed Musa.
Will Chidera Ejuke be the next to breakthrough?
Assan Ceesay, Gambia, FC Zurich
Assan Ceesay’s transformation into a regular goalscorer across 2021-22 has come as a welcome surprise to all FC Zürich supporters – Gambia will be hoping the same happens at AFCON 2021.
Ceesay has scored 11 goals in just 17 appearances in the Swiss Super League for FCZ so far this season and his goal scoring prowess have helped his side lead the league by seven points heading into the winter break, attracting a number of admirers.
Ceesay set a new club record for the fastest FC Zürich player to score 10 goals in a Super League season and netted four goals in a single match against Sion in October.
Gambia are rank outsiders at the tournament, with this being their first ever Africa Cup of Nations appearance. It was Ceesay’s goal in a 1-0 win over Angola in qualification that got them here, so it would be fitting if he was to be the hero throughout the tournament, as well.
Mohammed Bayo, Guinea, Clermont
Mohamed Bayo comes into AFCON 2021 as Guinea’s major goal threat following a brilliant 18 months at club level. His nation are expected to qualify for the Last 16 from Group B, but they’ll need Bayo to continue his club form to do so.
He’s scored the same amount of goals in Ligue 1 as Kylian Mbappe this year, and is just three away from the top scorer in the league - a performance that follows an exceptional 2020-21 domestic season, in which he topped the Ligue 2 scoring charts with 22 goals to fire Clermont Foot to the French top-flight.
Many suitors question whether that form could translate to the top level, but he’s already proving those doubters wrong and with Guinea expected to progress well in Cameroon, it’s likely Bayo will be front and centre of each and every win.
Farid Boulaya, Algeria, Metz
When he is in the mood, Boulaya is almost unplayable, but – perhaps fittingly for someone whose hero was Samir Nasri – he can be maddeningly frustrating.
In recent years, while Metz struggled for safety in Ligue 1, the mercurial playmaking talents of Boulaya were perhaps considered an unnecessary risk, and his appearances mostly came from the bench.
However, 2020/21 saw Frédéric Antonetti return as coach and look again to his playmaker to help make Metz’s play more expansive. In a career-best season, Boulaya made 32 Ligue 1 starts, scored six goals (almost all of them crucial to securing wins or draws) and produced eight assists as Metz achieved their best finish in two decades.
A big money move was already rumoured but the transfer never materialised and, amid rumours that he was unsettled, he missed the beginning of this season through “injury”. Metz desperately missed having a playmaker in the centre of the pitch, and Boulaya was quickly brought back in, and he hasn’t looked back.
Some of Metz’s more cynical fans may say that his recent form could be something to do with an approaching transfer window, but if that is the case, a successful AFCON could be the difference between a move to Europe’s elite or the also-rans.
Whatever the reasons, his performances could well be the difference in Algeria’s fight for the title.