Ranked! The 20 best African players in Premier League history

Michael Essien, Didier Drogba
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The continent of Africa has supplied hundreds of footballers to the Premier League since its inception in 1992, and many have won both collective trophies and individual accolades.

But who are the very best Africans to have played in the division over the last 30 years?

20. Peter Ndlovu

Peter Ndlovu

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The former Zimbabwe captain first moved to England with Coventry in 1991, playing a total of 196 games and scoring 43 goals for the Sky Blues. Widely regarded as his country’s greatest ever outfielder, he spent 13 seasons playing in England and was the first African to appear in the newly formed Premier League.

There, Ndlovu formed a fine partnership with Micky Quinn that helped fire Coventry to the top of the table (briefly), before they finished 15th. He was linked with a move to Arsenal in 1993/94, but the potentially record-breaking transfer failed to materialise. Ndlovu didn't leave Coventry until 1997, when he joined second-tier Birmingham and became a popular figure at St Andrew's.

19. Steven Pienaar

Steven Pienaar

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Pienaar represented three Premier League clubs, but his stints at Tottenham and Sunderland were rather forgettable. The South African's spell at Everton was much more successful, spanning eight-and-a-half seasons across two spells.

He first arrived on Merseyside as a loanee in 2007/08, striking up a fine relationship with Leighton Baines on the left flank and helping David Moyes's men to a fifth-place finish.

Pienaar went on to make 189 league appearances for the Toffees, and although he didn't score many – just 20 in that time – he supplied plenty of trickery and creativity out wide. He didn't win a trophy at Goodison Park but was named Everton's Player of the Year in 2009/10.

18. Salomon Kalou

Salomon Kalou

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Kalou wasn’t always a regular starter during his six seasons at Chelsea, but he still made more than 30 Premier League appearances in three of those campaigns. The selfless Ivorian routinely chipped in with goals and assists, including 10 of the former in 2010/11.

His only Premier League title came a year before that, when Kalou found the net five times for Carlo Ancelotti’s free-scoring side. The ex-Feyenoord forward signed off his Chelsea career in style, helping the Blues win their first ever Champions League crown in 2012.

17. Tony Yeboah

Tony Yeboah

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Highlight reels of the Premier League’s early years are peppered with sensational goals scored by the Ghanaian. His glorious, crossbar-assaulting strike for Leeds against Liverpool in 1995 made him an instant star in England.

Signed from Eintracht Frankfurt – where he’d finished as the Bundesliga’s top scorer in successive seasons – Yeboah only spent two-and-a-half years in the Premier League but managed to score 32 goals in 66 matches, including three hat-tricks for the Yorkshire club.

16. Lauren

Lauren

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A key part of Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles side, Lauren played 47 matches in all competitions in 2003/04. Following six successful years in north London – which included two Premier League titles and three FA Cups – the right-back won the 2008 FA Cup with Portsmouth.

However, it’s his solid performances in the red and white of Arsenal that earn him his place on this list. The former Levante man arrived in England for £7.2m from Mallorca, and after an injury-plagued first season went on to replace Lee Dixon as Arsenal’s first-choice right-back brilliantly.

15. Lucas Radebe

Lucas Radebe

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In precisely 200 league games over an 11-year spell at Leeds, the former Kaizer Chiefs defender didn't score a single goal – so it's a good job he was rather impressive at the other end of the pitch. After struggling to establish himself in the centre of Howard Wilkinson’s defence, Radebe began to flourish when George Graham replaced Sgt Wilko in 1996.

The South African went on to captain Leeds as they finished third in 1999/2000, before reaching the Champions League semi-finals the following season. Radebe received high praise from Alex Ferguson even after he turned down a move to Old Trafford, and was also said to be a sporting hero to his compatriot Nelson Mandela.

14. John Obi Mikel

John Obi Mikel

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The Nigerian midfielder originally hit the headlines in England when he was photographed in a Manchester United shirt in 2005, before a transfer tussle between the Red Devils and Chelsea ensued. Following a year-long dispute, the then-teenager joined the Blues for £16m – £4m going to his former club Lyn in Oslo and the rest to United.

He was worth the money – and the wait. Mikel went on to play more than 350 times for Chelsea and was part of the squad that lifted the Champions League in 2012. During his nine years at the Bridge, he won two Premier League titles, four FA Cups, a Europa League and a couple of League Cups, before moving to China with Tianjin TEDA in 2017.

13. Yakubu Ayegbeni

Yakubu

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The Nigerian striker moved to England on a permanent basis with Portsmouth in summer 2003, following a successful loan spell at Fratton Park. The Yak played all but one of their matches in the top flight the following season, scoring 16 times – including four on the final day in a 5-1 win against Middlesbrough.

In total, he netted 28 times for the south coast club in his two seasons, before moving to Boro in 2005. Yakubu scored with regularity at the Riverside before Everton broke their transfer record to take him to Goodison for £11.25m in 2007. A prolific first season produced 21 goals but injuries hampered him after that – although he went on to get 17 for Blackburn in a resurgent 2011/12.

12. Emmanuel Adebayor

Emmanuel Adebayor

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An unpopular reputation can cloud just how good a player Adebayor was in his prime. After moving from Monaco in 2006, he enjoyed his best season with the Gunners in 2007/08, scoring 30 goals in all competitions. The Togo totem became a hate figure among Gooners following his acrimonious 2009 transfer to Manchester City, especially after pelting the length of the Etihad pitch to celebrate a goal against his former club.

Adebayor joined Tottenham after a spell on loan at Real Madrid; he spent a relatively successful four years at White Hart Lane and scored 42 times in 113 appearances, before a disappointing stint at Crystal Palace. His haul of 97 Premier League goals is the second-highest total by an African player.

11. Kolo Toure

Kolo Toure

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Only one of two Africans (alongside Riyad Mahrez) to win the Premier League title with two different clubs, Toure was an integral part of Arsenal’s Invincibles season in 2003/04, making 55 appearances in all competitions as the Gunners went unbeaten in the Premier League.

After playing more than 300 games for Arsenal, the defender went on to play for Manchester City – where he added his second title in 2011/12 – and Liverpool. Along with younger brother Yaya, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho, he was part of the Ivory Coast’s golden generation and helped his country to Africa Cup of Nations glory in 2015.

10. Wilfried Zaha

Wilfried Zaha

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Raised in London but born in the Ivory Coast, Zaha initially threw his lot in with England at international level, before switching allegiance to the West African nation in 2017. The Crystal Palace talisman actually represented Manchester United and Cardiff in the top flight before his boyhood club, to whom he returned after a year away in 2014.

Zaha has been Palace’s key man since then, to the extent that many deem him the most crucial player to any team in the division. It may not have been his choice to remain in South London as long as he has - but Eagles fans are ecstatic that he has. 

9. Jay-Jay Okocha

Jay-Jay Okocha

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A freebie from PSG in 2002, Okocha spent four years with Sam Allardyce's Bolton in a remarkable era for the Trotters. A team which also boasted players like Youri Djorkaeff and Ivan Campo transformed the club from relegation candidates to European challengers, with Allardyce's side finishing in the top eight for four successive seasons and reaching the last 32 of the UEFA Cup.

Okocha wowed Bolton fans with plenty of glorious memories – a corking winning goal against West Ham in 2003, two stunning free-kicks in the 2004 League Cup semi-final and various mesmerising tricks to bamboozle opponents across the division.

8. Nwankwo Kanu

Nwankwo Kanu

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After winning three successive Eredivisie titles and the 1995 Champions League with Ajax, Kanu endured three miserable seasons at Inter. A £4.15m move to Arsenal in 1999 proved exceptional value; the gangly Nigerian forward played 197 times for the Highbury club, helping them to two Premier League titles and two FA Cups.

Moving on to West Brom and then Portsmouth, he helped the south coast side win the 2008 FA Cup, scoring the only goal in the final against Cardiff. Even so, his finest individual moment was a 15-minute hat-trick at Chelsea which helped the Gunners turn a 2-0 deficit into a famous victory.

7. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

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If this ranking was based on ability alone, Aubameyang would be much higher up the list. The Gabon international remains one of Europe’s deadliest marksmen, as he demonstrated in scoring 68 Premier League goals during his time at Arsenal.

Yet despite having delivered plenty of goals, and captaining the club to FA Cup glory in 2020, Auba's legacy at Arsenal was tarnished by the manner of his exit. Back in the Premier League with Chelsea, Aubameyang will look to prove his doubters wrong. 

6. Riyad Mahrez

Riyad Mahrez

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Mahrez was a major player in the biggest shock in English football history, helping Leicester win the title in 2015/16 and becoming the first Algerian to scoop a Premier League medal in the process. The PFA Player of the Year award was worthy recognition for a return of 17 goals in 37 appearances.

Since joining Manchester City, he's become one of the most reliable players in the world, with a world-class first touch and an electric ability to cut in from the right and make something happen for Pep Guardiola's side. He's gone from a thrilling outlier season at Leicester to outstanding consistency - and he's just fantastically fun to watch, too.

5. Michael Essien

Michael Essien

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Should your local pub quiz ever pop the question, "Which African was the first to win Chelsea's Player of the Year award and won the club's Goal of the Season gong twice in three years?", the entire pub would scribble down "Didier Drogba". Except it wasn't. Chelsea’s record signing when he joined from Lyon for £24.4m back in 2005, Essien bagged both personal trophies in 2007, winning the goal prize again two years later.

His career in England came to an end when injuries began to take their toll, but in nine hugely successful seasons Essien helped Chelsea to two league titles, four FA Cups and the Champions League. Not just one of the Premier League's best Africans, but one of its best midfielders.

4. Sadio Mane

Sadio Mane

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Mane improved season on season since joining Southampton from Salzburg in summer 2014. After two creditable campaigns on the south coast, the Senegalese speedster joined Liverpool – but not before scoring the quickest-ever Premier League hat-trick, in two minutes and 56 seconds against Aston Villa.

Mane continued his fine form with Jurgen Klopp’s side, winning their Player of the Year award having netted 13 times in 27 Premier League outings during 2016/17.

He later became one of three in the most iconic modern frontline in recent memory alongside Salah and Roberto Firmino at Anfield. Mane received a fond farewell when he left for Bayern Munich in 2022.

3. Yaya Toure

Yaya Toure

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After joining his brother Kolo at Manchester City in 2010, Yaya notched eight goals and eight assists in his first season in England. He went on to net 59 top-flight goals, as well as bagging crucial goals in City’s FA Cup run of 2011/12, helping the club to its first trophy in 35 years.

At his peak during the 2013/14 campaign, Toure scored 24 times to lead City to a second Premier League title. He won a third crown in 2017/18 despite falling out of favour under Pep Guardiola, but at his best he was one of the most dominant midfield forces in Premier League history.

2. Didier Drogba

Didier Drogba

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The Ivorian striker initially struggled following his £24m move from Marseille in summer 2004, but was regarded as one of the club’s greatest ever players by the time he left Chelsea after his first spell. Drogba scored 157 goals in 341 matches and was colossal as the Blues beat Bayern Munich to win their first ever Champions League trophy in 2012.

The striker returned to west London for a season in 2014/15, winning a fourth Premier League title to add to his collection of four FA Cups and three League Cups. Drogba goes down as a defining centre-forward in Premier League tactical history; combining power with grace, he was a one-man forward line whose presence helped create midfield dominance.

1. Mohamed Salah

Mohamed Salah

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It’s fair to say Salah’s first spell in the Premier League didn’t go to plan. Acquired from Basel in January 2014, he made just 13 appearances for Chelsea in the top flight before being shipped off to Serie A. Three successful seasons with Fiorentina and Roma convinced Liverpool to bring Salah back to English shores for £37m – a fee which now looks like an incredible bargain.

Salah hit the ground sprinting at Anfield, producing one of the most outstanding individual campaigns in Premier League history with 32 goals in 36 outings. He has continued in that vein ever since.

Salah has become more than a talisman: he is one of few players in the league capable of turning games on his own, conjuring moments of magic on a regular basis. He's unstoppable. He's inevitable. And he's not finished yet...

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Ed McCambridge
Staff Writer

Ed is a staff writer at FourFourTwo, working across the magazine and website. A German speaker, he’s been working as a football reporter in Berlin since 2015, predominantly covering the Bundesliga and Germany's national team. Favourite FFT features include an exclusive interview with Jude Bellingham following the youngster’s move to Borussia Dortmund in 2020, a history of the Berlin Derby since the fall of the Wall and a celebration of Kevin Keegan’s playing career.

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