Ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations, expectations were dampened following a series of high-profile injuries and absentees which ensured that this tournament wouldn’t boast as much starpower as competitions past.
However, while the likes of Gervinho, Yannick Bolasie and Joel Matip missed out, there were various new faces and unheralded stars who stepped up to take their opportunity and ensure that this tournament has been characterised by big performances by uncelebrated players.
In this feature, KweséSports profiles some of the breakout stars of the Nations Cup.
Christian Bassogog: The Cameroon forward is arguably in contention for the Player of the Tournament award, let alone receiving acknowledgement as one of the competition’s breakout stars.
He has been a dazzling presence in wide areas for the Indomitable Lions, edging Clinton N’Jie to the sidelines and ensuring Eric-Maxim Choupo Moting hasn’t been missed, and also contributed a goal in the victory over Ghana.
It’s been a remarkable Nations Cup debut for the stony-faced 21-year-old, whose career trajectory took him to Wilmington Hammerheads in the United States before he moved to Aab in Denmark.
Denis Bouanga: While all eyes were on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ahead of Gabon’s Nations Cup campaign, a case can certainly be made that the Borussia Dortmund forward wasn’t the hosts’ most outstanding offensive talent.
Instead, it was Bouanga – of Ligue 2 side Tours – who regularly looked the most lively, the most inventive, and the most likely to rescue the Panthers.
He contributed the assist for Auba’s opener, and should have made the decisive pass in the final group game against Cameroon, only for the African Footballer of the Year to spurn a golden opportunity.
Herve Kouakou Koffi: Perhaps Koffi’s tournament will be remembered for his penalty miss in the semi-final shoot-out defeat by Egypt, and in truth, it was a bizarre moment and a major gamble by the Stallions and their young guardsman that ultimately proved costly.
However, the 20-year-old ought to be celebrated for his largely excellent campaign between the sticks for Burkina Faso, where he’s produced a number of dazzling stops, notable to deny Bassogog in the West Africans’ opener.
He should come back stronger from his heartbreak, and has the quality to become the finest African stopper of his generation.
Junior Kabananga: After a muted performance against Ghana in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s quarter-final defeat, Kabananga (main picture) naturally fell from the spotlight. However, it’s worth noting that, heading into the final two matches of the tournament, he remains the competition’s top scorer, and looks in pole position to at least share the Golden Boot.
His is a name that no-one would have considered among the favourites for the top scorer gong, but he took advantage of Bolasie’s absence to claim a starting spot in the Leopards’ first XI, troubling defences with his powerful frame and direct running.
Michael Ngadeu Ngadjui: Playing in his first major tournament, the Slavia Prague defender has been one of the key figures in Cameroon’s ‘surprise package’ finalists.
Playing either as a centre-back or in the centre of the midfield, Ngadeu Ngadjui’s 6’3” frame has proved dominant, while he’s also weighed in with two goals – including the opener against Ghana.
At just 26, the powerful stopper still has his best years ahead of him.