Mane, Salah or Mahrez: The battle of Africa’s superstar forwards


There are strong claims all around, and a strong political debate as a thought-provoking subtext, as the Caf Awards take place on Tuesday

On Tuesday, the Confederation of African Football will host a swanky gala in Egypt, the highlight of which will be the announcement of their choice for African Footballer of the Year.

A needlessly bloated initial long list has now been whittled down to a very manageable three, all of whom have a strong enough claim under any consideration. Although it is widely expected that Senegal forward Sadio Mane will be crowned for the first time, Riyad Mahrez and Mohamed Salah have shared the last three gongs, and come into this year’s edition on the back of pretty strong years in their own right.

Salah of course shares almost all of the highs that have so elevated Mane; Liverpool’s sixth Champions League title owed much to the combined offensive firepower of that duo plus Roberto Firmino, even as, for the first time, the concept of a sibling rivalry entered into the conversation.

Both moved quickly to quell the insinuations, and if the well was in any way poisoned, it has not been to the detriment of the Reds, who have continued to accrue wins by the week.

So far ahead are they in the title race at the turn of the year that it is now considered only a matter of time before the championship they came within one point of winning last season is handed over to them. It will no doubt have greater significance than their somewhat symbolic wins in the Uefa Super Cup and the Fifa Club World Cup, but it is the winning culture that those lesser trophies have helped foster that is the greater legacy.

The sheer weight of the silverware does not hurt though, especially when, like Salah and Mane, there is a prestigious award in the offing.

That brings to the fore the key debate that conditions this award: quantity or quality, and in this case of the latter, what is the relevant context?

Mahrez’s claim to the prize, a historic and frankly unexpected triumph at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, naturally has quite a bit of heft. It is, after all, Caf’s flagship competition. That ought to count for something.

Some might even say that, given the continent’s long history of deferring to European club football (a perception that, for political reasons, is expedient for the Ahmad Ahmad presidency to not only shun, but actively shed), it should count for everything.

There is a point there, even though, as with most things, politics only serves to besmirch the magic of a first Afcon win in 39 years. On its own merits, it was momentous enough. Algeria were clearly the best team in the competition from start to end, and Mahrez assumed a central role, scoring three times – including that famous semi-final winner with the very last kick against Nigeria – and sacrificing his individual flair to a degree in service of the collective.

The question then is whether Caf should implicitly place a greater on the Afcon and achievements (and performances) within it.

It is a parameter that would heavily favour Mahrez, but would immediately eliminate Salah from the conversation: Egypt were disappointing as the host nation, suffering a flat elimination in the Round of 16 at the hands of South Africa.

Riyad Mahrez - Algeria

Mane though would still score pretty highly by that measure, seeing as it was his Senegal that eventually lost the final to Mahrez and Algeria.

He also scored thrice in the competition, and may well have had more but for his wastefulness from the penalty spot – he missed twice, raising some interesting questions about just how much, by contrast, the Teranga Lions seemed entirely subjugated to his ego.

Ultimately, it seems a much too narrow parameter to fit through, even leaving aside the fact that no four-week competition, however influential, should be able to upstage an entire year’s work. At club level, Mahrez has been a part of Manchester City’s relentless winning machine, but only latterly has his role been significantly expanded.

There is, of course, the broader question of why any of this even matters. There is a touch of the anachronistic to these individual awards, and even those not cynical enough to shrug and label it exactly what it appears to be – glitzy massage therapy for the egos of super-wealthy athletes – can at least admit this seems pretty hollow.

The search for deeper meaning can only be resolved by latching on to a comforting pattern: the end of the 2010s has seen the return of the larger-than-life African superstar forward that dominated African football in noughties.

For Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o and Emmanuel Adebayor, read Salah, Mane and Mahrez: all influential attackers playing at the absolute highest level of football in Europe, while being the veritable emblems of their country’s hopes.


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