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Two men, one with a short mohawk and the other with curly hair embrace, wearing red football jerseys.
Sadio Mané (left) with Mohamed Salah in 2018 when both played for Liverpool. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Superstars Sadio Mané and Mo Salah eclipse African football at home

Senegal’s Sadio Mané has beaten Egypt’s Mo Salah and the other nine players nominated for the African Footballer of the Year prize at this year’s Caf Awards held by the Confederation of African Football in Rabat, Morocco.

Both Mané and Salah – the clear favourites – rose to global prominence playing for Liverpool in the English Premier League, propelling the club to three champions league finals and winning a title. Both have won Caf player of the year before, Salah twice in 2017 and 2018, and Mané once in 2019. Now Mané has evened the score at 2-2.

Star forwards, their pursuits on the field are the stuff of fame and constant headlines. Mané grew up in the village of Bambali, Senegal and began his professional career at 19. Salah was born in Basyoun, Egypt and was also a football-loving child. He signed his first contract with a local club at 14. As African players shine in Europe, they are at the front of the changing face of international football.

There are thousands of African players like them, born and raised in humble circumstances with football offering a rare escape from poverty. Each of these players aspires to hold trophies in their hands. While Salah and Mané pave the way, the constant media attention on the exploits of African players in Europe tends to downplay the heroic exploits of African-based stars in national leagues and Pan African club competitions.

This lack of visibility could create an impression that top class football is played only in Europe. While Mané and Salah brought headlines to the 2022 prize, there are several other awards on the night that help highlight the talent working at home.

Mané or Salah?

Mané is now reigning Caf player of the year since 2019 as the COVID pandemic and schedule changes postponed it for two years. Having recently joined Bayern Munich in Germany from Liverpool in the UK, he is one of several Africans playing in the English Premier League who made the 2022 shortlist. In fact five of the ten do.

All along Mané was the favourite to win again this year after leading Senegal to glory for the first time at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in February. The country also qualified for the World Cup Qatar 2022. Mané was voted best player of Afcon.

However, Salah also had strong credentials. A great season saw him win top scorer and player with the most goal assists in the Premier League. He was the Professional Footballers’ Association and Player Writer’s footballer of the year, beating Mané.

Read more: Afcon demands global respect, opens a new chapter for African football

But given the fact that this award is for a player who best represents African football, it would have been an upset if Mané’s national accomplishments at Afcon had not prevailed over the individual accolades for Salah.

The other contenders

While Mané and Salah were standout candidates, flying below the radar for CAF’s male footballer of the year was Senegal and Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. This season he was in the winning teams at the FIFA Club World Cup, AFCON and the UEFA Supercup. He was World’s Best Goalkeeper in 2021. Although goalkeeping is not a high profile position, Mendy’s performance credentials made him a favourite. Had he won he would have been only the third goalkeeper to do so and the first since 1986.

A man snakes his arms into a cross in front of him, animated, his mouth open. A man in a yellow jersey stands behind him, watching.
Al Ahly’s South African coach Pitso Mosimane missed out on best coach award. Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images

The English Premier League dominated the shortlist when it comes to clubs, but when it comes to countries Senegal came out on top with three players. Cameroon had two and Egypt, Morocco, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Algeria each had one. Geographically speaking, West and Central Africa edged out North Africa. Despite Ghana, Nigeria, Tunisia and South Africa having a high sporting profile, they are nowhere on the list.

African clubs miss out

The last time an African-based player won player of the year was Egypt’s Mahmoud El Khatib. The last four decades have witnessed a complete transformation in the African football and global football landscapes. Most African stars ply their trade in Europe where they are paid millions of dollars. It’s hard for an African club to house a player that can replicate El Khatib’s accomplishment. It is regrettable that excelling in Europe increasingly provides a more compelling case to be voted a CAF player of the year.

However, there were seven other categories at the CAF awards that offered better chances for African-based nominees to win. These included coach of the year to Aliou Cissé, Senegal for best national team and trophies for best club and interclub players.

Read more: The four big challenges facing Patrice Motsepe, Africa's new soccer boss

A Caf award sets winners apart as all time greats to be talked about for generations; it sets up contracts and financial opportunities. Even as Mané and Salah attracted the lion’s share of the headlines, one should remember that many more talented players are waiting in the wings – but they will require identifying and nurturing. Caf, national football associations and African clubs have an obligation to invest in and unearth this talent while also celebrating their stars.

This article was updated to reflect the results of the awards

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