ESPN's Top 10 Male African Footballers Of 2021

Mohamed Salah. Image: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty

As 2021 draws to a close, ESPN's Ed Dove ranks the top 10 male African players in the world during the calendar year.

10. Kalidou Koulibaly

Still the outstanding African centre-back in world football -- despite competition from Joel Matip -- Koulibaly also retained his place in the ESPN FC 100 this year.

He may have dropped from fourth place in 2020 to seventh this time around, but his value to Napoli remains undiminished.

The 30-year-old's highlight this season was the late winner in Napoli's comeback victory over Juventus in September, and he was influential as the Partenopei went 12 games unbeaten to start the campaign.

Indeed, across the first 11 fixtures in which Koulibaly featured, they conceded just three goals -- keeping eight clean sheets -- while their drop in form since his recent injury setback has been marked.

In their last four fixtures -- all without the Senegal stopper -- Napoli have lost three and conceded five. The composed defender's importance to their title challenge has never been more evident.

9. Emmanuel Dennis

Squeezing out fellow Nigerian strikers Taiwo Awoniyi and Dominic Solanke to make the top 10, Dennis is enjoying a remarkable redemption arc in the Premier League with Watford.

When 2020 came to a close, the forward was best known as being the guy who had stormed off the Club Brugge team bus ahead of a Champions League game with Borussia Dortmund after finding someone else sat in his seat. It was a ludicrous fit of pique from the striker, and allowed concerns about his off-field character to detract from his on-field qualities.

A loan move to FC Koln didn't work out -- zero goals in nine Bundesliga appearances meant he ended 2020-21 without a single league goal in Germany or Belgium -- and eyebrows were raised when he signed for Watford during the offseason.

The club were stung by the disastrous acquisition of Dennis's compatriot Isaac Success -- another whose off-field 'reputation' goes before him -- but the new boy has been a revelation in Hertfordshire so far.

He's scored eight and contributed five assists this term -- only Mohamed Salah has had a hand in more Premier League goals -- while Dennis's club form has also led to a return to international football and a spot in Nigeria's Africa Cup of Nations squad.

8. Victor Osimhen

Another African star at Napoli whose injury woes have slowed their title challenge, Osimhen finally started finding his feet in Serie A in 2021 after a testing start to life in Italy in 2020.

In fairness to Osimhen, he's had to overcome various complications in Napoli -- from an elevated transfer fee to a coronavirus diagnosis, from injuries to the dismissal of mentor Gennaro Gattuso -- but he's excelled under Luciano Spalletti.

Osimhen was averaging a goal every other game in Serie A before sustaining a shocking injury against Internazionale last month, beginning the campaign with a run of nine goals eight fixtures in all competitions.

His improving link-up with his fellow forwards at Napoli is further testament to his improvement, while he is also realising the Rashidi Yekini parallels by top scoring for Nigeria during the Africa Cup of Nations qualification campaign.

Super Eagles fans will now be praying that he has recovered fully from his facial injury in order to star for the West African giants in Cameroon.

7. Franck Kessie

Currently the subject of reported transfer interest from Tottenham Hotspur and Paris Saint-Germain, Kessie has taken his game to new heights over the last 12 months.

Already, he started the 2020-21 season strongly as AC Milan sought to return to the pinnacle of the Italian game, and has continued to grow in stature at the San Siro.

His defensive qualities were not previously in doubt, but Kessie has demonstrated his aptitude as a leader -- steadily replacing the influence of ageing and increasingly injury-prone Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- and as a difference-maker in the biggest matches.

"Franck is a complete player," Milan coach Stefano Pioli told journalists earlier this year. "He gives us physicality, energy, quality, protects the defence and knits the moves going forward too.

"He has this eternally positive mentality during the matches, he's the first to help out a teammate or reassure them."

After bagging a career-high 13 goals last term, he already has five this season, and is eclipsing Thomas Partey as the finest African midfielder of his generation.

6. Sebastien Haller

Like Dennis, Haller is also rebuilding his reputation in game following a failed move to West Ham United and a £45 million price tag that weighed heavy upon him.

Despite winning the Premier League Goal of the Month award in December 2020, he signed for Ajax in January and hit the ground running -- registering 11 in 19 outings en route to an Eredivisie winner's medal.

Of course, there was the Europa League fiasco -- when an administrative error at the club meant he wasn't registered for the knockout stages -- but Haller has made up for lost time in the Champions League this term.

He's 10 goals in six group-stage matches means he's the quickest player to hit double figures in the competition, and he became the first player to score four goals on his UCL debut since Marco van Basten 29 years ago when he devastated Sporting Lisbon in September.

Only Cristiano Ronaldo has previously scored in all six group-stage games, while Haller already has 12 in 17 Eredivisie games and tops the league's goalscoring charts.

5. Achraf Hakimi

Admittedly, things haven't entirely gone to plan for Hakimi since signing for Paris Saint-Germain during the offseason, although there's still optimism that the Ligue 1 giants will yet compete for the biggest honours this term.

Nonetheless, there have still been some outstanding moments from the right-back since leaving Internazionale during the offseason, notably the double against FC Metz in September and a magnificent vibrant display down PSG's right flank as they defeated Manchester City in the Champions League.

Parisian fans will be keen to see the quality Hakimi demonstrated during Inter's title-winning campaign on a consistent basis at the Parc des Princes, with the Morocco international proving his ability to influence the tightest matches during the title run-in.

Notably, he contributed an assist for Nicolo Barella as Inter defeated Crotone 2-0 to win their first title for 11 years, and ended the season with 15 goal contributions before bidding 'arrivederci' to Lombardy.

4. Sadio Mane

Just missing out on our top three, Mane struggled to maintain his high standards over the last 12 months, and even described the 2020-21 campaign as the worst of his career.

It's testament to his high standards that, even though he acknowledged some very real self-doubt, he still ended the year with 11 goals and a further seven assists.

This term, he's already struck seven times in the Reds' first 19 games of the season as they've returned to the title picture, and appears well placed to lead a strong Senegal team to their first African title at next month's Africa Cup of Nations.

3. Riyad Mahrez

Last season was the campaign when Mahrez truly proved that he was a player who could decide the biggest games, rather than merely decorate them.

Compare, for example, Pep Guardiola's decision to omit the Algeria playmaker from Manchester City's ill-fated Champions League exit by Olympique Lyonnais in the 2019-20 season, to the semifinal double-header against Paris Saint-Germain earlier this year.

Mahrez's performances in those matches -- in which he scored three of City's four goals across both legs -- were among the finest by an African player at the business end of club football's biggest competition.

He already has five goals in six UCL group stage matches this term, eclipsing Lionel Messi when City again squared off with a bolstered PSG team.

With nine goals/assists in 15 league games so far this season, the 30-year-old appears to be at the top of his game as City look to defend their Premier League crown.

2. Edouard Mendy

Mendy's omission from the Ballon d'Or shortlist prompted an outcry within African football, and surely the Senegal stopper deserved more credit than he got for his maiden season at Chelsea.

After breaking several records during his first months at Stamford Bridge in late 2020, the goalkeeper further established himself during Thomas Tuchel's early tenure.

Not only did he become the first African goalkeeper to start in a Champions League final, but he also won it as Chelsea defeated Manchester City to win the top prize in the European game.

Mendy was largely untroubled in the final, although his save to deny Karim Benzema in the semifinal victory over Real Madrid was the kind of key intervention that should have led to greater recognition among the Ballon d'Or panel.

1. Mohamed Salah

Salah's 2021 can be split into two halves, although goals and match-winning contributions have been a consistent for the Egypt superstar across a magnificent calendar year in which he's further established himself as Africa's finest player.

During the latter portion of 2020-21, his focus was on salvaging Liverpool's miserable season, weighing in with a series of inspired displays -- and 31 goals -- as the Reds ousted Leicester City from the Champions League qualifying positions.

This season, the goals have been even more relentless, as Salah has focused on helping Jurgen Klopp's side -- now without the injury woes that hamstrung them last term -- return to the pinnacle of the Premier League.

He equalled Jamie Vardy's record for making a goal contribution in 15 consecutive top flight matches while simultaneously becoming the first Liverpool player since Ian Rush to hit 20 goals in five successive campaigns.

Salah surely deserved better than his seventh-placed finish in the Ballon d'Or.

Honourable Mentions

Andre Frank Zambo-Anguissa, Joel Matip, Silas Katompa Mvumpa, Ben Malango, Evan Ndicka, Taiwo Awoniyi, Dominic Solanke, Amine Gouiri, Kamaldeen Sulemana, Patson Daka