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African Player of the Year Nominees: Who are the favourites?

It’s that time of the year again, and while the Caf African Player of the Year award lacks the blatantly political undercurrent of Fifa’s global accolade, it is no less tiresome.

The process, as always, begins with a 30-man shortlist, the size and composition of which seems to follow some obligatory logic of inclusion. All of Africa’s flagship footballing nations get at least one nominee invariably, with nothing like a base performance parameter.

The shortlist makes for curious reading: Mehdi Benatia, for example, continues to struggle for form and fitness for club and country, is not first choice for the former, and can barely string five straight games together. No problem though, he gets in on reputation. Wahbi Khazri and Aymen Abdennour make the shortlist as the Tunisian representation, and it is hard to decide which is the more incredulous inclusion.

It’s all rather an unnecessary rigmarole, and by the time the shortlist is whittled down to five, and then to three, the usual favourites will no doubt emerge.

What makes the award shortlist for 2016 unique though is that the name ‘Yaya Toure’ is conspicuously missing.

The last time this happened? 2010, when Samuel Eto’o won the last of his four gongs, a record Toure equalled in 2014.

 

His hopes of moving clear on his own in the history books were dashed last year, as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang won his first POTY award. The Borussia Dortmund forward is favourite to extend it this year, and ironically, Eto’o has made the shortlist once again.

It is however interesting that Toure’s exclusion comes following his ill-advised outburst after last year’s award. He infamously branded the choice of Aubameyang as “pathetic”, and may well be paying the price for his faux pas with this snub.

It has been a season of impolitic media outbursts from the camp of the Ivorian midfielder, with his agent Dimitri Seluk’s comments contributing to his current pariah status at Manchester City. That said, Toure was still an important part of the City side that got to the semi-final of the Uefa Champions League last season, eventually losing out to eventual winners Real Madrid.

While it is unlikely he would have been as important a factor in this year’s running, on the strength of that alone, it is hard to argue there are 30 African footballers who have had a better year.

In any case, his place in last year’s top three will almost certainly be taken by Algeria winger Riyad Mahrez. The 25-year-old was one of the cornerstones of Leicester City’s improbable title win in England, and will push Aubameyang just as hard as Toure did last year. In his favour is not just the fact of it, but the fairytale nature of the Foxes’ triumph.

Riyad Mahrez | EPL stats 2015-16

Aubameyang’s Dortmund, however, had to settle for second place in the Bundesliga, and exited the Europa League at the quarter-final stage to Liverpool.

Andre Ayew placed third last time out, and on the evidence of his debut season in the Premier League, is another who is among the favourites. His case is however hurt by the injury which has ruled him out of action since his summer transfer to West Ham United.

Andre Ayew | EPL 2015-16 stats

Islam Slimani’s goalscoring prowess earned him a move away from the relatively quieter Portuguese Primeira Liga, and the move may be a catalyst to a serious challenge next year. This comes a little too soon, as the method of selection makes it unlikely his exploits in Portugal will gain enough traction.

It is clear though that the trend has shifted in African football - a lack of era-defining players, whether you consider this a good or bad thing, has led to a new democracy as it were. It is unlikely that any one player will dominate for an extended period like Toure, Didier Drogba before him, or Eto’o.

Aubameyang and Mahrez are clear frontrunners, but with the likes of Slimani and Sadio Mane breathing down their necks, there will be room for complacency at the top. It offers, in a way, an interesting insight into the post-Messi-Ronaldo era in the Fifa World Player of the Year stakes: the kindgom divvied up into many different fiefdoms and rulerships, and no clear standout...at least for a while.