African football’s biggest stars will compete for honours when the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) begins in the Ivory Coast later this week.
AFCON pits together the biggest names the continent has to offer with some established stars from Europe’s top leagues ready to represent their national teams.
Morocco will start as favourites after becoming the first African nation to reach a World Cup semi-final in Qatar last winter, but holders Senegal, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Egypt are among the heavily fancied nations for success.
Ahead of AFCON, we’ve chosen our best combined XI from the players involved.
Goalkeeper: Yassine Bounou (Morocco)
Yassine Bounou was one of the stars of Morocco’s run to the World Cup’s last four last winter, keeping a tournament-leading four clean sheets.
The 32-year-old made two saves from the spot in the penalty shootout win over Spain in the last 16, before becoming the first African to record four clean sheets in a World Cup against Portugal in the quarter-finals.
At club level, the goalkeeper won Europa League titles with Sevilla in 2020 and 2022, before a move to Saudi Pro League side Al Hilal in the summer.
Right-back: Achraf Hakimi (Morocco)
Another member of Morocco’s history-making side, Achraf Hakimi is the leading name in the ranks of the Atlas Lions.
The Paris Saint-Germain star has evolved into one of the best attacking full-backs in world football in recent seasons, raiding forward from right-back with an attacking threat.
Hakimi has earned inclusion in the Team of the Season in the Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 in his career to date, winning a wealth of honours including league titles in Italy and France.
CAN mode loading… 🛫🇨🇮 pic.twitter.com/SrqT8aiST1
— Achraf Hakimi (@AchrafHakimi) January 7, 2024
Despite only celebrating his 25th birthday in November, Hakimi is four caps from breaking into Morocco’s all-time top 10 appearance makers. Named as runner-up in the 2023 African Footballer of the Year award, he has scored eight goals in 68 caps.
Centreback: Ousmane Diomande (Ivory Coast)
Ousmane Diomande is the emerging star in the Ivory Coast side, with Europe’s top clubs sending scouts to watch the Sporting Lisbon centre-back.
The 20-year-old ranks second in Portugal’s Primeira Liga this season for touches (1165) and pass completion (91%), while ranking third for passes into the final third (94), percentage of dribblers tackled (83.3%) and progressive carrying distance (2342).
A formidable physical obstacle with the confidence to progress the ball from the backline, he looks set to command a huge asking price if Sporting decide to sell.
Centre-back: Edmond Tapsoba (Burkina Faso)
Edmond Tapsoba is another African centre-back who has caught the attention of recruiters across Europe, impressing as part of a Bayer Leverkusen team who have taken the Bundesliga by storm this season.
Tapsoba ranks in the top five percent of central defenders in Europe’s top leagues for progressive passes, progressive carries and successful take-ons per 90 minutes across the last 12 months.
The 24-year-old was named in the AFCON Team of the Tournament for 2021, as Burkina Faso reached the semi-finals,
Left-back: Noussair Mazraoui (Morocco)
Noussair Mazraoui’s return to the Morocco fold is a welcome boost for the Atlas Lions, following the full-back’s fallout with former manager Vahid Halilhodžić.
The Bayern Munich defender is comfortable in either full-back position or in midfield, offering valuable versatility for club and country.
The Dutch-born defender, who began his career in the academy at Ajax, has provided three assists in 11 appearances for the German champions so far this season.
Midfield: Yves Bissouma (Mali)
Yves Bissouma will hope to bring his impressive club form this season onto the international stage, having bounced back from a difficult debut season at Spurs to become a key figure in Ange Postecoglou’s side.
Just three players in the Premier League are averaging more tackles per game than the Mali midfielder, whose tenacity off the ball and composure in possession have won plaudits in North London this season.
— Premier League (@premierleague) August 22, 2023
Midfield: Mohammed Kudus (Ghana)
West Ham’s summer signing has hit the ground running in the Premier League, with Kudus fast emerging as a favourite in the East End.
The 23-year-old has scored 10 goals in just 18 starts in all competitions for the Hammers, forming an exciting understanding with Lucas Paqueta in the final third.
At international level, Ghana’s hopes of a fifth AFCON title will rest largely on his shoulders, with Kudus regarded as the most exciting talent the Black Stars have produced for some time.
King Kudus strikes again 💫 pic.twitter.com/YgTqJWd4tg
— West Ham United (@WestHam) December 23, 2023
The attacking midfielder scored twice during Ghana’s World Cup campaign in Qatar last winter.
Right-wing: Mohamed Salah (Egypt)
African football’s biggest name, Mohamed Salah will hope to exorcise the demons of recent AFCON tournaments with a long-awaited success in the Ivory Coast.
Salah formed part of the Egypt team beaten in the 2017 and 2021 finals, with the record seven-time winners having last been crowned AFCON winners in 2010.
The 31-year-old arrives into the tournament in superb form, leading the Premier League jointly for goals (14) and assists (8) this season.
Mohamed Salah in the Premier League so far this season:
◉ Most G/A
◉ Most xG/A
◉ Most shots on target
◉ Most Big Chances scored
◉ Most Big Chances created
◉ Most open-play chances created
◉ Most touches in opp. box
◎ =Most goals
◎ =Most assists
Mo(st) Salah. 👑 pic.twitter.com/NYZ8JaD7I2
— Squawka (@Squawka) January 1, 2024
The two-time African Footballer of the Year recently passed 200 goals in all competitions for Liverpool, and is closing in on Egypt’s goal record. He has scored 55 times in 96 caps for The Pharaohs.
Left-wing: Sadio Mane (Senegal)
Sadio Mane is also a two-time winner of the African Footballer of the Year award, having claimed the honour in 2019 and 2022.
The latter of those awards came after leading Senegal to a maiden AFCON title, with Mane scoring the decisive penalty in the shootout win over Egypt in the final, and claiming the tournament’s Best Player Award.
The 31-year-old departed Bayern Munich to sign for Saudi Pro League side Al Nassr in the summer and has since scored 12 goals in 30 appearances, forming an effective partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo.
He is Senegal’s all-time record scorer with 40 goals for the Lions of Teranga.
Forward: Victor Boniface (Nigeria)
Nigeria boast formidable firepower heading into the finals, as the Super Eagles look to claim a fourth AFCON title.
Victor Boniface has been one of the breakout stars in Europe’s top five leagues this season, after a scintillating start to his career at Bayer Leverkusen.
The leading scorer in last season’s Europa League at former club Union Saint-Gilloise, he has been a revelation in Germany with 16 goals and eight assists in 23 appearances in all competitions this season.
🇳🇬 Boniface on the #UEL stage… 😲
— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) December 28, 2023
Since signing for Leverkusen, Boniface ranks in the top five percent of strikers in Europe’s top five leagues for non-penalty xG, shots, assists, progressive carries, successful take-ons and attacking penalty area touches per 90 minutes.
Forward: Victor Osimhen (Nigeria)
Victor Osimhen will spearhead Nigeria’s challenge at AFCON, as the two Victors look to fire the Super Eagles to continental success.
Osimhen has emerged as an elite goalscorer in European football and won the Capocannoniere award as Serie A’s leading scorer last season.
The 24-year-old’s return fired Napoli to a drought-breaking Scudetto, earning the club a first league title in 33 years and Osimhen hero status in Naples.
Osimhen’s prolific campaign saw him named African Footballer of the Year for 2023, beating Achraf Hakimi and Mohamed Salah to the award. He became the first Nigerian since Nwankwo Kanu in 1999 to be named Africa’s finest footballer.
🔟| Victor Osimhen finished the AFCON qualifiers with 10 goals.
Here are all 10 goals from the Nigerian Talisman. 🍿 pic.twitter.com/UbKgWdA13p
— LF (@LiteFooty) January 3, 2024
The forward was the leading scorer in AFCON qualification (10) and has scored 20 goals in 27 caps for Nigeria. Just three players have ever scored more goals for the Nigerian national team.
See more – AFCON 2023: Five players to watch out for