By Aristo Dotse
When Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool come face-to-face on Saturday in Madrid for the chance to be called the champions of Europe for 2019, this year’s UEFA Champions League final – the second all-English finale in the history of the prestigious European Champions Cup – will see the biggest ever contingent of African players to be involved in the competition’s grand decider.
At least, on both sides’ team sheets will be four Africans combined, or even five if you add Liverpool’s German-born defender Joel Matip, a Cameroon international whose father is from Cameroon.
Matip and his African compatriots Egypt’s Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane from Senegal are definite starters for Liverpool whilst on the side of Tottenham will be Kenya captain Victor Wanyama and Cote d’Ivoire defender Serge Aurier.
It would have been six Africans on parade at the Wanda Metropolitano, even if all will not be starting for their sides, if not because of the enforced absence of Liverpool’s Guinea midfielder Naby Keita, who started the semi-final first leg against Barcelona at the Nou Camp but went off injured – an injury that ended his season and could make him miss the 2019 African Cup of Nations tournament next month.
Aside Matip, who has refused to play for Cameroon in recent time and thus will miss the AFCON in Egypt, Mane and Salah – the Premier League’s joint top scorers for the season alongside another African, Arsenal’s Pierre-EmerickAubameyang – are two of the most important players for Liverpool. The two form a devastating three-man forward force with the Brazilian Roberto Firmino for the Reds.
The three together scored a staggering 30 goals (10 each) in the Champions League last season as Liverpool reached the final, the Reds becoming the highest scorers in one season in the history of the UEFA Champions League. In the process, Salah and Mane also made an African mark as the two top (joint) African scorers in a single season in European Champions Cup history.
One of Mane’s goals came in Liverpool’s 3 -1 final loss to Real Madrid for him to become the fourth African player, after RabahMadger, Samuel Eto’o (the only African to score in two finals and one of the few players to do so) and Didier Drogba to score in a European Cup final.
The Senegal captain – Liverpool player of the year in his first season 2016/17 – in particular, has been in devastating form this season for Liverpool, especially in the latter part of the campaign, stepping up to power the Jurgen Klopp-coached side in both domestic and European competitions as Salah and Firmino’s remarkably high level of last season dropped a little this term.
With Salah now well and sound to play in the final, same like Mane and Matip, after missing the ‘miracle of Anfield’ comeback victory over Barcelona in the semi-final second leg, Liverpool will have at least three Africans representing them on the pitch on Saturday, with the injured Keita also set for a medal.
Similarly, Wanyama, a feature for Spurs in both legs of the semi-final triumph over Ajax, is an integral part of Mauricio Pochetino’s side and could start in midfield for the London side in their first ever European Champions Cup final. Unlike Wanyama, however, Aurier has been a peripheral player for Spurs this season but like Keita for Liverpool he is set for a medal in Madrid.
So in all likelihood, this year’s Champions League final will see at least four Africans starting the game and six in all getting medals. And these would be historic as the first time those have ever happened.
In 2008 and 2012, Chelsea had four Africans in each final, with three each playing in the loss to Manchester United in Moscow and victory over Bayern in Munich respectively.
While Drogba and fellow Ivorian Salomon Kalou featured in both games, Ghanaian Michael Essien played the full game in 2008 and was unused substitute in 2012, when Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel – an used substitute in 2008 – played the full game as Chelsea won the Champions League or European Cup for the first time and became the first and still only London club to achieve it.
Three Africans – Eto’o, the only three-time African winner of the Champions League and with two different clubs, YayaToure and Seydou Keita – also featured when Barcelona beat Man United in Rome in 2009.
So no matter what happens in Madrid, whether Liverpool win their sixth European Cup or Spurs win it for the first time to become the second London club to do it, six Africans are set get medals on Saturday and this is historic.
Credit: Soccernet Newspaper