The UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League may be the premier club competitions on the continent of Europe, but there has been no shortage of African influence in them down the years.
As recently as May 2018, in the UEFA Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid in Kiev, the former team’s African players Sadio Mane (Senegal) and Mohamed Salah (Egypt) were key figures. Mane scored the Reds’ only goal, while some nefarious play from defender Sergio Ramos put Salah out of the game – and with him went the English team’s hopes of winning.
The Europa League at least produced an influential African winner, with Ghanaian Thomas Partey helping Spanish giants Atletico Madrid to a 3-0 thumping of French side Olympique Marseille (who featured Cameroonians Andre-Frank Zambo and Clinton N’Jie) in the final in Lyon.
Perhaps the most famous African performer on the European stage is Cameroonian great Samuel Eto’o, who won three UEFA Champions League titles with two different teams: twice with Barcelona in 2006 and 2009, and once with Internazionale in 2010.
Ivory Coast legend Didier Drogba is another who took to the Champions League with relish and still holds the record as the all-time highest African goal scorer in the competition: he netted 44 goals in 92 appearances in the competition.
His most famous contribution came in the 2012 final when he helped Chelsea overcome Bayern Munich in their own back yard at the Allianz Arena. The Blues became the first London club to win the Champions League and Drogba – who was already a cult hero with Chelsea fans – became an all-time club legend. Chelsea’s victory that year also saw Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel and Salomon Kalou pick up Champions League winners’ medals.
Other notable African winners of the Champions League include Yaya Toure, Seydou Keita (both with Barca), South Africa’s Benni McCarthy with Porto, Ghanaian defensive colossus Samuel Kuffour with Bayern, Real Madrid’s GeremiNjitap and legends of the game such as Nwankwo Kanu (Ajax), Abedi Pele (Marseille) and Rabah Madjer (Porto).
The African influence on the Europa League has not been quite as profound, but there are still some notable heroes from the continent. Malian Frederic Kanoute, for example, was a key man for Sevilla in their back-to-back title triumphs in 2006 and 2007, while Cameroonian Stephane Mbia helped the same Spanish club win the first two titles in a Europa League hat-trick which spanned 2014 to 2016.
As recently as 2017, Ivory Coast defender Eric Bailly helped Manchester United claim the Europa League for the first time in the club’s history, though he missed the final win over Ajax through suspension. Chelsea again featured a strong African influence when they won the Europa League in 2013, with Demba Ba, Victor Moses and Mikel all picking up winners’ medals.
This year Africans are once again set to be key figures in both competitions. In the Champions League, Liverpool’s Salah and Mane will look to stamp their authority for the English giants, who will also have Guinean midfield dynamo Naby Keita in tow.
Manchester City’s pursuit of a first continental crown has been boosted by the acquisition of Algerian attacker Riyad Mahrez, Partey will look to help Atletico go deep into the competition, Keita Balde could be a breakout star for Internazionale, keep an eye out for Moroccan midfield maestro Hakim Ziyech in the colours of Ajax, and Porto can call on an all-African attack in Moussa Marega, Vincent Aboubakar and Yacine Brahimi.
In the Europa League, on-loan attackers Islam Slimani and Andre Ayew could be key players for Turkey’s Fenerbahce, Arsenal are likely to feature Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mohamed Elneny, Karl TokoEkambi has established himself as a regular for Villarreal, while there are literally dozens of other African players dotted through the continental tournament.
The group stage of the UEFA Champions League kicked off on Tuesday 18 September, while the group stage of the UEFA Europa League opened on Thursday 20 September.