It has been a fun ride while it’s lasted. Like all Africa’s teams at this year’s World Cup, this series too has passed its time. But rather than go out with a whimper, we are going out swinging. Today in our final installment we will be examining three of the greatest African players never to play in a World Cup.
Happiness is the ability to appreciate the little things in life. The same holds true in soccer. Africa’s World Cup dream is over for another tournament but the players got to experience something magical that will stay with them forever, something that unfortunately the players on our list never experienced. The players today were prolific, world renowned and well remembered. But they never made it to the biggest stage in international football. They got close at times, agonizingly close, but never quite made it. These players achieved so much in their club careers and brought so much to the international game. Here they are remembered.
First on our list is none other than a Mr. George Weah. Born in Liberia, Weah is often considered the greatest African player of all time; no mean feat when one considers the contenders to the crown. George Weah was a towering figure on the ‘90s football scene, terrifying defences and baffling opposition managers as to how to stop him.
He was an exceptional goalscorer, in the mould of today’s modern multifaceted strikers. Weah was quick, skilful and powerful. Known for his thunderous shooting and clinical finishing, he was one of the giants of the game during his long career which included stints in Cameroon, France, Italy and England.
His career began in 1987 at one of Cameroon’s biggest clubs, Yaounde’s Tonnerre, where he would score an amazing 14 goals in 18 games in his debut season. This was enough to catch the eye of Arsene Wenger, then coaching at Monaco. In 1988 Weah moved to Monaco where he would spend four years terrorizing defences. Wenger summed up his impact as follows
“Weah was a real surprise. For me it was like a child discovering a chocolate bunny in his garden at Easter. I have never seen any player explode on to the scene like he did.”
And explode he did, scoring 47 goals in 103 games for Monaco. After a four-season stay Weah moved north to Paris Saint-Germain, where he showed his class, scoring 16 times in 25 European outings. Not bad at all.
The 1994/95 UEFA Champions League saw Weah finish as top goalscorer with eight goals. He was highly sought after and there was only one place a top player went to in the 1990s. Italy. Specifically, AC Milan. It was at Milan that ‘Weah-The Legend’ was born. While at the Rossoneri, Weah won the FIFA World Player of the Year, France Football’s European Footballer of the Year and the CAF African Footballer of the Year awards for 1995.
In 114 appearances in the famous red-and-black jersey he scored 46 goals, none better than his solo effort against Verona, which saw him glide his way past seven, that’s right seven, opposing players before neatly slotting the ball home. It displayed everything about his game, power, speed, and class. It was without a doubt, one of football’s greatest goals.
Sadly Weah’s international career did not emulate the height of his club success but it was special in its own way. Weah played 60 games for Liberia from 1987 to the early noughties.
It is no understatement to say that Weah carried the Liberian National Team. Wracked by poverty and civil war in the 1990s, Liberia was able to sustain the Lone Star—the national team—only with the assistance of Weah, who played for, coached, and to a large extent financed the team.
The man gave more than many other footballers for his national team. It is estimated that he personally gave about $2million over the years funding the Liberian team. Weah was on a personal mission to get the Lone Star to the World Cup. And boy did they come close.
The 2002 Qualifying Campaign saw Liberia and Weah miss out on qualification by a single point. Weah retired from the game soon after, never to have played in a World Cup. He never experienced the magic of the World Cup, but he gave more to his national than was asked. He is known as King George in Liberia, despite the lack of World Cup appearances.
Better known as Abedi Pele to you and me. Abedi was one of the pioneers of African football in Europe. And why wouldn’t he be? The man played in Switzerland, Germany, Italy and most famously France. Coupled with this he also played in Qatar and his native Ghana. To sum everything up, the man is well travelled.
An attacking midfielder, Abedi became famous for his sublime dribbling skills, and his seemingly uncanny ability for scoring spectacular and often important goals. He was a regular feature on Goals of the Week.
Such was the esteem Abedi was held in by his peers that he soon earned the nickname Pele for his skill on the field, a flattering comparison. Abedi’s career had many successes but it is his time at Marseille that is best remembered. At Marseille, he was a member of the team’s ‘Magical Trio’, along with Jean-Pierre Papin and Chris Waddle who together spearheaded one of Europe’s strongest sides in the early 1990s.
Abedi flourished at Marseille. In 1991 and 1992 he was nominated for FIFA World Player of the Year, yet 1993 was arguably his best year at club level. For it was in 1993, that Abedi led Marseille to victory over Milan in the 1993 UEFA Champions League Final in Munich, giving a Man of the Match performance. Abedi was a key figure in Olympique de Marseille’s dominance of the French league; his time there saw four league championships and two European Champions League finals appearances.
Abedi also had success for his native Ghana. He captained Ghana from 1992 to 1998. He was part of the victorious Ghanaian team that won the 1982 African Cup of Nations but it wasn’t until the 1990s that his class truly became apparent. Abedi was arguably the most dominant figure on the African football scene for nearly a decade.
Pundits often cite his performance in the 1992 African Cup of Nations as one of the most outstanding football displays by any player in a single tournament. If that wasn’t enough, his solo run against Congo in the quarter-finals is often compared to Diego Maradona’s second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup.Indeed, in addition to his Pele moniker many began to nickname him Maradona after the 1992 Cup of Nations.
Abedi Pele played for Ghana 73 times and is considered the greatest football player in his country’s history, and among the best in Africa. He scored plenty of goals as well. He scored 33 goals in 73 games for Ghana. It took until 7 June 2013 for Asamoah Gyan to surpass his record.
Abedi’s career was one of many highs and few lows. Yet just like Weah he never experienced World Cup fever. He never experienced the excitement of the World Cup. He never played in a World Cup but his sons have. Andre and Rahim represented Ghana in the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa while Jordan and Andre represented Ghana in this year’s World Cup.
The man from Zambia is often forgotten on lists of greatest African players, in what is a sinful omission. This common omission led one commentator to spout
“Leave out Kalusha Bwalya. That’s sacrilege. That’s blasphemy. Down the line of which, your omission will be judged a sin. He was the centre of attention at all times. It was as if he and the ball were on first-name terms.”
Yes the man known as ‘Great Kalu’ is rarely paid the reverence he deserves, in part due to the fact that he never played in a World Cup. But he could most definitely play football. Bwalya’s European career began at Cercle Brugge in Belgium where in his first season, he was the club’s top scorer and voted supporters’ player of the year.He made such a name for himself in Belgium that PSV Eindhoven, then at the height of their dominance, took him to the Eredivisie. And it was in Holland that the Great Kalu tasted real success, winning the championship twice in 1990/91 and 1991/92.
Bwalya’s next stop was México’s Club America, to whom he moved in 1994. The Mexican club’s home ground is the legendary Azteca, an arena that Bwalya spent three years dazzling American supporters with his eye for a pass, his coolness under pressure and his jaw dropping skills.
On the international front, Bwalya was a member of the Zambian national squad that participated at the 1988 Olympic Games, where he famously netted a hat-trick in a 4–0 victory against Italy. The Great Kalu was Zambian captain during the 1994 World Cup qualification campaign, but was not on the ill-fated flight on 27 April 1993 when the entire team and its management were killed when the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Gabon.
In the period of national mourning, Kalusha Bwalya, spearheaded the revival of the national side. Captaining the side the following year to the Runners-Up spot at the CAF African Nations Cup 1994 in Tunisia. The national team finished in 3rd place at the African Nations Cup in South Africa in 1996, with Kalusha tying for the Golden Boot Award at the tournament. Great Kalu never played in a World Cup, but he did help revive Zambian hopes and dreams following the 1994 air tragedy. For that alone he is a legend.
But this will end on a happy note. In 2004 and Zambia were trying to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. Their opponents? Liberia, and the match wass tied 0–0. Minutes from time, Kalusha, now 41 and player-manager for Zambia took the bold decision to bring himself onto the pitch.
When Zambia were awarded a free kick close to the Liberian goal, there were no doubts as to who would take it. Up stepped the Great Kalu. Seconds later the ball hit the back of the net. It was his 147th appearance and his 100th goal for Zambia. The Great Kalu never played in a World Cup. But not for want of trying. 147 international, 100 goals.; Robbie Keane has some catching up to do.
And so we come to the end of our time. Africa’s hopes are gone at this year’s World Cup but as our stories show, we must always hope for better. In four years time, we may be writing about our first ever African World Cup Champions. A man can dream. This year might not have been the time for Africa. But the next tournament might be, and that’s all they need.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena