Every two years, Africa’s best soccer players leave take a three-week hiatus from their club teams to compete in the Cup of Nations. While their club managers may loathe the tournament, it’s a great chance to see the continent’s premier players all in one place. Here’s a player to watch from each of the 16 competing nations:
1. Yacine Brahimi, Algeria
It’s been a quick rise to the top for Yacine Brahimi. The Paris-born midfielder switched national allegiance to Algeria in February 2013 and ended 2014 with the African footballer of the year award from international broadcaster BBC. He scored three goals during AFCON qualifying and will likely add to that tally during the tournament, but it’s his dribbling ability that makes him such a great player. Whether he’s in the midfield or on the left wing, Algeria’s attack will go through him. Talented schemer Yacine Brahimi is one of Algeria’s primary sources of creativity as they aim to win the elusive African Cup of Nations title.
2. Eric Choupo-Moting, Cameroon
While Vincent Aboubakar and Stephane M’Bia may be better players for Cameroon, neither can match the current form of Eric Choupo-Moting. He’s scored ten goals in all competitions since joining Schalke over the summer and netted a hat trick last month against Stuttgart. With Samuel Eto’o now retired from international play, the goals have to come from somewhere and Choupo-Moting is their biggest scoring threat right now.
3. Jonathan Pitroipa, Burkina Faso
It seems like Jonathan Pitroipa does is score goals. The former Hamburg winger was was named “player of the Tournament” at AFCON 2013 and was the top goalscorer during 2015 qualifying. While he may not be “The African Giovinco”, Pitroipa can finish in a myriad of ways.
4. Asamoah Gyan, Ghana
For a second straight World Cup, Asamoah Gyan was the best player on the pitch for Ghana. He’s scored in the last four AFCON tournaments and it’s a safe bet that he’ll make it five. And with midfielders Sulley Muntari and Kevin Prince-Boateng still banned and Kwadwo Asamoah out with injury, he’ll need a few goals for The Black Stars to win it all.
5. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Gabon
Borussia Dortmund forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang likely has redemption on his mind coming into this year’s tournament. Back in 2012, Aubameyang missed a penalty kick in the quarterfinal match against Mali which ultimately led to Gabon’s exit. While he’s been Gabon’s finest player for quite some time, 2014 was the year that became one of Africa’s best. He finished second in fan voting for BBC’s African Footballer of the Year. Gabon’s greatly depends on the 25-year old to carry the goalscoring load and he is one of the tournament’s must-see players.
6. Seydou Keita, Mali
Roma midfielder Seydou Keita is Mali’s greatest soccer product. The former Barcelona man has the most caps (94) and goals (34) for the national team and will play in his seventh (and maybe last) AFCON tournament. Still, he remains their most important player on the pitch. Whether they need to go forward and score or sit back and defend, they’ll look to their versatile legend for leadership.
7. Emilio Nsue, Equatorial Guinea
The decision to award hosting duties to Equatorial Guinea was a controversial one. The nation was originally disqualified for fielding an ineligible player. This has been an ongoing problem for the hosts, as they did the same thing back in 2013. Middlesborough midfield Emilio Nsue was the player in question that time around. Watching him, it’s easy to see why they’d want the 25-year on the field. He’ll serve as their lone striker and if he can play close to the video above, the hosts are in good hands.
8. Aymen Abdennour, Tunisia
Tunisia’s defense was stellar during qualifying, allowing just two goals in six matches. Along that stout back line, Aymen Abdennour has the most international caps. Group B isn’t exactly knows for its attacking options, but should Tunisia advance, they’ll face one of the previously mentioned Group A players. Abdennour’s willingness to throw himself in front of shots will come in handy there.
9. Stophira Sunzu, Zambia
AFCON 2013 saw Zambia make an unlikely title run. While the chances of them repeating are slim, some of that team will return to action, including center back Stophira Sunzu, who scored the winning penalty in the final. This group is characterized by its defenders and Sunzu is right there with them. There may not be a better aerial ball winner in this tournament.