From Salah to Hannibal: The Arab stars to look out for in Afcon 2021
The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) kicks off in Cameroon on Sunday, after a seven-month delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Having left their club sides mid-season, the continent’s top players will compete for its most prestigious prize, with many pundits dubbing the tournament the most star-studded edition yet.
Senegal, led by Liverpool talisman Sadio Mane and ranked 20th in the world, are considered marginal favourites to lift the trophy. But several other sides will have something to say about that, not least the Arab teams in contention, including defending champions Algeria.
From Ballon d’Or chasing Mohamed Salah to Manchester United and Tunisia's teenage sensation Hannibal Mejbri, we take a look at some of the names to look out for.
Mohamed Salah (Egypt)
Egypt’s Mohamed Salah has been considered the best African footballer for some years now, having netted a phenomenal 148 goals in 229 games, in his four and a half seasons at Liverpool.
This year he goes into Afcon amid debates about whether he is the world’s best player, too. With both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo adjusting to life at their new clubs, Salah’s scoring rate this season (23 goals in 26 games) could see him become only the second African to win the Ballon d’Or individual prize, after Liberia's George Weah.
But while the 29-year-old has an impressive trophy cabinet at club level, international silverware has thus far eluded him. Egypt are the most successful nation at Afcon, with seven titles, but their most recent triumph came in 2010, a year before Salah made his debut. He will be aiming to captain his team to an eighth title this year, and make amends for a disappointing last 16 exit in 2019, on home soil.
Hannibal Mejbri (Tunisia)
Tunisia’s 18-year-old Hannibal Mejbri is in the rare position of having played more matches for his country than his club.
Mejbri was a breakout star at the Fifa Arab Cup last month, earning the man of the match award in two games as Tunisia finished runners up in the pan-Arab tournament.
His tenacity and technical ability at such a young age have earned plaudits, and he is likely, soon, to add to his singular appearance for his club, Manchester United.
United's interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, said he was impressed by Mejbri’s performances at the Arab Cup, and would integrate him into the English side’s senior squad.
“I’m fully aware that we have another good, highly talented player coming from our youth ranks and hopefully after the Africa Cup of Nations he can regularly train and be part of our group,” Rangnick said.
Ilias Chair (Morocco)
With Chelsea playmaker Hakim Ziyech left out of the Morocco squad after falling out with coach Vahid Halilhodzic, the Atlas Lions will need to find new threats in attacking midfield.
Queens Park Rangers' Ilias Chair could be the answer. The 24-year-old has six goals and three assists for the English Championship (second division) side this season, leading its charge for promotion to the Premier League.
Chair is small (at 5ft 2in) and skilful, and has an eye for long-range goals - he was awarded the Championship’s Goal of the Month in October after a spectacular effort against Blackburn Rovers.
He won’t be guaranteed to start every game for Morocco in the coming weeks, but could be a player whose stock rises by the time he returns to English football next month.
Riyad Mahrez (Algeria)
Algeria could not be in better form going into this year’s Afcon, and star man Riyad Mahrez will once again be a key player to look out for.
After winning the Arab Cup last month (which Mahrez did not feature in), Algeria extended their unbeaten streak to a sensational 39 matches, which includes their famous victory in the 2019 African tournament.
Mahrez was key to that success three years ago, scoring a dramatic last-minute free kick winner against Nigeria in the semi-finals. He has since added another English Premier League winners’ medal to his collection.
The Algerian already has six goals and four assists this season for Manchester City, an impressive feat considering City coach Pep Guardiola’s tendency to rest and rotate his attacking stars.
At Afcon, Mahrez will no doubt start every single game, and hope to eclipse the likes of Salah and Mane as the best player on show.
Achraf Hakimi (Morocco)
In any debate about the best full-back in world football today, Achraf Hakimi’s name has to feature.
The defender is only 23, but has already played for Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain.
He earned a big-money move to the latter last summer, in a spectacular summer which saw Messi, Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Gini Wijnaldum also join the Parisian side.
Hakimi has hit the ground running, with three goals and three assists so far this season, a solid output for one of the most attack-minded defenders in the game.
Morocco’s 6ft 2in striker Youssef En-Nesyri will hope to be the beneficiary of that attacking prowess, with lethal pinpoint crosses a guarantee.
Mohamed El Shenawy (Egypt)
Salah might make all the headlines for Egypt, but goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy will be crucial to the Pharaohs' hopes during the tournament.
Shenawy was nominated for the 2021 International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) Goalkeeper of the Year Award, after a stellar year for Al Ahly and Egypt.
He kept 32 clean sheets for club and country in 2021, and was one of Egypt’s best players at the Tokyo Olympics. The 33-year-old also saved two penalties last February in a tense shootout against Palmeiras, as his Cairo-based club finished third in the Fifa Club World Cup. Those penalty-saving skills may well be needed again should Egypt advance to the knockout stages.
Beyatt Lekweiry (Mauritania)
Mauritania’s Beyatt Lekweiry may not get much game time, but he will always be able to say that he was the youngest player at this year’s Afcon.
The 16-year-old earned a surprise call-up to the national side after impressing in the Under-20 Arab Cup last year.
Other youngsters set to feature at Afcon include Sierra Leone’s 17-year-old goalkeeper Ibrahim Sesay and Tunisia’s 18-year-old Mejbri.
Mauritania will have their work cut out in a group which includes Mali and Tunisia, and will hope the likes of experienced former Fulham striker Aboubakar Kamara can guide them to the knockout stages.
Mohamed Abdelrahman (Sudan)
Sudan will be an unknown quantity to most of the world's football fans, with the vast majority of its squad playing in the Sudanese league. They will pin their hopes on striker Mohamed Abdelrahman, who has scored 15 goals for his country, including the decisive goal against South Africa that earned Sudan a place at this year’s Afcon.
Abdelrahman made history in 2020 when he became the country’s most expensive player, joining Al-Hilal Omdurman for $1m.
Sudan had an Arab Cup to forget last month, losing all three group games, conceding 10 goals and scoring none in the process. As proud former winners of the Africa Cup of Nations, they’ll look to put that right in the coming weeks.
Yacine Brahimi (Algeria)
31-year-old Yacine Brahimi will go into the tournament with his confidence sky high, after being awarded the Golden Ball for best player at the Arab Cup last month.
The former Porto frontman, who now plies his trade at Qatar’s Al-Rayyan, netted three times and got two assists as he captained an under-strength Algeria side to glory against their Middle Eastern and North African neighbours.
The calibre of opposition will be higher for Brahimi in Cameroon: the vast majority of Europe-based stars missed the Arab Cup in Qatar, because it clashed with their club season. But the calibre of his teammates will improve too, with West Ham’s Said Benrahma, AC Milan’s Ismael Bennacer and Mahrez among the stars rejoining the Greens.
Brahimi’s experience across the Champions League, World Cup and Afcon will be crucial to Algeria’s attempts to keep its winning streak going.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.