Friday 27 January 2017, 11:14

New stars shining in Gabon

Most football fans would have heard of the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Sadio Mane long before the start of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. But when the competition ends next week, some lesser-known names will have well and truly made their mark.

With the group stage now over, runs the rule over a few who have already boosted their reputations.

Silver linings for eliminated sides Although Gabon became the first hosts since Tunisia in 1994 to fail to escape the group stage after drawing their three matches, one player stood out during their disappointing campaign. Surprisingly, it was not their highly rated and much sought-after striker Aubameyang, but a 22-year-old midfielder who plays his club football in the second tier of French football for Tours.

Even for Gabonese fans, Denis Bouanga's inclusion in the squad for African football’s showpiece event came as a huge surprise. Little was known about the uncapped midfielder, born to a Gabonese father and a French mother, but coach Jose Antonio Camacho not only called him up - he gave him a starting role in their opening match. It was a place he would keep for all three games, picking up two man-of-the-match awards in the process.

Like Gabon, Mali have already been eliminated from the competition, but the three matches they played were enough for 20-year-old Yves Bissouma to stand out. Unlike Bouanga though, the midfielder started only his team’s final game. The Côte d'Ivoire-born player had impressed after coming off the bench in their opening goalless draw against Egypt, but coach Alain Giresse surprisingly started him on the bench again for Les Aigles' game against Ghana. His chance finally came against Uganda. Bissouma seized it, scoring Mali's goal in a 1-1 draw with a powerful free-kick.

Another 20-year-old who impressed was Burkina Faso goalkeeper Herve Koffi, who played a huge part in helping the west Africans top Group A and qualify for the knockout stage for the third time in their history. Koffi, who plays his club football for Ivorian side ASEC Mimosas, leaked just two goals over the three games and fully justified coach Paulo Duarte's decision to pick him ahead of the more experienced Germain Sanou.

Class and confidence It wasn’t just youngsters who came to prominence, though, with 27-year-old Junior Kabananga among the older players to make an impression. Although he has already been on the books of Belgian side Anderlecht, the Congo DR forward has been out of the limelight for some time while playing for Astana – even if his stint with the Kazakh champions has included an appearance in the UEFA Champions League.

Kabananga certainly proved his credentials in helping the Leopards to becoming the only team in the competition to score in every group match. At this stage in the tournament, he tops the scoring chart with three goals – one from each game - and unsurprisingly features prominently in coach Florent Ibenge's plans to bring a third continental title to the Congo DR. "He has had his ups and downs,” Ibenge said of his star striker. “His biggest problem so far has been a mental one, but we have addressed that and he now has confidence.”

Before the start of the tournament, Ibenge’s Cameroon counterpart, Hugo Broos, was in the unenviable position of having to replace several big-name players – including several in attacking positions - who withdrew from the squad. One of the players who has benefited from the call-offs and helped the Indomitable Lions to the second round is winger Christian Bassogog. The 21-year-old, who joined Danish club Aalborg from the US club Wilmington Hammerheads, was one of the standout players for Cameroon and provided the assist for Michael Ngadeu's winner against Guinea-Bissau, which sealed their place in the last eight.

This Cup of Nations has also seen the re-emergence of several north African sides, with Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt – and several of their players – shining in Gabon.

While Egypt have traditionally focused on the collective rather than on individual stars, midfielder Mahmoud 'Trezeguet' Hassan has undoubtedly shown the form that has made him one of the most promising players in Belgium, where he plays for Mouscron (on loan from Anderlecht). His performances have helped the Pharaohs into the quarter-finals, where they will be meet regional rivals Morocco.

But while Trezeguet already plays his club football in Europe and is well on the way towards becoming a star, less is known about Tunisia's standout players, Mohamed Amine Ben Amor and Naim Sliti. Both are 24-year-old midfielders, with Amor under contract with Etoile in the country’s local league, while Sliti, who was born in France, is on loan to Lille from Red Star Paris.

For them, the competition has provided the stage on which to showcase their talent. Many have taken the opportunity and it could well be that this Africa Cup of Nations becomes a springboard for even bigger things.