When I started looking into the subject of African footballers and Arsenal, I thought that it would be quite straightforward and easy to research, but the more I delved into it the bigger the influence of African Gunners became.
The Arsenal Academy, excluding Chuba Akpom, Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Nwakali, currently has up to 16 players with some African heritage, players who could one day represent, Nigeria, England, Ghana or even Ireland; and it’s quite possible that an Arsenal matchday squad, within the next four or five years, could have five, six or even seven African heritage players wearing the mighty red and white colours…
Although this all seems like a modern day phenomenon, the Arsenal – African link actually goes way back to the 1950’s, when South African winger Daniel Le Roux spent a season at Highbury, playing five games in the 1957-58 season. But it would be another 40 years before another African would don the famous Arsenal shirt. During that time the growth in African football had seen the trickle of talent into Europe, become a flood; Eusebio, from being the exception, soon became the norm.
Progressive managers like Arsene Wenger and explosive imports like Tony Yeboah opened people’s eyes to the talent that Africa had to offer. And so, it was no surprise when the man who had developed George Weah decided to sign his cousin Chris Wreh. Now Chris wasn’t George for sure, but during that memorable 1997-98 season he did score a few vital goals, not least in that tight 1-0 win up at the Reebok. In 46 appearances our Liberian striker got only five goals, but that night in Bolton is happily burned into my memory whilst the trip back to London on the coach was one long sing-song.
Two years later the man with the big plates of meat (feet) arrived from Milano and, despite all the health scare stories, became a folk hero at Highbury and made half of his nation into Gooners, into seemed. Yes, I am talking about the one and only Nwankwu Kanu, with his long legs, long arms, sharp elbows, toothy grin and mesmerising ball control, he left many a Premier League defender on his backside. I was at Stamford Bridge on that day that he single-handily destroyed Chelsea on a waterlogged pitch and left them traumatised for several seasons afterwards. I still cannot help myself laughing when I see him dummying Franck Le Beouf for that winning hat-trick goal. Another goal from him that sticks in my mind is the cheeky backheel he got at the Riverside, with his back to the goal he let a pass run between his legs before carefully deflecting it into the goal. It was a magic moment from a supreme technician.
Kanu got some 44 goals in 198 appearances, none better than the dummy he used to send the Deportivo goalkeeper the wrong way at Highbury before slotting home. I’m sure many of you have your own favourite.
Cameroonian International Lauren arrived from Real Mallorca in the following summer of 2000, or Ralph as he was affectionately known by the fans. He came as a midfielder but was converted into one of the clubs best ever right-backs; we all loved Ralph, he was as hard as nails but a top top quality footballer. A nerveless penalty taker who made 241 appearances for the club during its glory years under Wenger, scoring nine goals.
We miss players with not only his quality, but also his character.
2002 saw Kolo Toure arrive: a wild, talented, enthusiastic player who was developed by Wenger into a top centre back and who thrived in his partnership with Sol Campbell. Kolo made 326 appearances for the club scoring 14 goals before differences within the club saw him leave.
Emmanuel Eboue 2005: 217 apps 10 goals was versatile and a great team player.
Alex Song 2005: 218 apps 10 goals, did a solid job in midfield before moving to Barcelona.
Emmanuel Adebayor 2006: 143 apps 62 goals, was a dynamic centre-forward who should have been a club legend, but isn’t.
Marouane Chamakh 2010: 69 apps 14 goals had a mixed career in the shadow of Robin Van Persie.
Gervinho 2011: 63 apps 11 goals was a player who arrived with huge reputation but proved unable to live up to it.
By the early 2000’s the Arsenal Academy was developing many players, some born in the UK, who could represent the country of their parents, like Emmanuel Frimpong, Chuks Aneke, Daniel Boateng, Fabrice Muamba and Quincy Owusu-Abeyie.
And today we have Mo Elneny and Pierre-Emirick Aubameyang playing key roles in the team and carrying on that legacy created by Kanu and Lauren; and then there’s Eddie Nketiah, who could play for Ghana if England take their eye off the ball.
But it doesn’t end with Eddie.
Jordi Osei-Tutu and Yunus Musah have links to Ghana, Stephy Mavididi has connections to the DR Congo
As for the Nigerians, well have a look at this lot PE:
Xavier Amanechi, Joseph Oluwu, Tolaji Bola, Aaron Eyoma, Marc Bola, Tobi Omole, James Olayinka, Folarin Balogun, Bukayo Saka, Arthur Okonkwo and finally Armstrong Okoflex who was born in Dublin and who could represent Nigeria, England or Ireland. Making up the 16 is Gedion Zelalem, Ethiopia/Germany/USA….
Arsenal’s link with the second largest and second most populous continent is as strong as ever, and long may it continue!