• Friday, April 12, 2024
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BusinessDay

AFCON: Saudi Pro League players making headlines in Ivory Coast

Sadio Mane

Excitement is buzzing around the continent as the biggest gathering of African football’s powerhouses 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Ivory Coast.

Players playing in the Saudi Pro League are making big headlines in Ivory Coast and will fight for national pride and bragging rights to fire their nation to AFCON glory.

The Saudi Pro League has attracted some top global stars since the signing of Portuguese starman Cristiano Ronaldo in December 2022.

The majority of foreign signings have been captured by one of the ‘big four’ teams owned by the Public Investment Fund: Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal.

Saudi Arabia’s influence on football is growing and the Kingdom is also expected to have an impact on the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations.

A total of 25 players who ply their trade in the Saudi Pro League are representing 24 national teams in Ivory Coast, more than doubled since the 2021 AFCON.

Here, BusinessDay takes a profile of 10 players from the Saudi Pro League to watch at the 2023 AFCON in Ivory Coast.

Sadio Mane (Al Nassr) Senegal

Senegal star and former Liverpool forward joined Saudi Pro League side Al Nassr in the summer following a spell with Bayern Munich,

The 32-year-old is reportedly earning more than £ 650,000 a week and £33 million per year in the Middle East.

Al Nassr will hope to win the Pro League with Mane’s addition after finishing five points behind champions Al Ittihad last season.

Mane, who led Senegal to victory in the last edition of AFCON is one of the biggest African players to watch in Ivory Coast and the 31-year-old has set his sights on defending the AFCON in Abidjan.

Senegal defeated The Gambia 2-0 in their Group C opener on Monday at Stade Charles Konan Banny.

Riyad Mahrez (Al Ahli) Algeria

Riyad Mahrez completed a move from Manchester City to Saudi Pro League side Al-Ahli last year summer.

The 32-year-old winger moved to the Arabian Gulf for a reported £30 million and will earn a whooping £26 million per year.

He was also awarded the 2016 African Footballer of the Year award and won the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

Mahrez is spearheading Algeria’s side at the 2023 AFCON in Ivory Coast and will aim to fire the Desert Foxes to a historic triumph.

Algeria were knocked out of the 2021 AFCON in the group stage despite emerging champions in the tournament in 2019.

Despite being knocked out in the group stage at the 201 AFCON, The North African outfit are among the favourite nations to win the 2023 AFCON having won it in 2019.

Edouard Mendy (Al Ahli) Senegal

The Senegal shot-stopper helped the Taranga Lions win the 2021 AFCON title in Cameroon and is also one of the biggest stars from the Saudi Pro League in Ivory Coast.

Mendy moved to Al Ahli from Premier League side Chelsea for a reported £16 million fee and earns £9.4 million annually.

Kalidou Koulibaly (Al Hilal) Senegal

Koulibaly is another Chelsea and Senegalese player who moved to Saudi Arabia after just a season at Stamford Bridge.

The 32-year-old center-back was part of the team that won the last edition of the tournament in Cameroon.

Koulibaly came with a wealth of experience from his years with the national team and is one of the key players coach Aliou Cisse will be banking on to light up Ivory Coast.

Seko Fofana (Al Nassr) Ivory Coast

The Ivory Coast midfielder had a productive three years at French club RC Lens, making them become a stable name in the Ligue 1 after gaining promotion in 2020.

Fofana has joined Cristiano Ronaldo’s Saudi Pro League club Al Nassr side from Ligue 1 side RC Lens on a contract worth £22 million and a yearly salary of £13 million.

The 28-year-old scored a beautiful stunner to hand Ivory Coast a convincing 2-0 win over Guinea-Bissau in their AFCON opening match.

Devis Epassy (Abha) Cameroon

Devis Epassy is one of the best goalkeepers from the Saudi Professional League club Abha to watch out for in Ivory Coast.

The 30-year-old goalie became popular at the 2022 Qatar World Cup when André Onana was dropped by Rigobert Song after Matchday 1. He later featured in Cameroon’s two other matches before being eliminated at the group stage.

Yassine Bounou (Al Hilal) Morocco

Yassine Bounou is a legendary Moroccan hero and currently the CAF Best African Goalkeeper of 2023.

Currently playing with Saudi Pro League giants Al Hilal, the 32-year-old shot-stopper was instrumental in Morocco’s historic World Cup semi-final run in Qatar, pulling off a series of sensational saves.

Bounou’s aerial dominance and commanding presence also kept the Atlas Lions firmly in matches as they became Africa’s first-ever World Cup semi-finalists.

His fine form will play a key role in Morocco’s chances of winning the AFCON for the second time.

Romain Saïss (Al-Shabab) Morocco

Romain Saïss is the captain of the Moroccan team at the 2023 AFCON in Ivory Coast. The 33-year-old defender currently plays for Saudi Pro League club Al-Shabab.

Coming fresh from a historic semi-final finish at the 2022 World Cup, the Atlas Lions are raring to roar to a second AFCON title since last lifting the title in 1976.

Munir El Kajoui (Al-Wehda) Morocco

Munir Kajoui is Morocco’s second-choice goalkeeper who ply his trade with Al Wehda in the Saudi Pro League.

The 34-year-old veteran goalkeeper is among some of the stars from the Saudi Pro League and one of the 27 players coach Walid Regragui will be banking for a successful AFCON in Ivory Coast.

Oumar Gonzalez (Al-Raed) Cameroon

Oumar Gonzalez is a Cameroonian centre-back defender who plays for Saudi Pro League club Al-Raed.

The 25-year-old made a switch to the rich oil Gulf Region in 2023 and has made a beautiful start to the Saudi Pro League.