As the 2018 World Cup begins in Russia, the hopes of Africa’s five representatives hang squarely on some key players.
Senegal, Nigeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco are the teams shouldering the continent’s hopes.
Concise News takes a look at five key players, one each from the continent’s representatives, that can stun the world in Vladimir Putin’s country.
Following a sterling outing in the Premier League last season, Salah carries the burden of an Egyptian side that have not been at the World Cup since the 1990 edition in Italy.
He netted 32 goals in the English topflight league but is in race against time for his side’s first game on Friday with Uruguay.
Salah had picked up a shoulder injury during Liverpool’s 3-1 Champions League final loss to Real Madrid in May.
During the qualifiers, the former Chelsea forward helped the Pharaohs with five goals and two assists. In the game against DR Congo, the 25-year-old slammed home a 95th minute penalty to hand the Egyptians a ticket to the competition.
“Salah is the man behind our qualification to the World Cup,” Hazem Emam, who won the 1998 Nations Cup and 87 caps for Egypt, told BBC.
“When we qualified in 1990, it was more of a team effort. This time, Salah was the leader of the whole campaign.”
In fact, his home-town school had changed its name to Salah’s, to honour the player.
Thirty-two games, 11 goals in 27 years are the figures for Victor Moses in Super Eagles colours.
The Chelsea man, who had been in the football wilderness at club level until Antonio Conte gave him a lifeline during the 2016/2017 Premier League season, is perhaps, Nigeria’s most valuable asset in this competition.
He bagged three goals in four games for the three-time African champions during the qualifiers.
Aside his attacking qualities, Moses is an asset at the back as he plays as a wing-back for the Blues.
Since bursting onto the scene and winning the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, the former England junior international brings talent, exposure and balance to the West Africans who are in Group D of the show with Argentina, Iceland and Croatia.
Nigeria’s gaffer Gernot Rohr affirmed this when he described the former Liverpool forward as “world class” and the “most impressive player in my team.”
“He is a world-class player and you can rely on him any time and any moment he is playing,” said Rohr.
“He is the most impressive player in my team. He is fast and I hope he will not get injured before the World Cup in Russia. I have absolute confidence in him.”
In 2002, during their debut outing at the World Cup, it was El-Hadji Diouf that propelled the Lions of Teranga to the quarter-finals.
Sixteen years later, and in their second outing, the hopes of Senegal lie on the shoulders of Sadio Mane, who bagged 10 goals in the English Premier League and same number in the Champions League for Liverpool this past season.
He made his debut for the West Africans in 2012 and has since netted 14 goals in 51 games.
“Poland, Japan, Colombia – that’s a tough group. But you have to believe in yourself and believe in what you are doing all the time,” Mane told the Daily Mirror.
“You try to do the job all together and hopefully we will qualify from the group. Honestly, personally, I don’t know the word ‘pressure’ because I enjoy my job all the time.
“The main man all the time is the Senegal team, which makes us really good.”
Tunisia will go to Russia with the confidence that Wahbi Khazri brings his A-game to play.
An attacking midfielder for French Ligue 1 side Rennes, Khazri was an outstanding bunch for the side during the 2017/18 term.
He was also instrumental to the Carthage Eagles’ return to the global event, as he grabbed a goal against Mauritania in Round 2 of the qualification race.
The Juventus defender is the string that holds the defense for the Atlas Lions of Morocco.
A former Bayern Munich star, the experienced defender is one of the key players the North Africans are looking up to, to power their World Cup dream.
During the last round of matches in Group C of the African qualifying, Benatia, the skipper of the side, got a back-post finish from a corner kick against Ivory Coast (they won 2-0) to cement the Maghreb nation’s place in Russia.
Benatia, who won the double last term with his Italian side, featured at the 2012, 2013 and 2017 editions of the Africa Cup of Nations.
At 31, the former Roma star has over 50 caps for Herve Renard’s charges after his debut on 19 November 2008 in a 3–0 friendly win over Zambia.
“We already know that it’s going to be difficult,” the defender said as his country prepares for their first World Cup finals since 1998.
“When you have the chance to participate in the World Cup, you want to play these kind of games, especially with Spain, which is the best team in the world […] It’s a pride and it’s a beautiful challenge.”