The Liverpool star’s rise to the pinnacle of European football has been admirable, but could he go down as the outright best ever in Africa?
Mane’s journey from the streets of Bambali, Senegal to one of the historic clubs in the world has certainly been admirable.
The attacker probably never imagined just how much he’d achieve when he began his professional career, and especially after leaving Senegal at the age of 15, to his mother’s disapproval.
13 years later, after spells at lowly Metz, Red Bull Salzburg, Southampton and now Liverpool, the 28-year-old has become European champion and world champion with the Reds. The 2019 Champions League winners were also on course to end a 30-year wait on the red half of Merseyside to celebrate another league win, until the coronavirus pandemic saw football suspended.
Mane hasn’t just been a bystander in the team’s recent success, and was, in fact, one of the first additions that began Liverpool’s transformation under Jurgen Klopp.
In four years at the club, the forward’s become one of the top attackers in Europe and undoubtedly the world, forming a deadly partnership with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino.
The culmination of his ascent came in January, when he was named African Footballer of the Year for 2019, which elicited wild celebrations in Bambali. Having made the final three for three successive years, it was pleasing to see the Liverpool man finally reign supreme in African football at the fourth time of asking.
For Mane, several previous failures to win the Caf awards meant that he’d been building up to January’s success: He’d been named in the Caf Team of the Year on four occasions, the Uefa equivalent once in 2019 and in IFFHS’ 2019 XI too, alongside legendary forwards Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
It was the Argentine maestro that prevented the Senegal star from being named Europe’s top forward for 2018/19, despite the Reds winning the continent’s most illustrious competition.
A fourth-place finish in last year’s Ballon d’Or was widely criticised, too, with many observers and ex-players of the opinion that the Senegal star ought to have been in the final three at the expense of either Ronaldo or teammate Virgil van Dijk.
The outcry at the voting results is credit to the Reds’ attacker who could, and probably should, have been the first African since George Weah in 1995 to make the podium.
Not even Samuel Eto’o, a four-time African Player of the Year, came as close as the West African to making the final three. The Cameroon icon is widely regarded as the continent’s best export, but his highest Ballon d’Or finish was fifth in 2009, although he did end third behind Ronaldinho and Frank Lampard in the Fifa World Player of the Year voting for 2005.
Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba also ended fourth in 2007, behind Kaka, Ronaldo and Messi, although the Chelsea icon was 147 points behind the Barcelona man, while Mane ended 71 points behind Portugal’s leading goalscorer, demonstrating how much closer he was to clinching the prize.
Salah, despite his incredible 2018/19 campaign, came in at sixth in the 2018 awards. Mane was 22nd; alongside Edinson Cavani and Marcelo…a year later, he moved 18 places to fourth.
The aforementioned comparison with a few of the continent’s great exports demonstrates the Senegalese’s place among Europe’s finest, but can he truly surpass Africa’s finest stars of all time before he calls time on his career?
It would be no mean feat to overtake Eto’o, for example, a two-time Champions League winner with Barca and Internazionale or Drogba who, some might say, singlehandedly won the 2012 edition for Chelsea.
Heavyweights like Yaya Toure, Roger Milla and Abedi Pele aren’t left out.
Milla’s longevity is unrivalled and his impact at three World Cups saw him become the continent’s top scorer at the finals until Asamoah Gyan overtook the Cameroon legend in 2014.
Ghana’s greatest player was named best player on the continent three times, one higher than Milla, and was the first African to win the Champions League in its current format in 1993.
Supplanting these icons across different eras won’t be easy, but it’s what Mane is up against.
The Liverpool man may not have the longevity of Milla and Eto’o, the transformative impact of Yaya, the pioneering effect of Pele, the big-game impact of Drogba and may not claim as many individual honours as these legends who have walked the continent, but what he can do is win what nobody else before him has, if he’s even to be in the conversation.
The biggest honour will be matching Weah’s Ballon d’Or success, which is easier said than done, while success at the Africa Cup of Nations would be a good alternative honour to have in his locker.
All the aforementioned past and present stars, bar Salah, Weah and Drogba, have won the continent’s showpiece at least once, which highlights their greatness.
It’s why last year’s failure in Egypt was painful for the Liverpool star, who missed the opportunity to make himself a national hero by bringing home Senegal’s maiden Afcon crown.
That failure will still rankle, given the Teranga Lions went into the finals with arguably the best and most-balanced squad, and one of the in-form stars in Mane too, but Aliou Cisse’s troops ultimately fell short.
However, given age is no longer on the player’s side, only one or both of the aforementioned feats is required to truly put him in the mix when Africa’s greatest are being discussed. Anything beneath that risks leaving Mane in the next tier of ‘secondary’ African legends.
In truth, while Mane’s recent ascent could see him eventually become one of the best on the continent, being the outright greatest may be a bridge too far.