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North Africa vs West Africa: Who’s made bigger Prem contribution?

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Mohamed Salah breaking Didier Drogba’s Premier League goalscoring record would affirm the growing relevance of North Africa in England’s top flight

Having matched Didier Drogba’s African record for goals in the Premier League last weekend, Mohamed Salah now looks set to eclipse it when Liverpool travel to Manchester United on Sunday.

If it now seems inevitable, it is for two reasons.

The first is the simple fact of the Egyptian’s form, and the stratospheric level he is now regularly operating at.

Watching Salah now seems like scampering down the stairs on Christmas morning to check under the tree: there are guaranteed to be treats waiting, some measure of wizardry with which to delight and thrill. It is a wondrous state for a player to be in, and even more so when he knows it himself like the 29-year-old clearly does.

The second is that, in scoring on the Reds’ visit to Old Trafford last season, Salah emphatically ended a personal league hoodoo in away matches against the Red Devils. In hindsight, it looks rather silly, but at the time his poor record in the fixture was a major talking point.

That lingering doubt now dispelled, the stage seems set.

Whenever he does hit 105 however, it will be significant in an even broader context than attaining the record.

As far as African imports go, the Premier League has, since inception, tended to provide the perfect stomping ground for West African players.

This is borne out by the rest of the African goalscorer top five – all are native to countries from that one region – but even beyond the forwards, it is footballers from West Africa that have fitted in most readily.

Think the likes of Michael Essien, Yaya Toure, Joseph Yobo, Kolo Toure, Abdoulaye Meite and Mikel John Obi, to name very few.

The reason for this is two-fold – both cultural and economic.

The Premier League has always prided itself on a hard, fast playing style based around physicality. As an idea, this is very much in keeping with the basis of football in West Africa; broadly speaking, North African football has been defined more by its technical aspects (in part due to proximity to Europe), while in East and Southern Africa football is not quite as popular, and lower population densities do not foster the sort of fierce competitive outlook that is found in West Africans.

Similarly, socio-economic factors come into play, especially in contrast to North African nations.

With corruption and a lack of infrastructure undermining local leagues in West Africa, those nations are compelled to export their talent for development.

As a result, there is a clear disparity both in quality and financial muscle between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa in the club game and, as an extension of this dynamic, less of an imperative on North African players to seek transfers to Europe.

This has fed into an insularity that has to this point limited the footprint of that region in the Premier League. Colonial and migratory patterns have seen players of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian descent proliferate in France, but the Premier League has mostly remained under-explored territory.

There have been exceptions of course.

Noureddine Naybet had a brief but well-reviewed stint with Tottenham, Mustapha Hadji became a Coventry icon on the back of five years, Mido’s headstrong ways gave many English managers conniptions for close to a decade and Radhi Jaidi was a crucial part of Sam Allardyce’s muscular Bolton Wanderers outfit in the mid-noughties.

However, these names pale in comparison, both in terms of longevity and success, to some of the stalwarts from West Africa who have graced the Premier League – the list of Nigerians alone almost comfortably outstrips that of all the North African nations put together, and that’s not just in terms of quantity.

The trend is starting to turn, however.

This is especially so in the past half-decade: Riyad Mahrez has won multiple Premier League titles with Leicester City and Manchester City, Ahmed Elmohamady has been a part of the furniture at Aston Villa since 2017 (and at Sunderland and Hull City for even longer) and Mohamed Elneny has been at Arsenal since 2015, claiming multiple FA Cups.

Salah eclipsing Drogba’s record would not only confirm this sea change but would also signpost the Premier League as a prime destination for the next wave of North African footballing talent.

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