Another night, another celebration of the continent’s best, and for the second year running, the outright winner was the methodical Egyptian prince, Mohamed Salah, a shining light of Africa’s more celebratory side.
Not that this should be disputed, like Brexit or the building of a wall – Salah’s exploits in 2018 far outweigh the contributions made by anyone else from the continent – but what of Senegal’s own finest export of the current generation?
The CAF Awards, in partnership with FifPro, at least allowed Kalidou Koulibaly to share the stage with his peers in Africa’s Finest XI. Quiet and reserved, a far less engaging figure than the version we see in Naples, the commanding central defender marshaled the back line of Africa’s best on stage as Salah took the spotlight.
— CAF (@CAF_Online) January 8, 2019
More often than not, this is how Koulibaly operates on the pitch, as well. Never trying to write the headlines or be the centre of attention, he quietly goes about his work like an experienced carpenter. That’s why, when faced with racial abuse against Inter Milan at the back end of last year, it felt odd to see him lose his cool, although the situation at hand called for it.
And in CAF’s own situation, maybe it wouldn’t have been such a bad idea to look left-field and bestow the best African player award upon the head of the best African defender.
Last year saw a seismic shift from the narrative as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s duopoly was finally outwitted by Luka Modric, a move that has been hotly debated but, ultimately, accepted.
The criteria for these individual accolades have long had grey areas and changing principles, twisting and turning from one source of argument to another. Messi and Ronaldo’s period was filled with trophy-laden gluttony and a plethora of goal-scoring accomplishments. Modric was awarded for being the ultimate team player and leading Croatia to an unexpected World Cup final.
What of Antoine Griezmann, a Europa League and World Cup winner? Or Raphaël Varane, who did one better and won his third Champions League in a row? It all seems a bit fuzzy.
So here we were, at a point in time where Salah, with no trophy in his Liverpool cabinet, was judged according to his triumphant season in England, leading his club to a fourth-place finish and a Champions League final.
Koulibaly didn’t win anything either, although Napoli ran Juventus close before disappointingly tailing off at the end. Neither had a good World Cup, however Senegal were better placed to make an impact had they taken their chances.
These two have met before, mind you. In their final Champions League group stage tie at Anfield last year, Salah rose to the occasion as he shimmied and escaped the clutches of Koulibaly’s grasp – an impressive feat in its own right, the sort of success that should be rewarded with a gold star and a pat on the back for good effort.
There’s nothing wrong with this. To be able to beat Koulibaly is to be commended – not many can, and especially not in the manner that Salah did – and it doesn’t take away from his incredible recovery runs or marauding adventures further forward.
Napoli would do well to hold on to him. With reported interest from the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid, a defender of his quality would command a hefty fee, and justifiably so. Defenders like him are hard to come by, a rarity like painite or seeing the birth of a rainbow.
He will never score 40-plus goals in a season, or be part of an impressive front three, but to be a central defender in the modern age is to be the first line of all that is good in the attacking qualities of a team. Without him, Napoli wouldn’t be able to press high up the field. Lorenzo Insigne, José Callejón and Dries Mertens wouldn’t have been a fearsome Italian gnome brigade under Maurizio Sarri’s high-energy style.
Defenders have become increasingly important to the attacking side of the game. The top teams usually have someone who can play the ball from the back and engage with forward-thinking routines – John Stones, Virgil van Dijk, Clement Lenglet, Giorgio Chiellini, to name but a few. Koulibaly slots in seamlessly into this group, and you would do well to find anyone that would think otherwise.
And, football is all about debate, so here’s a point that could keep anyone up for many a night as one tosses and turns in their bed: there will be more players like Salah in future, maybe not as good, but similar. But, there won’t be many Koulibaly types running around because players of his ilk are hard to find.
So let us celebrate Salah’s achievements long into the night, a wonderful talent who stands for all that is good about the African continent. Just don’t forget about Koulibaly, the central defender whose contributions could be as important as Salah’s in their own quiet way.
Full Awards List:
Player of the Year
Mohamed Salah (Egypt, Liverpool/ENG)
Women’s player of the Year
Chrestinah Kgatlana (South Africa)
Youth player of the Year
Achraf Hakimi (Morocco)
Coach of the Year
Herve Renard (Morocco)
Women’s coach of the Year
Desiree Ellis (South Africa)
National team of the year
Women’s national team of the year
Goal of the Year
Chrestinah Kgatlana (South Africa)
Africa All Stars
Denis Onyango (Uganda), Serge Aurier (Ivory Coast), Medhi Benatia (Morocco), Eric Bailly (Ivory Coast), Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal), Thomas Partey (Ghana), Naby Keita (Guinea), Riyad Mahrez (Algeria), Sadio Mane (Senegal), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon), Mohamed Salah (Egypt)