AFCON 2023’s Hidden Stars and Surprise Squad Inclusions: Pepe, Bebe, Ndiaye, Loukman, Elneny…

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The Africa Cup of Nations 2023, set to kick off today, January 13 in the Ivory Coast, promises not only the clash of football titans but also the emergence of hidden stars and unexpected squad inclusions. Amidst the anticipation of seasoned players like Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez, and Mohammed Kudus leading their nations, there are lesser-known names making waves and rewriting their football narratives.

Bebe – Cape Verde: A Redemption Story

A decade after his tumultuous stint at Manchester United, Bebe, now 33, is gearing up for his first international tournament with Cape Verde. The once £7.4 million signing for Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad has found stability at Rayo Vallecano. After a nomadic career, including spells in Turkey and Portugal, Bebe eventually made his debut for Cape Verde in 2022, having switched nationalities from Portugal. His journey from obscurity to representing Cape Verde serves as a testament to resilience and determination.

Ademola Lookman – Nigeria: A New Face in Super Eagles

At 26, Ademola Lookman is making his debut in senior international tournaments, but it’s not with England, where he earned 11 caps at the U-21 level. In 2022, Lookman opted to switch his allegiance to Nigeria. The Atalanta forward, leading his club’s Serie A goal-scoring charts, now shoulders an increased attacking burden for the Super Eagles. Lookman’s potential return to the Premier League adds another layer to his evolving narrative.

Gael Kakuta – DR Congo: A Chelsea Wonderkid’s Resurgence

Once hailed as a Chelsea wonderkid, Gael Kakuta, at 32, is set to make his tournament debut with DR Congo. Kakuta’s journey has been marked by multiple club moves across Europe and Asia. His major tournament bow, 17 years after a controversial move to Chelsea, underscores the resilience that has defined his career. Partnering with Cedric Bakambu, another player who switched nationality, DR Congo aims for a triumphant AFCON campaign.

Iliman Ndiaye – Senegal: A Multinational Journey to Glory

Iliman Ndiaye’s journey to AFCON epitomizes a global football story. Born to a Senegalese father and French mother, Ndiaye’s football path led him from France to England. Rising from the semi-professional scene with Rising Ballers to Sheffield United, the 23-year-old now represents the reigning champions, Senegal. AFCON 2023 marks a pivotal moment for Ndiaye as he navigates a tournament that once seemed distant during his formative years.

Tanzania’s Non-League Quartet: Grassroots to Glory

Tanzania’s squad boasts a unique blend of talent, including Mo Sagaf, Haji Mnoga, Tarryn Allarakhia, and Ben Starkie, all with non-league connections in English football. Their inclusion reflects the expanding scope of football talent, transcending traditional pathways. As these players step onto the continental stage, their journey from grassroots to glory exemplifies the diversity of African football talent.

Mohamed Elneny – Egypt: Arsenal’s Unlikely Hero

While largely a fringe player at Arsenal, Mohamed Elneny remains a key figure for Egypt. Heading into AFCON 2023 as Egypt’s most experienced player, Elneny’s role extends beyond his club struggles. As Egypt eyes glory, the tournament could provide a stage for Elneny to showcase his leadership and experience.

Premier League Flops in the Limelight: N’Jie, Nkoudou, and Pepe

Cameroon’s squad features Clinton N’Jie, who had a brief stint with Tottenham, and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou, a former Spurs player now excelling in the Saudi Pro League. Meanwhile, the Ivory Coast will be represented by Nicolas Pepe, once Arsenal’s record signing. These players, considered Premier League flops, aim to redefine their narratives on the African continental stage.

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