Whether it is an established European star or a player making a name for themselves in Africa, the Africa Cup of Nations has featured a range of talents who have stolen a tournament’s spotlight throughout its history.
There will be plenty of different candidates to do so this time too, including Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez or even Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace.
But with shocks in store and unearthed gems yet to be discovered, it could just as easily be a player unrecognisable to European shores, let alone the Premier League as Sportsmail looks back at all the previous player of the tournament winners, starting from 1998 when AFCON first featured 16 teams.
Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah (L) and Sadio Mane (R) will be amongst those looking to be AFCON player of the tournament this year
1998 – Benni McCarthy (South Africa)
McCarthy had just turned 20 when he arrived with defending champions South Africa for the tournament in Burkina Faso, but he was far from unknown.
Already in his first season at Ajax, he was flourishing for the Dutch giants and he was the star at AFCON too. He finished joint top scorer with seven goals – with four of those coming in just 13 minutes in a group stage thrashing of Namibia.
He was crucial to South Africa’s run to the final but was unable to prevent them losing against Egypt.
McCarthy’s career then saw him represent South Africa at the next two World Cups while at club level he appeared for Celta Vigo and Porto before ending up at Blackburn Rovers in 2006 where he starred for four years with 52 goals in 140 games before a flop year at West Ham United.
After retiring in 2013 following a brief spell at Orlando Pirates in his homeland, he is now manager at South African top flight side AmaZulu.
Benni McCarthy (centre) starred for South Africa in their run to the 1998 AFCON final
2000 – Lauren (Cameroon)
There were lots of future Premier League players in the 2000 Cameroon squad that went on to win the tournament in Ghana and Nigeria, but perhaps none quite hit the heights that Lauren did once he reached the English top flight.
At the time of the tournament, there were just Liverpool’s Rigobert Song and West Ham’s Marc-Vivien Foe from the Premier League in the Cameroon squad, but it was the Real Mallorca star who would stand out.
Following a bizarre group phase where all four teams in Cameroon’s group finished level on points, the right winger turned right-back then excelled all the way to a final where his side, also featuring an 18-year-old Samuel Eto’o, triumphed over Nigeria.
After being named player of the tournament, it was enough for Lauren to seal a move to Arsenal at the end of the season where he would go on to win two league titles before moving to Portsmouth for two years in 2007. Retiring in 2010, Lauren now features as a media pundit and has acted as an Arsenal ambassador in Africa.
After staring at the 2000 AFCON, Lauren (right) would become integral to Arsenal
2002 – Rigobert Song (Cameroon)
Song had been captain and scored the crucial penalty to crown his side as winners two years earlier, but now at Cologne on loan from West Ham he excelled further.
As Cameroon defended their title in Mali with their famous sleeveless shirts, the holders managed not just to retain the trophy but did so without conceding a single goal and winning five straight games before having to defeat Senegal in another final shootout.
It wasn’t enough to earn him a West Ham recall though and he soon joined Lens before spells at Galatasaray and Trabzonspor, then retiring having earned 137 caps between 1993 and 2010.
Even today Song is involved with the national set-up as manager of the Under 23 side, a post he has held since 2018.
Rigobert Song (right) and Jay-Jay Okocha were names very familiar to Premier League fans
2004 – Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria)
To many Premier League fans, Okocha was the midfield wizard at Bolton Wanderers with more tricks than David Copperfield, but to limit his achievements to his excellent four years at the club before leaving in 2006 would be grossly unfair.
Since the mid-1990’s, Okocha was leading midfield attacks at Eintracht Frankfurt, Fenerbahce and Paris Saint-Germain and had been a Nigerian international since 1993.
But it was while with Bolton he dazzled at AFCON held in Tunisia, and although his technical skill on the ball was world class he was unable to prevent Nigeria from going out in the semi-final before scoring in the third-place play-off, having also been a joint top scorer with four goals.
Leaving Bolton in 2006, he retired from international football with 73 caps and ended his career following a brief return to the Premier League for the 2007-08 season with Hull for their maiden campaign in the top flight.
Okocha has avoided going into coaching post-retirement but still has an affinity with Bolton, playing in a charity legends match at his former club against the current first team back in November to raise money for the mother of Bolton star Gethin Jones, who had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease.
2006 – Ahmed Hassan (Egypt)
A national icon in Egypt, Hassan struck four times in his homeland to help his side pick up their fifth title, including in the shootout final where they defeated Ivory Coast.
It was his second success with his country having previously lifted the trophy in 1998 during an international career that saw him win a then international record of 184 caps – an achievement that has since been levelled by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Up to this point in his career, Hassan had spent most of his career in Turkey and was at Besiktas, where he left at the end of the season to spend two seasons at Anderlecht.
Ahmed Hassan twice won player of the tournament with his first coming with Egypt in 2006
2008 – Hosny Abd Rabo (Egypt)
Egypt’s 2006 success was likely bittersweet for Rabo, who although would have been delighted to his country win the title could only do so from the sidelines having been ruled out of the tournament with an injury one week prior.
But he more than made up for it two years later in Ghana, with the midfielder showing his ability to help his side defensively and in attacking situations to help them retain their title – scoring four goals and adding two assists in the process.
In being named player of the tournament he saw off the likes of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Eto’o.
Rabo’s exploits though never really transferred over into Europe. Prior to the tournament he had spent two years on the books of French side Strasbourg, suffering top-flight relegation.
Before his move to France and after he played for Ismaily in Egypt before ending his career in the Middle East in 2013. His final cap came in 2014, his 101st for his nation coming a decade after his debut. Despite not playing since 2014, he only announced his official retirement back in 2019.
Egypt retained their title in 2008, leading to Hosny Abd Rabo being named player of the tournament – here he is pictured during the 2010 competition
2010 – Ahmed Hassan (Egypt)
By now Hassan was 34 years old but he was still effective for Egypt after again being named player of the tournament in Angola.
He scored three goals during the tournament and they were not padding the stats contributions either having scored in the tricky opening game against Nigeria before netting twice in the 3-1 win over Cameroon in the quarter-final, which went to extra time.
Hassan remained integral for the rest of the tournament up until the win over Ghana in the final ensuring he had won AFCON for the fourth time in his career and Egypt had for the third time in a row. The real Egyptian King?
Hassan won player of the tournament for a second time as Egypt triumphed again in 2010
2012 – Christopher Katongo (Zambia)
The 2012 AFCON held in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea was a curious tournament, and it was one that ended with six players all finishing with the golden boot.
A couple of them were household names including Didier Drogba and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang but when it came to player of the tournament, both were pipped by Zambia’s Christopher Katongo.
What probably helped the then 29-year-old was that his Zambia side won the tournament overall, defeating Drogba’s Ivory Coast in the final on penalty kicks.
The striker had an interesting career path, playing in Africa before spending three years in Europe at Denmark’s Brondby and Germany’s Arminia Bielefeld before eventually ending up in China by the time he proved a key figure in guiding Zambia to their first ever continental title.
He went on to make 105 appearances for Zambia over 13 years until 2016 where shortly after he retired from the game.
The likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were outshone by Christopher Katongo in 2012
2013 – Jonathan Pitroipa (Burkina Faso)
For context, Burkina Faso rarely rank among the best 10 teams in Africa, in fact at the Africa Cup of Nations prior to 2013, outside of hosting a tournament, they had never gone beyond the group stages and had never won a game.
But with the tournament moved to odd-numbered years to avoid playing too close to the World Cup, they nearly produced one of the biggest shocks of all time as they reached the final – only to be defeated by Nigeria.
Jonathan Pitroipa was key to this success, with the winger having a rich level of experience of the major leagues in Germany, with Freiburg and Hamburg, as well as in France with Rennes.
He netted in the quarter-final victory over Emmanuel Adebayor’s Togo but couldn’t produce the same magic in the final where his side went down 1-0 in South Africa.
The winger retired last summer following three years at French second tier side Paris FC.
Winger Jonathan Pitroipa was key to Burkina Faso’s incredible run to the 2013 final
2015 – Christian Atsu (Ghana)
By the time the 2015 edition kicked off in Equatorial Guinea, there were still lots of promise and budding potential in Christian Atsu who was on Chelsea’s books and was on loan at Everton.
The tournament helped enhance the notion that he was an undoubted star in helping Ghana reach the final only for them to lose to Ivory Coast on penalties.
Atsu didn’t just walk away with a runner’s-up medal and player of the tournament, he also scored the goal of the finals, cutting inside from the right before picking out the far top corner from the edge of the box with a dipping strike.
His career in Europe never really took off after featuring at Bournemouth and Malaga before settling at Newcastle for five years up until last summer before at the age of 29 he departed for Al-Raed in Saudi Arabia. Although he still plays for Ghana he has only scored twice since his 2015 AFCON showing.
While on Chelsea’s books Christian Atsu was a star for Ghana at the 2015 tournament
2017 – Christian Bassogog (Cameroon)
Christian Bassogog didn’t trouble the goalkeepers too much during the tournament in Gabon, scoring only once in stoppage time in the 2-0 semi-final win over Ghana.
But he was still a vastly important attacking outlet for a Cameroon side winning their fifth title after defeating Egypt in the final.
At the time Bassogog was playing with AaB and such were his performances during the finals they were able to cash in on a £5million deal to sell him to the Chinese Super League where he remains today aged 26.
He has been named in Cameroon’s squad for this year’s competition.
Christian Bassogog took player of the tournament for Cameroon at the 2017 AFCON
2019 – Ismael Bennacer (Algeria)
The curious AFCON year where the tournament was played in the northern hemisphere summer saw Algeria triumph in Egypt much in part down to their star midfielder Ismael Bennacer.
Bennacer finished the tournament with a joint record three assists alongside his current AC Milan team-mate Franck Kessie – including one for the match-winning goal in the final against Senegal with just a minute played.
His playmaking abilities from deep in midfield have seen him carve out a respectable career in Europe having started as a youth team player for Arsenal, where he featured in a League Cup tie before leaving in 2017.
The 24-year-old kicked on after joining Empoli in Italy before moving to Milan after the AFCON success.
He will be hoping to help Algeria defend their title this month.
Former Arsenal youngster Ismael Bennacer (left) was a star for winners Algeria last time out