Trailblazers: Tracing Back the First Player From Each African Country to Play in the EPL

Nearly 400 players from 33 different African countries have featured in the English Premier League since its inception in 1992. We take a look at those that paved the way for their respective countries, highlighting not necessarily the best, but the first player to make it to the league from each country. 

Football is the world’s sport, so it’s only right that its origins are disputed by several countries. The Chinese said they started it and even had a name for it, cuju. In some historical documents, the sport has Arabic roots. In one way or another, the description of the game that they claim to have invented looks similar to the beautiful game.

However, the world owes tons of gratitude to the British for football as we know it today, and for developing it into its modern form and spreading it across the globe. Africa is one of the continents that quickly grasped the game, and at a point the sport became a convergence medium for many countries that advanced their political agenda to independence and freedom.

The Premier League is by far the most profitable in the world, and plenty of African players have graced the English top flight. We take a look at the contribution and impact African players have had on the league, with a key focus on the trailblazers from each African country.


Zimbabwe: Peter Ndlovu, Coventry City

There were three African players at the inception of the modern English Premier League in 1992, but Peter Ndlovu is usually regarded as the first African player to turn out for a Premier League club because he was signed straight from Zimbabwean side Highlanders FC, whereas the other ones were born or grew up in England.

Ndlovu was an attacker and went on to have six decent years with Coventry City, playing 176 games and scoring 39 goals before turning out for other clubs like Birmingham City, Huddersfield, and Sheffield United. He played his last club football game in 2009 with Thanda Royal Zulu in South Africa before moving full-time into management.

Zambia: Neil Gregory, Ipswich Town

Neil Richard Gregory is one of the earliest Africans to play in the English Premier League. Born in Ndola, Zambia, Gregory started his career with Ipswich Town and became a full professional in 1992. He enjoyed a six-year stay with the club, although he made only 36 appearances. He hung up his boots in 2007 and very little has been heard of him since.

Nigeria: Efan Ekoku, Norwich City

Rounding out the trio of African players in the inaugural EPL season is Nigeria’s Efan Ekoku. Born and raised in Manchester, opportunities with the senior national team were very limited and as such, he turned out briefly for his parental country of Nigeria.

He initially had a decent initial stint with Norwich City in the Premier League, playing 38 matches and scoring 16 goals. A five-year stay with fellow Premier League side Wimbledon came afterward, and Ekoku had a solid career with them playing 123 matches and scoring 37 goals. He later played for other low-tier clubs like Sheffield Wednesday and Dublin City before retiring in 2004 and zooming straight into media and punditry activities.


Ghana: Nii Odartey Lamptey, Aston Villa

nii lamptey aston villa

Ghana has a decent roster of names to have graced the English Premier League. Some that easily come to mind are Chelsea’s Michael Essien, Leeds’ Tony Yeboah, and West Ham’s Mohammed Kudus, who has started his English Premier League debut appearance on a good note this season.

But the first Ghanaian to play in the Prem was Nii Odartey Lamptey, who joined Aston Villa from Belgian side Anderlecht in 1994. He was with the Villains for only a season and played 10 games before being released to then-fellow EPL club Coventry City. Odartey quit football in 2008 and took on some managerial jobs, but he is currently unattached. 

South Africa: Philemon Masinga and Lucas Radebe, Leeds United

South Africa was blessed to have two players signed at the same time by an English club in the early 1990s: Lucas Radebe and Philemon Masinga. In addition to being the first South Africans to play in the EPL, there is an interesting twist to how their careers panned out.

Radebe was only included as part of the deal that brought Masinga to Leeds United to appease the latter player, as the two were close friends. Masinga showed promise with South African powerhouse Mamelodi Sundowns, scoring 98 goals in 108 appearances with the club.

However, it was Radebe who proved to be the more valuable player for Leeds, making over 300 appearances in 11 seasons with the club. He’d become captain and a cult hero amongst supporters. In contrast, Masinga played just two seasons with Leeds and was later sold to Swiss side St. Gallen.


Senegal: Ali Dia, Southampton

ali dia southampton

Senegal has seen plenty of successful EPL players from Henri Camara to Sadio Mane, but the very first Senegalese to play in the league was a fiasco and he is fondly remembered for being a conman and a joke.

Southampton manager Graeme Souness signed Ali Dia in 1996 after receiving a phone call from who he thought to be Ballon d’Or winner George Weah. While it’s disputed who actually made the call — be it a friend of Dia’s, his agent, or someone else — it certainly wasn’t Weah.

The caller was able to convince Souness that Dia was Weah’s cousin, had played for Paris Saint-Germain, and had represented his country 13 times. None of this was true.

However, Souness took the bait and Dia was signed on a one-month contract. He played just one game for Southampton, wearing the number 33 shirt against Leeds United before he was released by the club 14 days into his contract.


Liberia: Christopher Wreh, Arsenal

The aforementioned Weah is certainly the most famous Liberian footballer of all time, and he did appear in the EPL at the twilight of his career with both Chelsea and Manchester City. But the first Liberian to play in the Prem was Christopher Wreh, who featured for high-flying Arsenal between 1997-2000. He appeared in 28 games for the Gunners, scoring three goals before bouncing around between multiple clubs over the next decade and retiring in 2010.


Seychelles: Kevin Betsy, Fulham

kevin betsey fulham

Kevin Betsy is currently a coach for English side Cambridge United, and he is also the first Seychellois to play in the English Premier League. Born and raised in the UK, Betsy signed for Fulham in 1998, but saw action in just 14 matches over a four-year stint.

Ivory Coast: Ibrahima Bakayoko, Everton

bakayoko everton

Ivory Coast is one of the few African countries to have had over 40 players pass through the English Premier League to date. Before Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure could take the league by storm, an Ivorian by the name of Ibrahima Bakayoko opened the door. He signed for Everton in the 1998-99 Premier League season, though he lasted only a year. He played 23 games, scoring five goals for the Merseyside club before journeying around Europe, most notably in Marseille, throughout the rest of his career.

Algeria: Moussa Saib, Tottenham

moussa saib tottenham

In 1997, Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger attempted to sign little-known Algerian Moussa Saib, but the deal fell through due to valuation issues. Saib later signed for Arsenal’s arch-rivals Tottenham a year later after a short stint with Spanish side Valencia, making him the first Algerian to blaze the trail for those like Riyad Mahrez. Things didn’t go as planned for him after signing for Spurs, however. Saib lasted two seasons playing only 13 games and scoring one goal. He then became a journeyman playing for six other football clubs before retiring in 2004.


Guinea: Titi Camara, Liverpool

Titi Camara started his English football career with Liverpool FC and ended at West Ham United. At, Anfield, he quickly became a crowd favorite by playing some wonderful football. It was for only a season, but he scored nine goals in 33 appearances for the club. Camara retired in 2006 at French side Amiens and moved into other endeavors far from football.

Cameroon: Marc-Vivien Foe, West Ham United

vivien foe

The late Marc-Vivien Foe of Cameroon enjoyed a solid, albeit tragically brief run in the Premier League. He signed for West Ham in 1999 and racked up 38 games in the only season he played for them. A very hardworking combative midfielder who was noted for his workaholic attitude during games, he later joined Manchester City on loan after another short detour with Lyon.

His promising career was cut devastatingly short, as he died at just 28 years old after suffering a hypertrophic cardiomyopathy during an international match with Cameroon in 2003.

Morocco: Mustapha Hadji, Coventry City

Morocco’s Mustapha Hadji entered the English Premier League fray in 1999 as the African best footballer of the year by signing for West Midlands side Coventry City. He was a joy to watch and a crowd favorite, but the club unfortunately got relegated at the end of the 2001-02 season and he left to join neighborhood rivals Aston Villa. In total, Hadji played 97 matches scoring 14 goals with both of the EPL clubs he played for. He retired from professional football in 2010 and is currently the assistant manager of the Moroccan national team, which had a tremendous showpiece at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.


Democratic Republic of Congo: Felix-Michel Ngonge, Watford

felix m ichel ngonge watford

DR Congo’s Lomana Lua Lua was a formidable striker who turned out for a host of Premier League clubs like Newcastle and Portsmouth in the early 2000s. However, before him, there was Felix-Michel Ngonge, who was a semi-regular contributor for Watford from 1998 to 2000. In total, he’d rack up 56 appearances and 11 goals with the club, and as it made a brief cameo in the 1999-00 EPL season before quickly getting relegated, Ngonge was the first Leopard to turn out for a Premier League side.

Congo: Christian Bassila, West Ham United

christian bassila

In the 2000-01 season, West Ham took on Congolese midfielder Christian Bassila to augment their squad for the season. He’d last only a season and played just three games before being shipped back to his parent club Rennes in France. He retired in 2011 and moved into management at Olympique Lyonnaise, where he managed their reserve side from 2018 to 2019, and is currently the director of INF Clairefontaine academy.

Mali: Frederic Kanoute, West Ham United

After he had a strong outing for France at the Youth Championships in the late ’90s, West Ham signed a prodigy in Frederic Kanoute, who later switched nationalities to play for his parental country Mali, thereby making him the first Malian to play in the English Premier League. Kanoute had a good stint at the two Premier League clubs he played for, but his career is fondly remembered as a success with his exploits at La Liga club Sevilla. He retired from football in 2013 to focus more on his religious philanthropies.


Togo: Yoann Folly, Southampton

yoan folly

Emmanuel Adebayor, famously of Arsenal and Manchester City, did well to put one of the smaller African countries like Togo on the English Premier League radar. But the first Togolese to make an appearance in the Prem was Yoann Folly. After a stellar youth career at France’s famous Clairefontaine academy, he joined Southampton in 2003 and lasted three seasons, playing just 14 games. He retired in 2012 and his last club was Scottish side Aberdeen FC.


Tunisia: Radhi Jaidi, Bolton Wanderers

Radhi Jaidi opened the doorway for his North African country in 2004 by signing for Bolton Wanderers from his native Esperance de Tunis. He again turned for Premier League sides Birmingham City and Southampton, and made a combined 187 appearances as a center back, scoring 18 goals. He hung up his boots in 2012 and became a manager, with his last stint being at Esperance de Tunis, which he left in 2022.


Egypt: Hossam Mido, Tottenham

hossam mido tottenham

The first Pharaoh to play in the English Premier League, Hossam Mido turned out for several Premier League clubs, the first being Tottenham. During his time in White Hart Lane, he grabbed 13 goals in 36 matches for the club on loan from AS Roma. He also played for Middlesborough FC and West Ham United before retiring at Barnsley in 2013. The well-built striker ventured straight into management with Zamalek a year later, but is currently unattached.


Cape Verde: Pele, Southampton

pele southampton

Everyone wants to know what would’ve happened if Pele played in the English Premier League. Well, it turns out one did, just not the one everyone first thinks about when they hear the name. In 2006, Pedro Monteiro, better known by his alias Pele, signed for Southampton and became the first Cape Verdean player to feature in the EPL. He played for only a season at St. Mary’s Stadium and racked up 37 appearances, scoring one goal. Pele later turned out for Midlands side West Bromwich Albion before moving to play lower-tier football and retiring in 2010.

Sierra Leone: Al Bangura, Watford

al bangura watford

Al Bangura was unfortunately famous for his asylum issues in 2004, but his journey to professional football is one nothing short of wonders.

After being born in Sierra Leone and without a father by age 15, Bangura found life hard in his native country and left for neighboring Guinea to seek greener pastures. However, he’d find himself in a human trafficking scheme and was brought to Europe against his will to become a male prostitute.

While in the United Kingdom, Bangura sought asylum, and while his initial claim was denied, after pressures from football regulatory bodies like FIFPro and Watford MP, he was granted the opportunity.

He had a short stint in the English top flight, but when he joined Watford ahead of the 2006-07 season, he became the first Sierra Leonean to play in the Prem. He last played for lower-tier side Nuneaton Borough and hung up his boots in 2017.


Angola: Manucho, Manchester United

Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t employ too many African footballers during his lengthy time at Manchester United, for reasons only best known to him. However, in 2008 he raised eyebrows by signing Manucho directly from Petro Athletico in the Angolan league. Quite an unusual precedence by the great manager. As expected, he was farmed out on loan to many clubs but made one single appearance for United in a 2008 League Cup game. He was finally sold to Rayo Vallecano in 2014 where he played 112 games, scoring 14 goals.

Gabon: Daniel Cousin, Hull City

daniel cousin hull city

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a good career in the EPL with Arsenal, but before him there was Daniel Cousin, who had a much less successful spell in the league. Cousin played for Hull City in a two-year stint where he played in 31 games scoring four goals.


Central Africa Republic: Frederic Nimani, Burnley

frederic nimani

In 2010, after Burnley made an upgrade to the top-flight league, they signed a host of many players to bolster their ranks. One of them was Frédéric Nimani, who joined them on loan from Monaco. He played only two games for the Clarets the whole season and was sent back to his parent club nine months later. Nimani further played for many clubs and can be regarded as a journeyman. He’s currently with fourth-tier Swiss side Young Fellows Juventus. He is, however, the first Central African Republic player to play in the English Premier League.


Benin: Stephane Sessegnon, Sunderland

Benin’s trailblazer Stephane Sessegnon had a fair run in the Premier League in his career. His five-year EPL run started at Sunderland, where he made 87 appearances scoring 17 goals as an attacker. He again turned out for West Bromwich Albion, and retired in 2022.

Guinea Bissau: Mesca, Fulham

mesca fulham

Born in Guinea Bissau but raised in Portugal, Mesca started his youth career at Sporting CP before joining the Chelsea academy in 2010. He signed his first professional contract with West London side Fulham in 2011 and enjoyed a four-year stay at Craven Cottage, making just a single appearance in the period.


Burundi: Gael Bigirimana, Newcastle United

Gael Bigirimana was born in Burundi but left for the United Kingdom in 2004 with his parents where they sought asylum. After showing promise with lower-tier sides, Newcastle United signed him in 2012 to become the first Burundian to play in the English Premier League. In a four-year stay at St. James Park, Bigirimana played only 13 games, scoring once. He currently plays for semi-pro side Dungannon Swifts in the Northern Irish League.


Mauritania: El-Hadji Ba, Sunderland

el hadji ba

One of the numerous trailblazers who had an unsuccessful spell in the Premier League is Mauritania’s El-Hadji Ba. Born in Paris to Mauritanian parents, he started his career in the famous youth system of Le Havre before joining Sunderland in 2013 to become the first Mauritanian to play in the prestigious league. But his stay at Wearside lasted only two years, and he made only a single appearance for the Black Cats. He currently plies his trade with Greek side Apollon Limassol.

Kenya: Victor Wanyama, Southampton

Victor Wanyama is the first and only Kenyan to play in the English Premier League. He first turned out for Southampton in 2013 before earning another move to high fliers Tottenham in 2016. In his seven-year stay in the EPL, he played 146 games scoring 14 goals for both of the clubs he played for.

But if things had gone otherwise, Wanyama’s brother, McDonald Mariga would’ve been on this list instead. Mariga nearly joined Manchester City in the early 2010s, but league rules wrecked the move. That still didn’t stop the elder brother from having a great career in Serie A with Inter Milan, with whom he became the first and only Kenyan to win the UEFA Champions League.

Wanyama currently plays for MLS side CF Montreal and has already racked up 105 appearances scoring 10 goals since 2020.


Gambia: Modou Barrow, Swansea

Born in Gambia but raised in Sweden, Modou Barrow signed a three-year deal with Swansea in 2014, becoming the first Gambian to play in the EPL. He featured in 51 games, scoring one goal. While with Swansea, he was loaned out to several other clubs before being released in 2017. He currently plays for Turkish side Sivasspor.


Equatorial Guinea: Pedro Obiang, West Ham United

Born in Spain to Equatoguinean parents, Pedro Obiang joined West Ham in 2015 and had a four-year stint with the East London club. He played in 91 games and scored three goals as a midfielder, before leaving for Serie A side Sassuolo. His career was cut short due to a heart issue, but he is the first and only footballer from Central Africa’s Equatorial Guinea to play in the English Premier League.

Burkina Faso: Bertrand Traore, Chelsea

Chelsea signed a prodigy in Bertrand Traore in 2015 from Auxerre Academy in France. Traore developed through the Chelsea setup to play for the senior team in 2014. This made him the first Burkinabe to play in the English Premier League. He has since moved to fellow EPL side Aston Villa, although he is currently on loan to Istanbul Baseksehir in Turkey.


Tanzania: Mbwana Samatta, Aston Villa

aston villa mbwana samatta

When Mbwana Samatta joined Aston Villa in 2020, it generated a huge media buzz in his native Tanzania, as he was the first one from the East African country to make an appearance in the EPL. More was demanded of him, but he was just not cut out for the task. He made only 14 appearances and was shipped out to Turkish giants Fenerbahce that same year. Samatta still plies his trade in Europe, but with Greek side PAOK.


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