The continent of Africa is home to 54 countries, all of whom are represented in football by their respective national teams which. Throughout history, these teams have varied in strength, ability, and pedigree.
Nations such as Cameroon, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal & Ghana will certainly feature in anybody’s list of top African National football teams, but which country is numero uno?
We have highlighted the criteria necessary to rank Africa’s football powerhouses. In all fairness and to avoid bias and agenda, we will look at: Total AFCON Wins, performances at the World Cup, successful players abroad, number of African players of the year awards, cultural impact, and fan base.
10. SOUTH AFRICA
First on our list of the greatest teams in African football is South Africa. A nation thoroughly engrossed and intertwined with the history of football on this great continent.
The list of achievements for South Africa is pretty long and impressive, especially when you consider the fact that they gave their counterparts a 30-year headstart as they weren’t allowed by FIFA to participate in international football due to political reasons.
South Africa played their first international game in 1992 and played their first AFCON as hosts of the 1996 edition, which they went on to win. This win announced South Africa as Africa’s latest football powerhouse in the process by shooting up to 16th on the FIFA rankings.
The upward trajectory continued for Bafana Bafana, having finished 2nd at the 1998 AFCON. They qualified for their first-ever World Cup in 1998, where they crashed out in the group stage after a loss to hosts, France, followed by draws against Denmark and Saudi Arabia.
South Africa continued to go on strong but finishing 3rd in the 2000 AFCON, meaning they had now won a medal in each of their first three nations cup appearances, really impressive.
In recent memory, Tunisia sent shock waves throughout Africa by winning the African Cup of Nations in 2004. A win that came despite the expected high level of performances from Cameroon, Senegal, and Nigeria. Perhaps, they deserve a higher place on this list.
The North African country has every reason to thank Nigeria though, it was the Super Eagles of Nigeria that knocked out almighty Cameroon at the quarter-final stage of that AFCON thanks to a free-kick from Jay-Jay Okocha and a goal from John Utaka.
Tunisia would then go on to defeat Nigeria at the Semi-final stage of the tournament and eventually win the tournament.
Tunisia is one of those teams that has never really dominated African football. However, they always seem to come up in the discussion of the best teams on the continent, and that’s because of their consistency.
They have appeared in 19 AFCON tournaments, including every single edition in the last decade, winning just once in 2004.
The Carthage Eagles have also qualified for the World Cup on five separate occasions, the third-highest among African teams, but they’ve never made it past the group stage.
After some years in the dark, they appear to be on the rise again. In 2018, Tunisia earned a FIFA ranking of 14th in the world and finished 4th at the 2019 AFCON, where they lost the 3rd place game to Nigeria.
8. IVORY COAST
In a generation that was full of African superstars, the Ivorians could boast of having the best squad for most of the late 2000s to the early 2010s. Still, history will always remember them for massively underachieving.
The golden generation of Ivorian football was the 2006-2014 squad packed with players such as Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora, Yaya and Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, Gervinho, Salomon Kalou, Cheick Tiote, Max Gradel, Wilfried Bony and many more. It’s a huge surprise all they could achieve during that period was one AFCON trophy and three consecutive group stage exits at the World Cup.
They won the 2015 AFCON in the final year of their golden era, although without Didier Drogba, with the only other one coming way back in 1990.
There’s no look back at Ivorian football without thinking of all the things they could have achieved, or wondering why they didn’t work out quite as well as everyone expected, even FIFA rated them highly as they peaked at 12th on the world rankings in 2013.
In terms of winning the African footballer of the year award, Ivory Coast has a rich history with Yaya Toure winning the award four times in a row, while Drogba was named the best footballer in Africa twice, in 2006 and 2009.
Morocco is another of those countries that are steeped in history, and the past is better than the present, although they’ve had a good number of top players in recent times they’ve constantly continued to underachieve, compared to their North African counterparts.
The Atlas Lions won their first and only AFCON title in 1976, becoming the first African team to top a World Cup group in 1986 and the first African team to reach the round of 16 in the process; before they were knocked out 1-0 by West Germany.
They were also ranked number 10 in the world in 1998, making them one of just three African teams to ever enter the top 10 of the FIFA rankings, alongside Nigeria and Egypt.
The Atlas Lions went decades as a lackluster football nation, however, through the efforts of top players such as Hakim Ziyech, Ryad Boudebouz, Achraf Hakimi, Mehdi Benatia, Nabil Dirar, Youseff En Nesyri, Sofiane Boufal, Nordin and Sofian Amrabat their fortunes have turned around in recent years.
The best years of Algerian national football have been recent, adding hardware to their already impressive trophy cabinet.
The North African team has always been in the shadow of Egypt and Tunisia until a new generation of superstars scattered around the biggest clubs in Europe arose. This new wave of Algerian players has not only made them the best in the North but the best on the continent as well.
“The Desert Foxes,” as they’re so affectionately known, have won two AFCON titles, the first of which they won as hosts in 1990 and the second coming in 2019 on Egyptian soil, making them the current kings of Africa.
Their World Cup pedigree is not too shabby either. Algeria qualified four times for the world’s biggest tournament, even beating defending champions West Germany in their World Cup debut in 1982. Controversially, Algeria left the tournament in the group stages after a blatant bout of match-fixing by West Germany and Austria.
The 1986 World Cup went the same way for them, but no controversy this time, they were just simply knocked out in the group stages. It would take 24 years for them to qualify for another World Cup in 2010. They again crashed out in the group stages, this time failing to score a single goal.
The 2014 World Cup produced a much better outing as they were knocked out by eventual champions, Germany, in extra time of their round of 16 game. It was an impressive tournament run fuelled by quality players such as Riyad Mahrez, Sofiane Feghouli, Islam Slimani, Yacine Brahimi, etc.
After climbing up to 15th in the world according to the FIFA rankings, the team would suffer another decline for the next four years before then rising up again to win the 2019 AFCON.
Senegal is one of the few teams that make this list because of their more recent exploits rather than pedigree or title-winning credentials.
Although they’ve never won another trophy as a national team, they’ve had some memorable squads in the past that qualifies them for this list.
The 2002 squad led by the likes of Aliou Cisse, El Hadj Diouf, and Kalilou Fadiga made a run to the AFCON final for the first time in their history where they lost on a penalty shootout to Cameroon.
The star-studded Teranga Lions would go on to make their World Cup debut a few months later. Impressively, they defeated France in their opening game and became only the 2nd African team in history to reach the World Cup quarter-finals. However, they were eventually knocked out by Turkey.
Senegal failed to make any noticeable impact on African and world football at large until the late 2010s when a new generation of superstars such as Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly, Idrissa Gueye, Keita Balde, Chekou Kouyate, and Ismaila Sarr led them to a quarter-final exit in the 2017 AFCON. The squad would then go on to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia where they were controversially knocked out of the group stage. Most recently, they put together an exciting run to the AFCON final in 2019 where they suffered a heartbreaking loss to Algeria.
With captain of the former golden generation now in charge as coach of the new golden age, their current FIFA ranking of 20 is also their highest in history. With Sadio Mane in the form of his life, Senegal might just be ready to win some silverware finally.
Unfortunately, Africa will always remember The Black Stars of Ghana will, as the team that almost made history. They were one spot-kick away from beating Uruguay and becoming the first African team to reach the World Cup semi-finals, but top scorer, Asamoah Gyan, blazed his penalty over.
However, Ghanaian football is much bigger than that one painful memory in 2010. The Black Stars remain one of the most successful teams in African football history, having won the Nations Cup four times.
The highest they’ve even been on the FIFA rankings was 14th in 2008 after their impressive feat of winning every qualifying match en route to participation in the South Africa 2010 World Cup.
Asamoah Gyan holds the record for most appearances (109) and most goals (51) for the Black Stars. He’s another member of an ensemble cast of players to have represented Ghana, including Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, John Mensah, Kwadwo Asamoah, Kevin Prince Boateng Andre, and Jordan Ayew.
Although not the most successful, the Super Eagles of Nigeria are probably the most popular national team in Africa, known for producing some of the best players on the continent.
Nigeria is also probably the most balanced national team on this list in terms of performances on the continent and the world stage.
The self-proclaimed “Giants of Africa” have appeared in 6 World Cups and have featured in all but one World Cup since they made their debut in USA 94′, with Germany 2006 being the only exception.
Nigeria has won the most World Cup games among African teams with 6 wins, and also scored the most goals by an African team in World Cup history with 23 goals in total.
They’re just as impressive on the African scene as well, Nigeria holds the record of being the most decorated team in AFCON history. Three winners medals, four silver medals, and eight bronze medals means the Super Eagles have finished in the top 3 in 15 of their 18 AFCON appearances.
The 1994 squad that won the Nations Cup and were knocked out of the World Cup round of 16 by Italy, but peaked at number 5 on the FIFA rankings, the highest by any African team to date.
The country has always had the luxury of being represented by incredible players who played for some of the biggest clubs in the world, Rashidi Yekini, Segun Odegbami, Mutiu Adepoju, Sunday Oliseh, Kanu Nwankwo, Emmanuel Amuneke, Jay Jay Okocha, Daniel Amokachi are not even up to 1% of the big names to have donned the famous green and white in different generations.
Kanu Nwankwo, Emmanuel Amunike, Rashidi Yekini, Daniel Amokachi, and Victor Ikpeba are the Nigerians to have been named the best footballers in Africa with Kanu winning the award twice, in 1996 and 1999.
There’s no way to talk about African football without mentioning the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. They are a national team steeped in history and blessed with great talent across many generations.
Cameroon holds the record for the most World Cup qualifications among African teams with seven appearances on the big stage. They were also the first African team to reach the World Cup quarter-finals in Italia 90′, where they were knocked out in extra time by England.
As for the continental stage, they’re more than a force to be reckoned with, having won the African Cup of Nations five times and ranked 11th on the FIFA rankings on two different occasions, in 2006 and 2009.
They’ve also been represented by some incredible players such as Samuel Eto’o, who at his peak was one of the best strikers in the world, Rigobert and Alex Song, Geremi Njitap, Lauren, Patrick Mboma, and the legendary Roger Milla just to name a few.
No country has won more African footballer of the year prize than Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon have had their players named best in Africa 11 times, with Eto’o claiming four of those awards.
In the year 2000, three Cameroonian footballers finished 1st, 2nd, and third in the CAF African footballer of the year award, as Patrick Mboma won the award, while Lauren and Eto’o completed the podium.
They won’t be winning any prizes for their fashion sense though, as they’ve worn some of the worst and controversial jerseys the continent has ever seen; but to be fair they did win trophies in them so they shouldn’t care too much.
What better way to conclude the list of best teams in Africa than with the most successful team in the history of African football, the almighty Pharaohs of Egypt.
Egypt currently holds the record for most African Cup of Nations titles, having won the competition 7 times, including a 3-peat from 2006 to 2010, and boasts some of the best players to ever come out of African football.
Egypt has been a frequent participant, having played in 23 of 32 AFCON editions, most of all participants in African history. The Egyptians won the inaugural 1957, and successfully defended it two years later.
In total, Egypt has won 54 matches of the 95 matches they have played at the African Cup of Nations representing a solid 56.8% win percentage
Mohammed Aboutrika, Mo Salah, Essam El Hadary, Mido, Amr Zaki, Mohammed Zidan, Hossam Hassan are just some of the many big names to have worn the famous red, black and white of the Egyptian national team.
The Pharaohs would be the undisputed best team in Africa if they could have replicated their continental dominance on the world stage, but for some reason that never worked out.
Although they got as high as 9th on the FIFA ranking in 2010, their record on the world stage is poor by their standards. The North African side has only managed 3 World Cup appearances in their history, making it out of their group just once, in 1934.
In terms of CAF African footballer of the year award, Mohammed Salah remains the only Egyptian to have won the award, winning it back to back in 2017 and 2018 while finishing as runner up to Sadio Mane in 2019. Mohamed Aboutrika finished as a runner up in 2008 to Arsenal’s Emmanuel Adebayor.
Do you agree with our list? Is there another nation that deserves to be in the top 10 discussion?