Africa’s best and worst moves in January transfer windows

With the English Premier League’s mid-season transfer window now in full swing, Ed Dove recalls the best and worst January deals involving African players.

Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United to Crystal Palace)

We begin with Zaha, who’s one of several high-profile African players tipped for a big move during the current January window.

Back in 2015, the wideman didn’t have anything like his current standing within the Premier League, and was being moved on from United after failing to make a mark under David Moyes and being deemed surplus to requirements by his successor Louis van Gaal.

Zaha begun to find his feet again on loan at Cardiff City and back at boyhood club Palace — who had sold him to United for an initial £10 million in 2013 — before returning to Selhurst Park for a bargain £6 million including add-ons.

Not only had the Eagles made a profit on the Ivory Coast international, but they’d also recruited a local hero who was destined to become one of the finest attackers in the top flight, a player who, on his day, capable of eviscerating opposition defences.

Now 27, and perennially linked with a move to one of the division’s big boys, don’t be surprised if Zaha again ensures Palace make a mint on his home-grown talent.

Julius Aghahowa (Shakhtar Donetsk to Wigan Athletic)

Not a big-money signing — Wigan paid just £2.1 million for his services in 2007 – but Aghahowa’s career took a significant downturn after moving to England.

He claimed — as per Eurosport — that Manchester United and Arsenal had been interested in recruiting him, having once been the most expensive signings in Ukraine and having scored consistently for the Super Eagles following his arrival on the scene at the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations.

But the striker failed to score in the league during his time in England, with fans never witnessing his famous back-flipping celebration, and he would play only once more for Nigeria.

He moved on some 18 months later, departing England to sign for Turkish club Kayserispor.

“Julius is a lovely guy and tried his best to adjust to life in the Premier League,” then-Wigan boss Steve Bruce said. “However, he never really managed to get started while I’ve been at the club and I think it’s best for both parties that he moves on.”

Harry Redknapp pulled off one of the finest transfer coups of his career — and there were many — when he snared Nigeria’s Yakubu from Maccabi Haifa on loan in 2003.

“He was playing in Israel and he came over on trial,” Redknapp told talkSPORT in 2018.

“In the first day of training I think he scored about four goals in a practice match, so we ended up signing him.”

Pompey were still in the second tier when the Super Eagles hitman arrived on the South Coast, and therefore it was something of a surprise when they beat away competition to snare an attacker who had scored seven goals in eight UEFA Champions League games already that term — including a hat-trick against Olympiakos.

Yakubu comfortably transferred his form to England, scoring seven goals in 14 matches as Portsmouth won the First Division — then netting 29 across two seasons in the top flight after making his move permanent for £4 million.

‘The Yak’ would go on to enjoy further goalscoring success in the top flight with Middlesbrough, Everton and Blackburn Rovers, and he currently sits 31st in the all-time Premier League scoring charts. 

Christopher Samba (Anzhi Makhachkala to Queens Park Rangers)

Redknapp didn’t always get it right during his many years of wheeler-dealing in the top flight, and his decision to recruit Samba for struggling QPR in 2013 certainly goes down as a misstep.

In theory, it wasn’t a bad move; the Hoops needed defensive reinforcements, and 6 ft 4in Samba had already proved his mettle with more than 150 top flight appearances during five years and at Blackburn Rovers, having been a bargain January arrival for £450,000 in 2007.

“Chris is just what we need,” Redknapp told BBC Sport. “He’s a monster, great in the air, quick, a leader, strong, fantastic in both boxes, hard as nails.”

Less than three months later, QPR and Samba — who had signed a four-and-a-half-year deal on £100,000 per week — were relegated.

The ‘highlight’ of his time in London?

Probably an error-strewn display against Fulham following which the centre-back issued a public apology and got into an argument with supporters on social media regarding his eye-watering wages.

Arriving at the Emirates Stadium for £56 million, Aubameyang isn’t a bargain in the same vein as Zaha or Yakubu but still he represents money well spent for the Gunners.

The former Bundesliga top scorer deserves immense credit for maintaining an exceptional scoring rate in the Premier League despite finding himself at a club in turmoil.

‘Auba’ has scored under Arsene Wenger, Unai Emery, Freddie Ljungberg and, already, Mikel Arteta, and Arsenal’s testing campaigns would have been much trickier had it not been for his near-guarantee of goals.

The Gabon international scored 25 goals in fewer games than any other Arsenal player — adapting quickly to life in England — and already he has 45 goals in 70 league outings.

Of course, he has his critics; perhaps Aubameyang doesn’t score enough in the biggest matches, he misses chances, he doesn’t work enough for the team, but those numbers don’t lie!

Once, during his early-career at Olympique de Marseille, Imbula shone alongside Andre Ayew, under Marcelo Bielsa’s tutelage, and was hailed as the future of the France midfield.

Thus, it was something of a shock when Stoke signed him for a whopping £18.3 million in early 2016 following Imbula’s brief spell at Porto.

The deal, on paper, represented a coup for the Potters, and there were some encouraging signs during the latter portion of the 2015-16 season.

The following season was a disaster for Stoke, who were duly relegated, and Imbula was one of several players criticised — either directly or indirectly — by teammates for poor attitude.

Imbula left little doubt over his feelings about moving to England.

“The worst choice [of his career] was to come to Stoke,” he told RMC Sport [per the Stoke Sentinel]. “I could have been a little more patient in Porto, trying to adapt… especially as we had changed coaches.

“The most unfortunate choice, I think was Stoke. Now it’s over, I do not want to go back over.”

The only problem is that it’s not yet ‘over’, as Imbula, now an international with DR Congo, remains on Stoke’s books; he’s currently on loan at Lecce having previously had temporary spells away at Toulouse and Rayo Vallecano.

Riyad Mahrez (Le Havre to Leicester City)

Surely the greatest African January transfer signing of all time — and maybe the greatest ever — Mahrez’s move to Leicester in 2014 represents a marvellous piece of business.

The Foxes chief scout, Steve Walsh, hadn’t even been in France to monitor the wideman – he was keeping tabs on Cape Verde attacker Ryan Mendes — but was so impressed with what he saw that Leicester signed the Algerian for £400,000.

Let that sink in… £400,000.

Less than two years later, new Foxes manager Claudio Ranieri would describe the attacker — who was uncapped by Algeria at the time of his move — as “priceless“, and Mahrez would play an influential role in the East Midlanders’ miraculous title triumph of 2016.

Mahrez won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award — the first African player to do so — and he would win further silverware after signing for Manchester City in 2018 for £60 million — 150 times the fee Leicester originally paid.