Five Africa Cup of Nations players you should know but don't... yet
The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, which kicks off with hosts Egypt facing Zimbabwe in Cairo on Friday, will bring together some of football's household names and some of its far less heralded stars, -- as the biennial continental showpiece does every edition.
We all know Mohamed Salah, who will feature for the Pharaohs in the tournament-opening fixture; the Liverpool and Egypt star is one of the most recognisable football players in the world. But what about Romario Baggio Rakotoarisoa?
Here are African players who may not enjoy the international reputation of some of their peers, like Salah, but who, nonetheless, represent some of the Afcon's most intriguing tales.
Taddeo Lwanga: The Engineer
While other footballers may question what they'll do once their playing career comes to an end, Uganda's Lwanga has it all figured out.
The reigning Vipers SC Player of the Year is nicknamed 'The Engineer' in the Uganda Premier League, due to his background and training as a computer engineer.
The defensive midfielder attended Makerere University in Kampala from 2011, where he obtained a Bachelor's in IT -- specialising in software engineering -- and he told ESPN that the prospect of a future in the industry is "always" on his mind.
"My dad wanted me to be an engineer, whereas my mum wanted me to be a doctor, but I decided to take Dad's path because I was well conversant with software and I had so much passion for them," Lwanga said.
"Luckily, I got enough points in my A level [exams] to qualify for the final intake."
Lwanga, who's been included in Sebastien Desabre's 23-man Cranes squad after impressing for the home-based Uganda side at the 2018 African Nations Championship in Morocco, is a cultured and cerebral defensive midfielder who brings his off-field learning into his game.
"I get to understand quickly what coaches want me do to," he told ESPN.
"Clearly, education is knowledge."
Baghdad Bounedjah: The Goal Machine
Bounedjah has become a cult hero in Qatar with Al Sadd, for whom he's broken numerous goalscoring records since signing from Tunisian club Etoile du Sahel four years ago.
He's the only Algerian player to score 100 goals for a non-Algerian club, and he posted a Qatari-record 39 goals in the 2018-19 season (in just 21 starts), as Xavi Hernandez's side secured their 14th Qatar Stars League title.
Bounedjah is already Al-Sadd's all-time top scorer -- despite signing as recently as in 2015 -- and his popularity overseas has transferred back to his homeland, where, in 2018, he pipped Riyad Mahrez to the Algerian Footballer of the Year award.
Since the start of 2018, Bounedjah has scored seven hat-tricks in all competitions, and he averaged a goal or an assist every 49 minutes in the league last term.
Some may point to the 'quality' of the Qatari league as the reason for Bounedjah's verdant run, but having scored 60 goals in 2018 -- more than either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi -- he's nevertheless a player to be feared in Egypt.
Romario Baggio Rakotoarisoa: It's All In A Name
African football has produced many players with beautiful and unforgettable names over the years, from Angolan duo Akwa and Love, to Zambia's Toaster Nsabata, to South Africa's MacBeth Sibaya, to Zimbabweans such as Danger Fourpence, Teenage Hadebe, Limited Chikafa, or Have-A-Look Dube.
However, Madagascar's Romario Baggio Rakotoarisoa has to rank right up there with the very best.
Footballers being nicknamed after other players is not a rarity in football, let alone in the African game -- both Trezeguet and Pele could feature at the Nations Cup -- there aren't too many who carry the name of two sporting greats.
Perhaps Rakotoarisoa, who plays for Madagascar's Fosa Juniors, is the only player named after two players who opposed one another in a World Cup final.
The midfielder wasn't even born when Italy and Brazil clashed in the 1994 World Cup final, won by Romario's Selecao after Baggio -- the Player of the Tournament -- infamously skied his penalty over the crossbar in the shootout, the first required to settle a final.
"My parents decided [my name]," Rakotoarisoa told ESPN. "I don't know exactly why, but they were the two best players."
Despite being named after two of the most exciting offensive players of the 1990s, the Fosa Juniors captain will anchor Madagascar's midfield for their debut Afcon appearance, having risen to prominence in a much more defensive capacity than his namesakes.
And, for a Malagasy who had ample excuse to support either Italy or Brazil from childhood, Rakotoarisoa has proved contrary here, too.
"No," he told ESPN, when asked whether he favoured the Selecao or the Azzurri.
"My team are France!"
One suspects his parents will still be proud...
Ismael Athuman Gonzalez: The Son of Kenya
Many of the players set to contest the Nations Cup have taken unlikely pathways -- or the road less travelled -- to arrive at the tournament, but few have enjoyed quite the journey of Athuman.
Another defensive midfielder, the 24-year-old is the son of a famous Kenyan acrobat and contortionist -- Said Ali 'Billy' Athuman Mbaga -- who left his homeland as a young man to pursue his fortunes overseas.
He fell in love with a Spanish woman, and Ismael was born in Maspalomas, Las Palmas, in 1995.
The midfielder, who once trialled at Manchester City, cannot speak Swahili, but he is no stranger to all things Kenyan.
His father played a key role in inculcating his son in the culture of the East African nation, and Athuman must be one of the only people born on Spanish soil to be a fan of Gor Mahia, Kenya's biggest football club.
The midfielder, who can also play in the centre of the defence, is currently with Las Palmas' B team following spells with Fuenlabrada and Grenada B.
He was handed his first call-up to the Harambee Stars by Stanley Okumbi in 2016, and acknowledged that it was "a dream come true" to represent the land of his ancestors.
"I always felt if a chance to play for the country of my father came, I would grab it with both hands," Athuman said recently.
"Most football players dream about playing for their countries. So definitely this has been a dream come true for me.
"Once I got the call up in 2016, I did not think twice."
Tresor Mputu: Back In The Limelight
Mputu once appeared primed to be the next big thing in the African game, with legendary manager Claude Le Roy comparing him with Samuel Eto'o.
Despite persistent rumours of a move away from Tout Puissant Mazembe, the club with whom he played for 12 years between 2002 and 2014, Mputu remained in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and was consistently considered among the best players plying his trade on the continent.
He won successive CAF Champions Leagues with Mazembe -- as captain -- in 2009 and 2010, and was shortlisted for the BBC African Footballer of the Year award in 2009, the same year in which he won CAF's Africa-based Player of the Year prize.
However, his fortunes declined in 2010, when he was handed a one-year ban for attacking a referee at the Cecafa Club Cup.
Despite having trialled with Arsenal in 2007, the European interest predictably dried up, although Mputu did secure a switch to Angola's Kabuscorp in January 2014.
This move ended sourly, as Mputu was banned for two years by Fifa -- between 2015 and 2017 -- following a contractual dispute with his Angolan employers.
The move away had appeared to have signalled the end of the playmaker's international career, after featuring for the Leopards at the 2013 Nations Cup, as he wasn't called up by the Congolese between June 2013 and the Afcon qualifier against Congo-Brazzaville in November 2018.
However, his return appears to be timed perfectly, and the 33-year-old could be approaching his career swansong with the DRC, for whom, after a five-year hiatus, he'll be pulling the strings in his favoured No.10 role once again.
"[Mputu]'s still important," Leopards defender Beaubo Ungenda told ESPN. "He helps us every time we need someone to control the play; he's the playmaker who knows how to make the key passes.
"I believe that he and Cedric Bakambu, who likes deep passes, will be a great duo in Egypt if they maintain their recent form."