A scout's paradise: Five players who got their big break at AFCON

The Africa Cup of Nations remains one of the few major tournaments in world football where gems can still be unearthed, allowing undiscovered players to transform the trajectory of their career.

In the tournament's history, some of Africa's hottest talents have used the AFCON as a platform to secure a move to European football and the riches that can await across the Mediterranean.

ESPN remembers five African players who made the move to Europe on the back of a Nations Cup, and profile some emerging stars who could follow in their footsteps in 2022.

1. Mark Fish

One of South Africa's 'Nation Builders' in 1996, Fish was still in his early 20s when he played a key role alongside Lucas Radebe in the heart of Bafana Bafana's defence as they defeated Tunisia in the Johannesburg final.

The versatile Fish, who thrived in the AFCON environment -- making the Team of the Tournament in both '96 and '98 -- also scored in the quarterfinal victory over Algeria as South Africa enjoyed their historic run to their maiden title.

Manchester United were interested in the defender following his performances on home soil, with Red Devils legend Sir Bobby Charlton even sent by the Old Trafford giants to observe him in the flesh.

Ultimately, he secured a move to Italian giants Lazio on the back of the Nations Cup, although he did go on to feature in the Premier League with both Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic.

"[Sir Alex Ferguson] wanted to me to train with [Man United] and see how I adapted to the surroundings," Fish later remembered, speaking to the Bolton News.

"The people representing me didn't say no, but they said we were under obligation to go to Lazio.

"We did and the coach there was Zdenek Zeman, and he wanted to sign me straight away. Manchester or Rome at 21 years old? It's not really a choice."

2. Julius Aghahowa

Then 17, Aghahowa was the breakout star of the 2000 AFCON, where Nigeria reached the final on home soil.

The wonderkid struck late in a group-stage victory over Morocco, but his finest hour game in the quarterfinal, when he came off the bench to net twice in a 2-1 extra-time victory over Senegal in Lagos.

It was an unforgettable impact from the teenager -- and one of Nigeria's most memorable AFCON performances this century -- and the somersaulting Aghahowa appeared to have the world at his feet.

Despite amassing 32 Super Eagles caps, this was ultimately as good as it got for the striker, who nonetheless secured a move to Ukraine giants Shakhtar Donetsk on the back of his performances at the Nations Cup.

He enjoyed great success in Ukraine, winning four titles in his six-year spell with the Miners before moving on to Wigan Athletic for a season.

READ: ESPN's Top 10 male African footballers of 2021

3. Islam Slimani

The 2013 Nations Cup was a miserable experience for Algeria, who finished bottom of Group D -- taking just one point from their three fixtures -- and were eliminated ignominiously.

Slimani led the line for the Fennecs for all three fixtures, and while hitting the woodwork against Tunisia was the closest he got to a goal during the tournament, three goals in three qualifiers was enough to get him noticed by some of Europe's heavyweights.

Later in the year, he departed CR Belouizdad for Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon to begin both a goal-laden spell in the Primeira Liga and a successful decade in European football.

Across the next three years, he bagged 48 goals in 82 Portuguese top flight fixtures and, now playing for Lyon, heads into the 2021 Nations Cup as Algeria's all-time top scorer.

4. Amr Zaki

Ex-Tottenham Hotspur manager David Pleat commented during the 2006 Nations Cup that Egypt striker Zaki caught his eye and had "all the qualities to do a good job next season for a club at the lower end of the Premiership."

Indeed, Zaki was outstanding as the Pharaohs won the first of their three-in-a-row African titles, netting an 81st-minute winner against Senegal in the semifinal before converting his spot kick in the final shootout victory over the Ivory Coast.

The powerhouse -- nicknamed the Bulldozer for his 'treatment' of opposition defenders -- was sought after by Ligue 1 side Nantes and domestic giants Al-Ahly and SC Zamalek on the back of his performances in the AFCON, but ultimately opted to sign for Russians Lokomotiv Moscow.

That switch didn't work out, but Zaki later did prove Pleat right by netting 10 in 29 Prem outings on loan at Wigan Athletic including five in his first six matches of the 2008-09 season.

The highlight was a double against Liverpool, although things turned sour in the spring, as Zaki failed to return to Lancashire after an international break and promptly fell out with head coach Steve Bruce.

5. Sunday Mba

The late Stephen Keshi kept faith with some of Nigeria's local stars for the Super Eagles' 2013 Nations Cup campaign, selecting six NPFL players in his squad.

Some featured more prominently than others during the West African giants' run to the title, with all apart from third-choice goalkeeper Chigozie Agbim getting an opportunity to test themselves in European football in the aftermath of the tournament.

Mba was the breakout star of the tournament, netting winners against the Ivory Coast in the quarterfinal and Burkina Faso in the final.

A switch to Europe was inevitable, although contractual disputes in his homeland ultimately led to a long delay before he ultimately switched to French football with CA Bastia.

While Warri Wolves received €1 million for the AFCON hero, Mba's delay in moving to Europe -- and his period of inactivity -- ultimately led to a loss in his momentum, and he never again truly recreated the magic of his tournament showing.

He was already out of the Super Eagles reckoning by the time of their World Cup 2014 campaign, and he's been out of work since leaving Yeni Malatyaspor in his late 20s.

Who could follow in their footsteps?

Heading into the 2021 Nations Cup, there are several Africa-based players who can harbour realistic hopes of capitalising on a strong tournament showing to seal a move to Europe.

Set to line up alongside Mohamed Salah when Egypt take on Nigeria in their AFCON opener on January 11, Mohamed Sherif should get European scouts purring.

The 25-year-old had a hand in 39 goals this year, top scoring in both the CAF Champions League and the Egyptian top flight. He's also a big game player as well, having opened the scoring against Kaizer Chiefs in Ahly's CAF CL final success in July.

Two other Ahly players -- Morocco's Badr Benoun and Senegal's Aliou Dieng -- should also pique the interest of travelling scouts, with both taking their game to new heights under Pitso Mosimane in the Egyptian capital.

He faces stiff competition for game time, but Karim Konate of Ivory Coast looks to be something special. The 17-year-old, currently on the books of ASEC Mimosas, has scored seven goals in six matches in CAF competitions this term, and it would be fascinating to see himself tested against some of Africa's sternest defences.

Ethiopia midfielder Gatoch Panom is back in his homeland after time in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and still has something to offer at a higher level, having failed in Russia earlier in his career.

Not strictly Africa-based, but Youcef Belaili -- currently without a club -- is one player who will be hoping to finally secure a return to Europe on the back of another strong tournament showing.

He was one of Algeria's stars at the last Nations Cup, but with European clubs largely looking the other way, he opted to sign for Saudi club Al-Ahli.

Now he's available again, having come to the end of a brief spell with Qatar SC, and at 29, could have one final opportunity to make his mark in the European game.