Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor—

ZIMBABWE international Khama Billiat moved a step closer to completing a golden year after he made the final list of five players shortlisted by the Confederation of African Football for the African Player of the Year (Based In Africa) award.

The 26-year-old forward is on course to add the prestigious award, the highest individual honour that can be bestowed on a footballer still playing on the continent, after making the final cut for the awards ceremony at the International Conference Centre in Abuja, Nigeria, on January 7 next year.

The Warriors’ star, who had also been nominated for the overall CAF African Player of the Year award, which is also open to players from the continent based in Europe and other parts of the world, was eliminated from that race when the five shortlisted players for that award were also unveiled yesterday.

Gabonese forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was named the CAF African Player of the Year in 2015, is also on the short-list with the Borussia Dortmund star set to battle it out with Algerian forward, Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City), Senegalese striker Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Egyptian star Mohamed Salah (AS Roma) and another Algerian striker Islam Slimani (Leicester City).

Mahrez inspired the Foxes to a fairy-tale success in the English Premiership, with Leicester City defying the 5 000-1 odds for their first top-flight league title, and was duly named the Professional Footballers Association Player of the Year for 2015-2016, the PFA Fans Premier League Player of the Season and the Leicester City Player of the Season.

The CAF African Player of the Year has, for long, been dominated by the stars plying their trade in Europe.

But Billiat, who inspired Mamelodi Sundowns to the South African Premiership title in the 2015-2016 season and then played a starring role in guiding the Brazilians to their maiden CAF Champions League trophy, should fancy his chances of becoming the first Zimbabwean footballer to win the CAF gong.

And even CAF, in unveiling the shortlist of the five best footballers on the continent this year, appeared to be placing Billiat in a class of his own.

“Billiat was the architect of Mamelodi Sundown’s year of glory, as they won the Orange CAF Champions League for the first time in 2016,” CAF said on their official website.

“The 26-year old playmaker scored three goals and with several assists as the ‘Brazilians’ conquered the continent. He was also instrumental as Sundowns won the South African Premier League, and was decorated Premiership Players’ Player of the Year, Midfielder of the Season and Footballer of the Season.

“Billiat had an eventful year with Zimbabwe, scoring twice to help the Warriors reach next year’s Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 2006.” In fact, Billiat scored three times during the 2017 Nations Cup campaign, for the Warriors, scoring the winner against Malawi in Blantyre and then finding the net against the Flames in Harare while he was also on target against Swaziland at the National Sports Stadium.

Billiat will have to battle it out against his Mamelodi Sundowns’ teammates — goalkeeper Dennis Onyango, who also helped his country qualify for their first Nations Cup finals since 1978; Keegan Dolly and Hlompo Kekana, who has been nominated for the best goal scored this year — while Zambian skipper Rainford Kalaba is the other candidate after guiding TP Mazembe to CAF Confederation Cup success.

Kalaba scored seven goals for the Congolese giants. But Billiat should fancy his chances of becoming the first Zimbabwean to be crowned the best footballer plying his trade in Africa even against such a very strong field.

The award traditionally goes to a player whose team has won the CAF Champions League or, finished as runners-up, and that should effectively eliminate Kalaba, whose TP Mazembe side failed to make the group stage of the continent’s flagship inter-club tournament and dropped into the CAF Confederation Cup which they won, from this contest.

Tanzania’s Mbwana Samatta (2015), Egypt’s

Mohamed Aboutrika (2013, 2012, 2008 and 2006), Oussama Daragi (2011), Tresor Mputu (2009), Amine Chermiti (2007) and Mohamed Barakat (2005) have all been crowned the CAF African Player of the Year (Based in Africa) after helping their clubs to win the Champions League.

Only in 2010, Egyptian star Ahmed Hassan, and in 2014 when Congolese international Firmin Ndombe Mubele won the award, did the honour go to a player whose team had not won the CAF Champions League although Mubele was rewarded for helping Congolese giants AS Vita to finish runners-up in the tournament.

With Kalaba set for elimination, given this award usually goes to the Champions League winners, it should be a straight shootout among the Mamelodi Sundowns’ stars and, here, is where Billiat should have an advantage after he outclassed his teammates to sweep all the major individual honours in the South African Premiership this year.

The Zimbabwean beat Dolly, Kekana and Onyango to be crowned the South African Premier Soccer League Footballer of the Season, the ABSA Premiership Player of the Season and the ABSA Premiership Midfielder of the Season while also taking home the Kick-Off Footballer of the Season.

With the two South African players, Dolly and Onyango, having failed to inspire Bafana Bafana to the 2017 Nations Cup finals, Billiat and Onyango will get credit for playing a huge part in taking their nations to the biggest football festival on the continent in Gabon next year.

Billiat scored three goals as the Warriors ended 10 years of waiting for a place at the Nations Cup finals, and also provided a number of assists for his teammates along the way, and given that this award has, traditionally, been won by in-field players, especially the forwards, it’s likely that the Zimbabwean will emerge as the best of the crop.

The top five slots were decided by votes from the members of the CAF Media Committee, CAF Technical & Development Committee and half of the 20-member Panel of Experts (10 persons).

However, for the final phase, votes from the Head Coaches/Technical Directors of the 54 National Associations affiliated to CAF plus Associate Members, Reunion Island and Zanzibar, together with the other half of the 20-member Panel of Experts (10 persons) will be counted towards determination of the winner.

2016 African Player of the Year (Based in Africa)

1. Khama Billiat (Mamelodi Sundowns & Zimbabwe)

2. Keegan Dolly (Mamelodi Sundowns & South Africa)

3. Rainford Kalaba (TP Mazembe & Zambia)

4. HlomphoKekana (Mamelodi Sundowns & South Africa)

5. Denis Onyango (Mamelodi Sundowns & Uganda)

2016 African Player of the Year

1. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon & Borrusia Dortmund)

2. Riyad Mahrez (Algeria & Leicester City)

3. Sadio Mane (Senegal & Liverpool)

4. Mohamed Salah (Egypt & Roma)

5. Islam Slimani (Algeria & Leicester City)


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