WAFU Cup of Nations heroes: Where are they now?

Anthony Okpotu, pictured playing for Moroccan club Difaa El Jadida, describes the 217 WAFU Cup of Nations as "a good opportunity, and one I capitalised on in terms of reaching greater heights in my career". Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The sixth edition of the West Africa Football Union Cup of Nations kicks off in Thies, Senegal, on Saturday, with 15 of the region's sides -- plus guests Morocco -- contesting the two-week competition.

Past editions of the tournament have thrown up some star players and memorable performers, some of whom have used it as a launch pad to greater things in their career, and others who failed to build on the promise they demonstrated in the regional showpiece for local players.

Anthony Okpotu was one of Nigeria's most impressive players at the last edition of the tournament, scoring once as they reached the final before being defeated 4-1 by rivals Ghana in Cape Coast.

The forward didn't initially secure a move away from the Nigerian top flight, but after top scoring for Lobi Stars with 19 league goals, he was signed by Morocco's Difaa Hassani El Jadidi in July 2018, and is currently on loan at Albanian side Laci.

Watch the WAFU Cup of Nations Live and Exclusive on ESPN in Africa from Sept. 28 to Oct. 12

Okpotu told ESPN about the role the Wafu Cup of Nations had on launching his career and helping him establish himself beyond West Africa.

"It was the highest-level national assignment for me at the time, and I felt really happy, honoured, and privileged to be given the opportunity to represent my country," Okpotu said.

"My memories [of the tournament] were good, because I learned - for my next assignment -- that I had to improve on what I'd done at the Wafu Cup.

"It was a good opportunity, and one I capitalised on in terms of reaching greater heights in my career."

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Okpotu wasn't the only member of Nigeria's Wafu Cup 2017 runners-up to secure a move abroad, with Afeez Aremu (Norway), Gabriel Okechukwu (Ukraine), Stephen Eze (Bulgaria), Peter Eneji (Serbia) and Chima Akas (Sweden) all departing home soil in the aftermath of their run to the final.

Eze has also been included in the senior Nigeria squad since his performances at the Wafu Cup, while Aremu remembers clearly the influence the tournament had on his career trajectory.

"I can remember the tournaments in the [previous] two years, where we weren't earning bonuses or allowances in camp, but I chose to go because I knew there would be a lot of scouts there, which was an advantage to me, dreaming of playing in Europe," Aremu told ESPN.

"As you can see now, I was scouted in our first match, and that put me where I am now; I can never forget this in my life.

"These are good memories for me anytime I remember back to those days. It was a good tournament for the country, but especially for me."

For the Ghana side that won the competition two years ago, the likes of Winful Cobbinah (Albania), Emmanuel Lomotey (Spain) and Nuhu Musah (Switzerland) all subsequently moved abroad, and the latter had appeared bound for the Africa Cup of Nations with the Black Stars before injury struck.

Some recent tournament winners haven't, however, managed to translate fine form in the Wafu Cup to success overseas, even if they did secure foreign deals on the back of their performances in the regional championship.

Nigerian duo Ekigho Ehiosun and Ikechukwu Ibenegbu are two examples, after they scored four each as the Super Eagles again clinched silver on home soil in 2011.

The former was included in the senior set-up by Stephen Keshi, and secured a move to Turkish clubs Samsunspor and Genclerbirligi, but he's currently without a club after being released by Israeli second-tier side Hapoel Acre.

Ibenengbu, by contrast, wasn't able to tempt any suitors to prise him away from Heartland, and he left the club only in 2013 to move to another Nigerian side, Warri Wolves.

He featured for the Super Eagles on a handful of occasions, but, as with Ejike Uzoenyi, a small stature may have represented an obstacle too great for 'Mosquito' to have truly made his mark in European football.

Two years after Ehiosun and Ibenegbu fell just short, it was Ghana who clinched the title when they defeated Senegal 3-1 in the final.

The match saw differing fortunes for Ghanaian duo Kwabena Adusei and Latif Abdul Mohammed, who scored for the Black Stars on the day, and Senegalese midfielder Ousseynou Thioune, who was dismissed at the death for the Teranga Lions.

However, the trio's fortunes have differed significantly since the conclusion of the competition.

Thioune left Diambars in 2016 to move to Ittihad Tanger in Morocco, and then north to Spain's Gimnastic and now Sochaux of France's Ligue 2; it's safe to say he's put his Wafu Cup final disappointment behind him.

The Ghanaian duo, by contrast, have struggled to take their careers to new heights despite each having a winner's medal in their back pocket.

Defender Adusei left Asante Kotoko for Mpumalanga Black Aces in 2014, for his first foray outside Ghana, but he has been out of the game since September 2015, when he was just 28, after injury problems curtailed his stay in South Africa.

For Mohammed, who scored twice in the final victory over Senegal, Asante Kotoko's refusal to allow him to leave for Europe in the aftermath of the tournament denied him a certain career trajectory, and, instead, the striker has traipsed around a series of African leagues; Gabon, Zambia, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, and back to Ethiopia.

"[The Wafu Cup] was very successful, and by then, there was a club in Norway -- Sandnes Ulf -- who needed me," Mohammed, now 29, told ESPN.

"However, my club in Ghana did not accept the offer. If I'd gone to Norway, I would still be in Europe by now.

"After the Wafu, we continued with the 2014 African Nations Championship [CHAN] in South Africa, and from there I got an offer from a club in Gabon, CF Mounana."

While the examples of Mohammed, Adusei, Ehiosun and Ibenegbu serve as reminders of how difficult it is to translate a fine tournament showing into a long and successful career overseas, the case of Ahmed Musa proves that the Wafu Cup can be a launchpad for much greater things.

The Kano Pillars starlet was virtually unknown when he clinched the title with Nigeria in 2010, scoring twice en route to the gold, but he quickly progressed through the ranks to the full senior side while securing a successful career for himself in Europe.

He has represented the Super Eagles at two World Cups -- no Nigerian has scored more than him in the tournament; has won the Africa Cup of Nations; and has represented CSKA Moscow, Leicester City and Al-Nassr, winning four league titles in the process.

Musa remains the tournament's greatest success story, but can any of the hopefuls at the 2019 edition follow in his footsteps?