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Africa Cup of Nations: The history

WINNERS: The Ivory Coast team celebrate their victory

WINDS OF change loomed but the Europeans clung to their colonies, not least because World War II drained much of their wealth and resources. In this sociopolitical climate, the Confederation of African football (CAF) was founded, comprising the four independent African members of FIFA – Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa.

Football was identified by African states as a medium for constructing a new national identity and attaining recognition within the international community. All they needed was a cup to show off their sovereignty.

The inaugural Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) was lifted by Egypt, although only three teams took part in February 1957. South Africa were barred because they refused to enter a multi-racial squad, and expelled altogether in 1961 for as long as their apartheid system was replicated in the sporting domain.

Experiment

Egypt hosted and won the 1959 tournament as the United Arab Republic (UAR), a short-lived experiment that united Egypt and Syria. They lost the 1962 final against hosts Ethiopia, the beginning of a geographical shift in power.

In 1963, the tournament expanded to six teams and moved to west Africa for the first time. Nigeria debuted alongside hosts Ghana who were backed by independence leader Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah had a strong vision for his new Ghana and invested heavily in all forms of culture. Music was one of his vehicles, where the Highlife genre was the sound of the day. Football was another instrument to unite the nation, and along with sports minister Ohene Djan he travelled abroad to find further inspiration. They modelled the Ghanaian side on the famous Real Madrid of the 1950s and like Real, the national team played in all white.

Style

They adopted the moniker Black Stars (pictured below with former President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah), deliberately taking the name of the shipping line established by Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born pan-Africanist that aimed to facilitate travel and trade between the Americas and Africa - and duly won the 1963 tournament in style. Ghana successfully defended their trophy in 1965, reversing a 2-1 deficit to beat Tunisia 2-3 in the final.

Osei Kofi – the boy cast in the mould of Brazilian legend Garrincha – was one of the star turns, routinely making statues of his opponents. His game was “all about rhythm” and defenders danced to his tune. “Brazilians have the Samba, we have Highlife” was his mantra.

The bond between Brazil and Ghana ran deep but there was a long way to go before the CAF was as respected as the South American confederation. With the allocation of one measly slot to share between the whole of Africa and Asia (to be decided after a play-off), CAF boycotted the 1966 World Cup, and Eurocentric FIFA’s neglect of the wider world is probably why the AFCON is held every two years instead of four.

Lacking access to global tournaments the Black Stars continued as ambassadors for the continental game. They were often invited to go and demonstrate the Ghana brand of football in exhibitions, although Jomo Kenyatta probably wished he hadn’t bothered. According to Kofi they stunned Kenya 13-2, and probably “destroyed their independence celebrations.”

From four founders to 34 members by 1970, CAF indicated that the liberation process was complete outside of Lusophone Africa. By late 1975 the Portuguese finally left their colonies, but membership would have to wait on the outcome of their civil wars.

Hosted

Mozambique and Angola belatedly joined in 1978 and 1980 and after recovering from Biafra, Nigeria hosted the 1980 tournament. Brazilian Otto Gloria – the man who guided Mozambique-born Eusebio’s Portugal to third place at 1966 World Cup – was tasked with the manager’s job, and alongside inspirational trio Muda Lawal, Christian Chukwu and Segun Odegbami, Gloria led Nigeria to glory, upgrading the Green Eagles to Super status.

Nigeria’s neighbours Cameroon emerged as a real force through the eighties, growing into The Indomitable Lions. Théophile Abega captained the side to their first victory in 1984, the start of a golden period from 1984 – 2002 in which they won four of ten tournaments. Punctuating Cameroon’s success, 1992 was a year of reconciliation for CAF.

For the first time since their expulsion in 1961, founding member South Africa were readmitted into the family. They failed to qualify for the 1994 AFCON but were buoyed by the announcement that they were in line to replace Kenya as hosts of the 1996 tournament. To the surprise of many, they not only held down a smooth operation but were also victorious on their debut (pictured above are the South Africa 1996 AFCON Champions with Nelson Mandela). History does favour the hosts but let’s take nothing away; this was a stunning success.

The Egyptian Pharaohs came back strong taking the 1998 title, and from 2006-10 they strung together a succession of three wins, a feat that may take some time to equal.

Operator

My player of the period was Egypt’s 'smooth operator' Mohamed Aboutrika (pictured above), the silky-smooth operator who rose to fame relatively late as he completed his philosophy degree; his class is undeniable to anybody who had the pleasure of watching him play. Refreshingly, Egypt were coached by an Egyptian in Hassan Shehata. All too often indigenous coaches slog successfully through qualification only to be replaced by a journeyman European name on the eve of a tournament.

Hervé Renard and the Zambian national team were exceptions as he guided the side through qualification for AFCON 2010. He briefly left the role, but the bond was strong and he resumed his duties in time for the 2012 tournament. The rest is history, as The Chipolopolo secured an emotional first victory.

The win was dedicated to the memory of 1993, when the entire national team and staff were victims of a tragic plane crash. This is documented in Eighteam by Ngosa Chungu and Juan Rodriguez-Briso, which won best film at the 2015 African Film Festival in Nigeria.

Nigeria took the trophy in 2013 under the country's late 'Big Boss' Stephen Keshi (pictured above) – who became only the second man to win as both player and manager - and then remarkably Renard repeated the feat. He shaped his new side Les Éléphants of Côte D’Ivoire from perennial underachievers to continental champions in 2015.

Captain Yaya Touré (pictured below, on the left, beating Andew Ayew of Ghana) recalls losing the 2006 final as, “the beginning of a rewarding adventure”, pointedly reminding us of the sorrow in the Angolan enclave of Cabinda in 2010 when the attacks on the Togolese bus cast a cloud over the football.

Memories

A campaigner for equality on the world stage, he pays ‘tribute to the Togolese footballers’ and staff who lost their lives, and those who live on with the memories. Toure suffered another AFCON final defeat in 2012, where he could not stop the flow of tears, so 2015 came as a massive relief. His generation accomplished its mission and in retirement Touré modestly asks fans for their understanding and to give him “part of the road”. The foundations were laid in 1957 and each generation has contributed to the path, one step at a time.

Gabon 2017 presents the next opportunity for nations to make their mark and create history.

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