For the first 30 years or so of its life, the Africa Nations Cup was a tournament that drew little attention outside the confines of its own continent. Played bi-annually, it was barely even mentioned in the mainstream media, with only international magazines such as World Soccer giving it even a modicum of coverage. However, as the eighties turned into the nineties, two things happened which saw the competition gain the recognition it deserved, and by 1996 it took political change and a miracle victory to thrust the competition to the forefront of the world’s attention. Today it has taken its place as one of the four most important international football tournaments in the world.
From its humble beginnings as a three-team tournament, to its expansion to 16 teams in 1998, the Africa Cup of Nations has been constantly evolving, in much the same way as its football has. From its early days of shambolic amateurism, the tournament still sees its football in the main played with a joyous enthusiasm rarely seen in today’s ultra-professional footballing world. It has seen periods of domination by the likes of Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Egypt but has also given some of football’s lesser powers their moment in the sun.
The Confederation of African Football was formed in June 1956 with the idea of a continental tournament immediately mooted. The four founder members were Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa and the Sudan and they were scheduled to meet in the first competition, a straight knockout, in Khartoum in 1957. However, before the tournament, South Africa were disqualified due to their government’s apartheid policy. This meant Ethiopia were given a bye straight into the final, and South Africa would not be seen in the tournament for almost 40 years. Egypt, the competition’s most successful side, were the first winners of the Coupe d’Afrique des Nations (the official title of the tournament) with four goals by Mohamed Ao-Diba handing them a 4-0 win over Ethiopia in the final. The victory was the first of seven titles for the Pharaoh’s in the tournament’s history.
Two years later they won again, although they were officially known as the United Arab Republic, having politically joined forces with Syria. Again just three teams took part, the tournament reverting to a round robin format which saw the UAR beat both Ethiopia and Sudan.
The tournament took a three-year hiatus before it recommenced in 1962 with Ethiopia hosting. For the first time qualifiers were held with nine teams entering. The hosts and holders qualified automatically with Uganda and Tunisia, who were handed a place after Nigeria walked off the field in protest at the refereeing during their crucial qualifier, making up the four nation field. Ethiopia’s win over Tunisia in the semi-final was the first match they had won in the competition, and they beat the UAR 4-2 in the final to claim their only title.
Ghana were the hosts for the 1963 tournament which was expanded to six finalists. Split into two groups of three nations, the host Black Stars beat Sudan 3-0 in the first of four consecutive finals.
The 1965 hosts Tunisia made it into the semi-finals on the toss of a coin after they and Senegal had both beaten Sudan by four goals in the round-stage. Their luck ran out in the final though, where they were beaten by the holders Ghana 3-2.
A record 22 nations attempted to qualify for the 1968 finals in Ethiopia. The tournament expanded to an eight-team affair, with the top two from each four team pool qualifying for the semi-finals. Once again Ghana reached the final but they were beaten by the Democratic Republic of Congo, who would achieve infamy as Zaire in the 1974 World Cup.
In 1970, the tournament began its regular bi-annual cycle. Sudan were the hosts and claimed their first ever title with a 1-0 win over Ghana – a defeat that heralded the end of the Black Stars dominance of the tournament. They failed to qualify for the 1972 tournament in Cameroon where Congo won their only title by defeating Mali in the final.
The 1974 tournament saw African football break new ground as Zaire became the first Sub-Saharan team to qualify for the World Cup. They entered the tournament in Germany as the African champions after beating Zambia in a replay at the finals held in Egypt. Unfortunately their performances at the World Cup, which included a 9-0 defeat to Yugoslavia, left African football a laughing stock. At the time the influence of African football on the world stage was inconceivable. However by the time the World Cup returned to Germany in 2006, that influence was there for all to see.