Following the debacle of Zaire’s showing at the 1974 World Cup in Germany, African football was dismissed as irrelevant. Any talk regarding the game on the continent was usually laced with talk of witch doctors and superstitious rituals. The Africa Cup of Nations was largely ignored by the rest of the footballing world.
The tournament continued to be played every two years, with the 1976 edition seeing Morocco triumph in Ethiopia by topping a four team round robin to decide the winners. Two years later Ghana, on home soil, won their third title beating Uganda 3-0 as the tournament reverted to knock-out football to determine its winners.
1980 saw Nigeria begin to assert themselves as one of the forces in the area. They hosted the tournament and triumphed for the first time with a comfortable 3-0 win over Algeria. Two years later, on the back of an ACN semi-final appearance in Libya, Algeria would begin to lay the foundation of African football’s road to respectability with their 2-1 win over West Germany at the World Cup in Spain.
Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions had also announced themselves on the world stage in the 1982 World Cup, bowing out of the tournament only on goals scored to eventual champions Italy. In 1984 they claimed their first African title by beating Nigeria 3-1 in the final.
After Egypt triumphed on home soil in 1986, Cameroon regained the title in 1988, again beating Nigeria. By the 1990 edition, which was won by Algeria, Cameroon’s thoughts were probably elsewhere. With participation in the forthcoming World Cup in Italy already having been secured, the holders were eliminated in the group stages. However it was their dramatic and exhilarating progress to the quarter-finals of the World Cup which made the wider world sit up and take notice of African football.
The 1992 edition in Senegal expanded to take in 12 teams, with four groups of three. Interest piqued by Cameroon’s emergence, Channel Four broadcast a round-up of the tournament. It introduced British viewers to players like Ghana’s Tony Yeboah and Abedi Pele and Rashidi Yekini of Nigeria. The tournament was won by the Ivory Coast who went through the entire tournament without conceding a goal, beating Ghana 11-10 on penalties in the final.
By the 1994 tournament, African players were beginning to be key components of club sides across Europe. Nigeria were also becoming major players on the world stage. They finally won their first Cup of Nations before going on to impress at the World Cup in the United States and take the Olympic gold medal two years later.
The 1996 tournament was a watershed in the history of the tournament. Expanded to 16 teams, one competing nation made its bow after waiting 40 years to take part. The collapse of the Apartheid regime had seen South Africa return to the world stage. Throughout its sporting isolation, football had been the game of the masses, and Bafana Bafana finally had the chance to compete at the highest level and on home soil as well. It was also the first time that English clubs were affected by the tournament’s peculiar mid-winter timing as players such as Yeboah, Phil Masinga and Lucas Radebe of Leeds United were whisked away at the height of the season to participate.
Riding a tide of emotion, the hosts swept all before them, including Yeboah’s Ghana in the semi-finals, to reach the final against Tunisia where two goals in two minutes from Mark Williams helped South Africa to win the tournament at the first time of asking.
South Africa reached the final again two years later in Burkina Faso before they lost to Egypt, who claimed their fourth title. The 2000 edition was the first to be co-hosted, Ghana and Nigeria stepping in to replace Zimbabwe. Cameroon claimed the crown with victory over Nigeria in the final.
2002 in Mali saw Cameroon retain their crown, before Arab domination commenced with Tunisia’s victory in 2006. The last three tournaments have seen an unprecedented triple triumph by Egypt, including a win in the troubled 2010 edition in Angola. The last tournament saw Togo, including Emmanuel Adebayor, withdraw after their team bus was attacked by terrorists.
The last 15 years have seen the Africa Cup of Nations go from strength to strength. Each tournament sees the standard of football improve, and a host of new stars emerge. Benni McCarthy, Samuel Eto’o, Jay-Jay Okocha, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien have all starred at recent tournaments. The tournament is also seen as a showcase for emerging talents, with scores of European scouts attending, With a host of Premier League stars participating the event is now given full attention. It is also now given the fullest attention by the media, with live TV coverage now the norm. It’s time to sit back and enjoy.
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