For all the joyous exterior, the Cup of Nations is a serious tournament, competed by serious teams, albeit one with a bit more humility and a bit less arrogance. Look around and you will see plenty of players who feature at the top level in Europe. There may not be the depth of talent that you will find in Europe, but that makes it all the more interesting – there is always a surprise package, and the teams without the big name stars usually more than hold their own against the leading teams. There is no better example than reigning champions Zambia, who shocked the footballing world by vanquishing Cote d’Ivoire’s superstars in the final last year.
A Brief History of the Cup of Nations
I’m not going to claim to be an expert on the history of the Cup of Nations, though. I have only been following the tournament during the past few years. The Football League is my usual area of expertise, though I have always loved international football. The love affair with African football began in 2010, with what is still my favourite football match of all time: the classic opener between Angola and Mali, which saw the hosts throw away a 4-0 lead in the last 15 minutes. When you see a match like that, it changes your perceptions.
But the Cup of Nations is hardly a recent phenomenon, which a lot of people don’t realise – it actually predates the European Championships, having first been held in 1957. Granted, the Sudan-based tournament was a lot more low key than today: only three teams took part, with South Africa having been disqualified due to the internationakl anti-apartheid stance taken by football’s various governing bodies, and there were only two matches. Egypt won, which in hindsight isn’t particularly surprising – they have won six times since then, though after retaining their title in 1959, they wouldn’t win it again until 1986. They are the only team to win it three times in succession: a run which ended last year when they failed to qualify, something repeated this year. That’s like Brazil failing to qualify for two World Cups in a row.
The tournament has gradually grown in size over the years: in 1963, six teams took part, which grew to eight in 1968. This would remain the number of teams for much of its existence; it wasn’t until 1992 that it would expand again, moving to 12 teams, followed by a move to 15 in 1996 and finally 16 in 1998.
38 of the 56 nations have qualified for the tournament down the years. Given that the number of African qualifiers to the World Cup has always remained small, it has given the traditionally weaker nations a great chance of making a major tournament, something that has never been the case for the Euros, though UEFA have at last seen the light and will be changing it for 2016. I certainly believe the open system has encouraged the development of African international football, making the Cup of Nations qualifiers incredibly competitive, with several high profile nations including Egypt and Cameroon failing to qualify for recent tournaments, while new forces like Cape Verde, Niger, Botswana and the Central African Republic have emerged. That would be like Italy, England and Germany being displaced from the top of European football by Belarus, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In total, 14 nations have won it, although only five have won it more than once: the teams generally considered the giants of African football: Egypt (7), Ghana (4), Cameroon (4), Nigeria (2) and DR Congo (2). A further five teams have made the final but are yet to win it. Egypt and Ghana have also hosted the tournament four times each, with 18 different countries having hosted in total, ranging from Africa’s largest countries such as Sudan and Algeria, to one of the smallest, Equatorial Guinea, who co-hosted last year.
It still matters, you know…
In this age of international football slipping down the priority ladder, the Cup of Nations is still a huge deal for African nations. With the World Cup remaining out of reach, it’s the biggest tournament an African team can realistically win, not to mention the fact that every two years (or so) it unites the continent. Though some countries may have sports that are bigger within them – South Africa with rugby, Zimbabwe with cricket, long-distance running in Kenya and Ethiopia – football is the sport that virtually every African country competes in, and two-thirds of them have had at least one good spell where they have qualified for the finals. No football tournament, other than perhaps the Copa America, has this effect.
And though there are the clichéd images with which the West associates with the tournament – substandard matches on poor pitches in rustic stadia in front of a few hardy partying fans dressed in green and red – and the fact that African football isn’t run as well as European football, this tournament really does matter. It is a professional tournament with professional players that is presented professionally. To reduce it to the level a fun sideshow that’s just a distraction from league football for the African superstars is disrespectful to the players, the teams and the African people.
All these teams are playing to win. They are all carrying the weight of a nation. The stakes and expectations are just as high as in any other international tournament. The aftermath will see scathing attacks from the media, managerial casualties, crises and enquiries. Underperforming players will be humiliated. An underdog will defy the odds and a big name team will leave surprisingly early. And at the end of it, the eyes of a whole continent will be on Soccer City to see who will be the next champions of Africa. It’s just like two years ago, only this is one tournament Spain can’t win. And that can only be a good thing.