God created the Sudan, then he started to laugh! It is a proverb that the Sudanese often quote with a touch of humour. The economic difficulties, the political uncertainties and all types of obstacles do not spare this country which stretches over a huge territory, irrigated only by the majestic Nile and its tributaries..
It is, however, in this former Anglo-Egyptian protectorate, whose independence dates from only January 1, 1956 that the first Africa Cup was organised, the first competition of the newly founded Confederation of African Football (CAF), itself conceived in Lisbon on June 9, 1956 and born in Khartoum on February 8, 1957.
Of the four founder members of CAF, in fact, only the Sudan Football Association appeared to be in a position to fulfil such a commitment. Ethiopia still did not have a suitable stadium, Gamel Abdel Nasser's Egypt was facing its first test - the Suyez War of October 1956.
As for the Football Association of South Africa (FASA), then a member of the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA), the apartheid regime meant that it could not welcome Black teams, even non-south Africans, and similarly it could not put forward a multi-racial team.
On February 10, in a stadium inaugurated four months previously, the Sudanese Prime Minister, Sayed Ismail El Azhari, declared the first Africa Cup open, equipped with a trophy made by a Khan Al Khalili (Cairo) goldsmith, which was presented by Abdelaziz Abdallah Salem, the first — and short-lived — President of CAF.
Under the supervision of the Ethiopian Referee Gadeyou, Sudan and Egypt bitterly contested the first match. At the time, Egypt was the number one power in African football.
A quite glorious past, structured, rich blubs, an incredible popular enthusiasm, the Nassarian power's support of the ball, a romantic style of play and adulated stars.
Revision of regulations
Mourad Fahmy's selection (he was to be the General Secretary of CAF from 1961 to 1982), including its ranks, the Greek-Egyptian goalkeeper Brascos, the playmaker Rifaat Al Fanaguili and the attackers Ala Al Hamuli, Abdelfattah Hamdi, Diab Mohammed Al Attar “Addiba”, Raafat Attia and Ibrahim Toafiq outclassed its rival from the Nile (2-1), then Ethiopia (4-0). The A. A. Salem Cup went back to Cairo, where it was to remain for four years.
The second competition, which was hosted by Cairo from May 22 to 29, 1959, saw the scenario repeated, with the same three finalists and the same winner.
After Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Uganda and Tunisia joined CAF between 1958 and 1960, the Africa Cup began anew.
Under the impetus of the Ethiopian, Ydnekatchew Tessema, its rules were submitted to a regular revision, and the formula of its final phase was adapted to the evolution of African football and to the demands of the modern competition.
Whereas the first competition brought together three competitions, that of 1998, in other words, the 21st competition (final phase in Burkina Faso from February 7 to 28, 1998) includes 36.
The progression, which has never slowed, known in the 40 years as the event that has existed, has brought about several transformations to the final tournament, from three teams in 1957, it increased to four (1962), six (1963-1965), eight (1968-1990), 12 (1992-1994) and finally 16 (since 1996).
Since the 20th competition, 32 fixtures have been registered in the programme and the formula corresponds to that of the World Cup from 1958 to 1978.
With the adoption of “championship of African clubs” project in January 1962, the Africa Cup then took on the name Africa Cup of Nations (CAN).
The participation of ex-patriot, amateur or professional players provoked debate at the heart of CAF. In 1967, authorisation was given to use a maximum of two expatriate players. And since 1982, there has been no limit.
The opening up to footballers who have emigrated has changed the face of the competition and has increased its international credibility.
Born with difficulty at a time when Africa, as a whole, was bent under colonisation, when football was practised in a non-uniform way, the CAN has become a symbol.
A symbol of the sporting unity of the continent. Has it not, especially since the re-admission of South Africa in 1992, united behind the African ball under the banner of CAF whose empire today stretches across 52 nations? A symbol and also a mirror of the intense life and popularity of football. A symbol of the liberation of the continent.
History demonstrates this; scarcely had they joined the UN and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the young African states affiliated themselves to FIFA and CAF and entered the CAN, the first place where a new and ambitious nationalism can express itself.
A symbol, in short, of Africa's stumbling and eventful march towards progress. What of the trials and contradictions of the development policy of the African countries? Has it not reflected? From 1957, the CAN has had concrete stadiums built in many African capitals and towns.
How many Heads of State have not skimped on resources in order to welcome the CAN, build new stadiums and form top-level national clubs?
The Cup of Nations has mobilised, moved, upset and plunged entire nations into enthusiasm or sadness. Both national pride, whether uplifted or wounded, and patriotism of a more or less hostile nature have triggered expositions of passion.
But regularly, it is the sporting value which has determined popular reactions, whether or not it results in prestige.
In short, the CAN allows stock to be taken every two years of technical progress in football on the move. Significant progress, if you take into account the unique nature of Africa, a huge surface area, numerous natural obstacles, weakness of means of communication, in spite of the growth or airlines.
Progress, however, which is somewhat held back by the unbalanced implantation of sporting infrastructure, the laborious organisation of national competitions, the instability of the national federations, the dependence on foreign companies for the acquisition of sports equipment, the hybrid status of players and the technical, administrative framework and, above all, the huge exodus of muscle is a result of an unfavourable economic situation.
If, since the epic of the prestigious Larbi Ben Barek, the “black pearl”, African footballers have had the opportunity to demonstrate, in all the stadia of the world, their brilliant individual qualities (monkey-like skill in the “handling” of the ball, sense of the move to be made, suppleness, relaxation, speed, innate sense of creation and the attacking game...) they have now been able to see their assured talent promoted by the CAN via the small screen for several years. Since 1984, television has, in fact, become an unavoidable partner of the CAN.
Whoever speaks of television, also speaks of advertising and sponsorship. In addition to the talking at the stadium ticket offices, commercialisation and sale of rights are nowadays the lifeblood of the CAN: “The CAN,” states the President of CAF, Issa Hayatou, “supplies 80 per cent of the resources of CAF.
We are uncompromising about this. We will not change its regularity. The CAN will not change for anything in the world.”
At 50, the CAN is a competition which cannot be avoided on the international calendar which is shown by the extent of its ever-increasing media coverage.
It hopes to see you on February 7 at the Ouagadougou “4 out” stadium for the kick-off of its 20” competition between the Burkina Faso Stallions and the indomitable Cameroun Lions.
• Culled from FIFA Magazine.