The Africa Cup of Nations: Capricious, chaotic, dramatic, indomitable and utterly unique

The first time the African Nations Cup seemed to have any profile on television in the UK was when John Salako stood on a beach in Dakar, rounding up the highlights from the 1992 competition in Senegal. “In 1962, Walter Winterbottom said an African team would win the World Cup by the turn of the century, and everyone laughed, ” said the ex-Crystal Palace and England winger.

“Thirty years on, and believe me, NO-ONE is laughing ANY more”, he says, with a strangely confrontational point at the screen. The tournament has been on Eurosport ever since and this year’s edition, which kicks off on Friday, is being staged by its most successful country, Egypt, who are strong favourites to win the Cup for the eighth time. Cameroon is the holders, having beaten the Egyptians in the final last time around in Libreville with a late winner from Porto’s Vincent Aboubakar. 

Nations Cups have always produced a tremendous drama on the pitch and carried a vague sense of possible chaos off it, which is why the tournament has a charisma all of its own. It always seemed a perfect fit for Eurosport — a varied platform one might say for such a varied event.

Famously launched with three teams and no qualifying in 1957 in Sudan, early Nations Cups were less continental gatherings, and more small groups of East African teams getting together and sharing some medals. Ethiopia had a title and Egypt had bagged a couple before West African nations had even gotten involved, but that all changed with Ghana staging and winning in 1963. From 1968 all the way through to 1990, finals qualification was restricted to just eight teams, matching the old European championship format for an (in theory) strictly elite field. 

As the world opened up in the 1990s, as with everywhere else, the Nations Cup had to adapt too, and 12 teams in 1992 and 1994 expanded to 16 in 1996. The tournament had literally doubled in size in six years, as had the European Championship in the same time. This year sees another step change too, with 24 teams competing - Madagascar, Burundi and Mauritania, for the first time. 

It is the narratives that can make the Nations Cup so compelling. The plane crash which wiped out the Zambian squad – apart from their star striker, Kalusha Bwalya, who amazingly was not on the flight - shortly after take-off from Libreville, Gabon in April 1993, stunned the world. Yet astonishingly, the Federation somehow cobbled together a team which not only got the four points necessary to qualify for the finals, but then reached the final itself, halted only by the strong Nigerian side of Rashidi Yekini and Daniel Amokachi who would come within two minutes of knocking Italy out of the World Cup later that summer.

After another terrific run to the semi-finals two years later, Zambia retreated to the ranks of also-rans, failing to progress beyond the group stages in six of the following seven Nations Cups, until Gabon hosted the event in 2012. Herve Renard’s coaching seemed to harness the emotion of returning to Libreville and destiny, so often an overused term in sport seems the only fitting way to describe Zambia’s run to the final and ultimate triumph over Ivory Coast on penalties. Renard’s pristine white shirts became a feature of the tournament, and the fact that Zambia hasn’t won a Nations Cup match since, let alone progressed beyond the group, seems to characterise those 2012 finals as an oddly cosmic dividend written in the stars. Zambia has been through seven coaches since Renard left in 2013, didn’t qualify for 2017 and failed even to bag one of the eight extra spots this year, finishing bottom of a qualifying group that was won by Guinea-Bissau.

There are quirks everywhere. Take Ivory Coast. They’ve been in four finals, which have all gone to penalties after finishing goalless. The longed-for win in the Didier Drogba years never materialised, with the Elephants winning the trophy in 2015 in the first tournament they played after the great man had retired from international football. Drogba himself missed a penalty in the shoot-out of 2006, and missed from the spot in normal time in 2012 final, too. Egypt’s inability to qualify for the World Cup during the dominant years of the late 2000s was bizarre. Ghana has been impressively consistent in modern times without ever striking gold. They’ve reached the semi-finals at each of the past six tournaments under five different coaches, but won only two and then lost both finals, meaning in total they have lost three finals and five semi-finals since last winning it in 1982. 

The last time we saw anything resembling an empire was Egypt carrying off three straight titles, “Emperor” Hassan Shehata’s extremely well-drilled and occasionally flamboyant team winning in 2006, 2008 and 2010. The last of these in Angola was particularly impressive, as two of the attacking mainstays of the previous campaign, Amr Zaki and Mohamed Aboutrika, had missed the tournament through injury. A decade before, the golden Cameroon squad captained by Rigobert Song and spearheaded by Samuel Eto’o won the Nations Cup in 2000 and 2002, and in between times won Olympic gold as well, coming from two goals down in the final against a Spain team containing Xavi and Carles Puyol.

The first great Indomitable Lions team had reached three straight finals, winning in 1984 and 1988, losing in 1986, the beginnings of the team that made such an impact at Italia '90. In between those periods of Cameroonian dominance, we can only wonder at what Nigeria, themselves the Olympic champions of 1996 after a fabulous 4-3 final win over Argentina, may have achieved had Other circumstances not intervened? That barnstorming team with all those talents – Kanu, Jay Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Amokachi, Yekini, the captain Keshi – they won the Cup in 1994, just months before coming within minutes of knocking the rattled Italians out of the World Cup in Boston. But Nigeria wasn’t in the next two tournaments.

The 2000 final between Nigeria and Cameroon consolidated the Nations Cup’s reputation for providing a bloomin’ good penalty shoot-out. For the neutral, that is, rather than for Nigeria’s Victor Ipkeba, whose effort hit the underside of the bar and clearly bounced behind the line, then bounced out. The Tunisian referee, Mourad Daami, disallowed the effort and Nigeria lost the shoot-out 4-3. The final was played before 60,000 at the National Stadium in Lagos, and placed Nigeria on that list of teams to lose big finals in their own backyard. 

Seven finals have been decided by penalty shoot-outs and this naturally dramatic denouement seems to be exaggerated further at Nations Cups. Ivory Coast defeated Ghana in two strikingly similar finals 23 years apart, winning 11-10 on penalties in 1992 (still the highest score in a continental final decided in this way) and 9-8 in 2015, after 0-0 draws. Renard was the Cote d’Ivoire coach for that latter triumph, three years on from masterminding Zambia’s 8-7 shoot-out win over them. The 2006 quarter-final between Cameroon and Ivory Coast in Cairo finished 1-1 at the end of extra-time and every player on the pitch had scored before Samuel Eto’o started the second rotation and missed. Drogba slotted home and Ivory Coast won 12-11. Amazing scenes. 

Hectic on the pitch and, over the past decade or so, hectic off it. This year is the fourth CAN in a row which will be staged in a country different to the one originally appointed as hosts after CAF realised Cameroon wouldn’t be ready, worried about growing violence in the country and with dark rumours starting to swirl about misappropriated money for the rebuilt national stadium in Yaounde. Ravaged Libya was stripped of it in 2013 on the understanding they would be ready in 2017, but South Africa and Gabon had to be called upon.

Morocco pulled out just months before being due to host in 2015 because they feared the spread of ebola, and Equatorial Guinea stepped in. Gabon and Equatorial Guinea co-hosted in 2012, and there are clearly only a limited number of countries who seem capable (infrastructure and four good stadiums minimum) of staging a Nations Cup at the precise time the tournament is expanding. It is believed the new CAF President, Ahmad Ahmad, who replaced the long-serving Issa Hayatou in 2017, was keen for the finals to return to a nation with a more recognisable footballing heritage after the swing to the petro-states in the 2010s (Angola also hosted in 2010) and gave every chance to Cameroon to prove they could get the show on the road. 

But the tournament, wherever they end up staging it, offers up so much. The penalties..the drama.Mali coming from 4-0 down with 11 minutes to go to draw with Angola in the opening match of 2010. One remembers commentating a fabulous individual late winner by Hocine Achiou to win a steamy North African derby for Algeria against Egypt in 2004, and a quarter-final from Bata in 2015 - Congo against DR Congo, goalless ten minutes into the second half, before it all kicked off: Ferebory Dore and Thievy Bifouma scored for Congo before Dieumerci Mbokani quickly and importantly got one back for DRC. Yannick Bolasie ran the show after that and Jeremy Bokali, Joel Kimwaki and Mbokani again scored further goals as the DRC completed a magnificent comeback.

My abiding memory of the Nations Cup though comes from Tunisia in 2004. We were based in Sousse, staying at the same hotel as the Cameroon squad, whose entourage seemed to include – entirely uninvited – three or four extremely, erm, nice ladies. Cameroon flags were waved, Cameroon kits were worn (although not the famous onesies the team wore for the tournament), requests to travel with the squad on the official coach to and from the stadium were politely declined. 

The dedication was impressive through – training sessions, at the match, in terms of support, these really were the Indomitable lionesses. But Cameroon, the two-time defending champions, were in decline and lost the quarter-final 2-1 to Nigeria despite taking the lead. As we left the stadium that day, we caught sight of the Cameroon fan club, but the colours looked off. 

That’s because the kits and flags were now Nigerian kits and flags. 

It’s the Nations Cup, really. Capricious. Interesting. And for all sorts of reasons, utterly unique and brilliantly breathless entertainment. 

Andy Bodfish @AndyBodfish 

The Africa Cup of Nations begins on Friday June 21 and runs through to July 12. It can be watched live and exclusive on Eurosport and Eurosport Player.

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