Thursday, January 19, 2012
How it began in Africa
In 1957, the inaugural African Nations Cup was held as the continent looked to press its claims for international recognition. With war and apartheid causing sizeable barriers to its success, only three teams took part in Sudan, with Egypt claiming the title - the first of many in a competition that went on to capture Africa's imagination in the following years.
The origins of African football are often hard to trace, with official records lost, destroyed by fire or never created in the first place, and many of the people involved at the time long since dead. But, in the period between the two World Wars, the French territories of the north made a statement of intent by beginning a club competition which was called the North African Cup.
France's 1958 World Cup hero Just Fontaine was born in Marrakech and began his career playing for USM Casablanca before relocating to the French top flight. He was left in no doubt as to the importance of the continent's early attempts: "The North African Cup was a competition which united all the clubs of North Africa," he revealed in an interview in 2001. "There was Algeria, Tunisia, Oran, Constantine and Morocco. This competition woke us all up."
The popularity of the game in the north of Africa made it the perfect base for those wishing to organise it further on an international level and, after the Second World War, nationalistic calls saw four nations (Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and South Africa) travel to the 1953 FIFA Congress to push for separate representation on FIFA's executive committee for their continent.
Until then, FIFA's European majority was able to rebuff such attempts with what historian David Goldblatt calls "barely disguised and contemptuous racism" and, in 1954, Hungary's 12-0 defeat of Egypt damaged African football's reputation even further. Africa could not be ignored for long though and, backed by powers from Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe and some anti-European allies in South America, they were starting to gain the recognition they deserved.
FIFA gave Africa the right to appoint its first representative to the FIFA Executive Committee - General Abdelaziz Salem of Egypt - and, in Lisbon in 1956, they were given the chance to set up their own continental organisation: the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
CAF's official history reveals: "Following the Congress, the four nations resolved to convene again in Khartoum in February 1957 to draft statutes and to discuss staging the first Africa Cup of Nations. CAF's constitutional act was signed in Khartoum, Sudan on 8 June 1957 and Abdallah Salem was named the Confederation's first president."
Egypt had been discussed as a possible host for the tournament, but there were problems. "The Suez crisis and the war of 1956 made Egypt an unfeasible location," Goldblatt explains. "Football stopped when the war started and both Al-Ahly and Zamalek offered their stadiums to the authorities as impromptu field hospitals and marshalling yards."
South Africa, too, posed their own issues. The newly-constructed apartheid regime that had arrived in 1948 had taken root and, with a new set of legislation governing their country, South Africa stated that they would be able to send a white team, or a black team, but not one that was mixed. For countries who had only just emerged themselves from the toil of colonialism, this stance was indefensible. CAF expelled the South Africans from the tournament, also suspending them from the organisation - later they would be thrown out of FIFA in 1961.
But Africa's dream of hosting its own international tournament was not dead and Sudan came to the rescue by offering up Khartoum as an alternative venue. So, with no qualifying competition and only three teams involved, the first African Nations Cup began on February 10, 1957 with a 2-1 win for Egypt to knock out the hosts.
"The beginning. Africa's first continental tournament, the first game, the first goal, the first penalty, for Egypt on 21 minutes [scored by Raafat Ateya]," writes Goldblatt. "Sudan equalise [through Seddik Manzul in the 58th minute], but Egypt's [Mohamed] Ad-Diba finds a winner in the second-half. A scrap of film; a general bedecked in braid inspects a military band on the touchline. There, you have the record."
With Ethiopia afforded a bye thanks to South Africa's expulsion, the final was set and was played at Sudan's Stade Municipal stadium six days later. Some grainy celluloid film exists showing the "low grey bowl of Khartoum stadium white with the cloaks and headdresses of 30,000 Sudanese. Neatly arranged, closely ranked, cross-legged up to the touchline, they stand in straight lines and tidy curves on the terracing." Although with their side out, it was not a moment for the home fans to revel in as Egpyt won 4-0.
The hero on the day was the hero from the semi-final: Ad-Diba. His four goals included one that "spun up from the edge of the penalty area in a high slow loop& It suddenly falls, perfectly, untouchably and fractionally inside the angle of crossbar and post." Ad-Diba's performance remains the best in a final to this date and Egypt, after all their domestic problems, lifted the first African Nations Cup trophy. The competition ended almost before it began, after two games, but it was hailed as a great success.
"Those were unforgettable matches," Ad-Diba said in an interview in 2001. "The success of this championship and its popularity amongst the Sudanese encouraged the African federation to organise a tournament on a biennial basis and to be played in a different country each time."
With a new force emerging on the international scene, CAF's official history summed up the first competition thus: "It would prove to be the start of an exhilarating adventure and one that is still continuing today with countless unforgettable moments along the way to help define the characteristics and traits associated with African football."
What happened next? Two years later, Egypt (then known as the United Arab Republic, a short-lived confederation between Egypt and Syria) hosted the second African Nations Cup in Cairo with the participation of these same three teams. The hosts and defending champions repeated as cup winners, this time downing Sudan 2-1 with a double from Essam Baheeg. The competition was strengthened over the next years with the growing number of independent African nations willing to take part. Indeed, the introduction of a qualifying round in the next edition in 1962 saw the competition expand to nine teams and, ironically, the first time that there were 16 teams (as there are now) came in 1996 when South Africa returned two years after apartheid had ended to save CAF by hosting the tournament after Kenya withdrew.