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Auth. n.197 by the Court of Milan on 25th June 2015
AFCON 1957, WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
The Africa Cup of Nations is going to celebrate its 60 years.
Based on the model of the Copa América in South America, the first edition took place in February 1957 and was originally named after the very first president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the Egyptian engineer Abdelaziz Abdallah Salem.
The competition immediately had a political impact, as South Africa were excluded from the tournament.
The segregationists had won the general elections in 1948, their policy soon turning into the sadly famous apartheid regime, and the CAF had warned the government that no squad formed only according to racial and political criteria would never be accepted. The stiffness from South Africa, who informed that they would not change opinion, resulted in the exclusion of the national football team from the Africa Cup of Nations. The suspension lasted almost 40 years and sounded as a strong signal at a very high level, since South Africa hadn’t been excluded from any other major sporting event, like the Olympic Games.
At the end, only three teams remained to enter the first Africa Cup of Nations.
However, that “year zero” has gone down into posterity: since then, other 29 editions – which increase to 30 if we include Gabon 2017 – have been staged every couple of years so far. The organisers faced a severe problem, though. Egypt had been assigned the task to host the competition, but the Suez crisis had forced football leagues to stop. The stadiums used by Al-Ahly and Zamalek, the country’s most popular clubs, had even become field hospitals.
Once the emergency was over, Egypt and Sudan finally played the opening game on 10 February 1957 in Khartoum, rather than in Cairo. Actually, that match served as a semi-final.
The other one did not take place because of the exclusion of South Africa, meaning that Ethiopia, whose delegation had been instrumental in such a measure, were given a bye to the final. 30,000 fans packed into the Khartoum municipal stadium, but it wasn’t time for folklore, dances and chants yet. They stood “neatly arranged, closed ranks”, as sports journalist David Goldblatt wrote, like the military band who stood along the touchline. 21 minutes into the first half Egyptian midfielder Raafat Ateya scored the first goal as well as the first penalty in the history of the Africa Cup of Nations. Sudan equalised courtesy of Boraî Bashir, but striker Mohamed Diab Al-Attar made the Pharaohs’ descendants take the definitive lead.
Almost one week later, Al-Attar himself left his name on the final’s box score as he netted all four goals that enabled Egypt to trounce Ethiopia and lift the cup named after their football federation’s president.
Ad-Diba, as he was nicknamed, set a record that would remain unbroken until 1970, when Ivory Coast forward Laurent Pokou scored five against Ethiopia themselves exactly in the same stadium in Khartoum. Still, no other footballer has ever managed to strike four times in an African Cup of Nations final. Egypt eventually certified their supremacy as they played – and won – a friendly against the Italian second national team in Pescara in May 1957.
In spite of such a hard beginning, the competition proved that sports often anticipate the time of politics. A few months after that brief tournament in Khartoum, decolonisation penetrated the forests in Central Africa and helped 35 states to gain their independence, leading to a gradual rise in the number of participants in the tournament.
Still, this process was complicated and marked by hindrances. Whilst Asia and Arab countries got rid of European invaders, Africa ingenuously nurtured the dream of enfranchisement through football. Only four federations representing as many independent countries – Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa and Sudan – participated in the extraordinary FIFA Congress in Paris in 1953. Among skirmishes between South American and European delegations, it authorised the formation of continental confederations and recognised Africa the right to be represented within the executive committee. Nevertheless, Argentina and other European countries rebuffed the decision – they claimed that the Africans played a lower football and therefore lacked the credentials to sit around that table. The four delegates from the dark continent found an unexpected ally in former colonial powerhouse England, which had rejoined in the immediate postwar period, and were also supported by anti-imperialist Soviet countries. In the end, Africa got 24 votes in its favour against 17 dissenting ones and finally stepped into the control room with the aforementioned Abdelaziz Abdallah Salem as its representative.
However, no institution that could get national football associations together and organise competitions in the region had been established yet.
Consequently, the proposal for an African confederation was included in the agenda of the 1956 FIFA Congress in Lisbon, where the delegates from Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa and Sudan also suggested to create a competition for national teams. A few months later, both proposals saw the light of the day – the CAF constitutive assembly took place in Khartoum on 8 February 1957, just two days before the Sudan capital hosted the first ever match of the Africa Cup of Nations.
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