25 January 2013

Africa: Afcon Unites Africa

THE biannual Africa Cup of Nations underway in South Africa, is by a mile Africa's biggest sporting showpiece since the inaugural tournament was held in 1957 with only three participating nations - Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

Current hosts and founding member South Africa were disqualified because of its apartheid policies but since then, the tournament has grown tremendously and the number of participants in the soccer extravaganza has since grown to 16.

Apartheid South Africa's insistence on selecting only white players for its squad as a result of its myopic racist policies led to its grounding.

As it stands, Egypt is the most successful nation in the history of AFCON, with a record seven titles (including when Egypt was known as the United Arab Republic between 1958 and 1971). Ghana and Cameroon have won four titles each. It has since been decided that as of this year, the biannual tourney will now be held in odd-numbered years so that it does not conflict with the FIFA World Cup.

In 1963, debutants and hosts Ghana won back-to-back titles on home soil and two years later in Tunisia.

Ivorian striker Laurent Pokou, who led the 1968 and 1970 tournaments with 6 and 8 goals respectively totalling 14 goals, was the all-time record holder until 2008.

The return of South Africa

South Africa hosted the 20th AFCON competition in 1996, marking their first ever appearance after a decades-long ban was lifted with the end of apartheid preceded by a failed attempt to qualify in 1994.

The number of final round participants in 1996 was expanded to the current 16, split into four groups. However, the actual number of teams playing in the final was only 15 as Nigeria withdrew from the tournament for political reasons, sparked by Nelson Mandela's condemnation of the senseless hanging of political activist Ken Saro Wiwa.

Bafana Bafana then won their first title on home soil, defeating Tunisia 2-0 in the final in the 15-nation tournament.

Bafana Bafana would reach the final again two years later in Burkina Faso, but were unable to defend their title, losing to Egypt who claimed their 4th continental title.

The Pharoahs set a new record in the 2010 tournament hosted by Angola by winning their 3rd consecutive title in an unprecedented achievement on African level after defeating Ghana 1-0 in the final, extending their record to seven continental titles.

Ahead of the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, several European clubs called for a rethink of the tournament's schedule. As it takes place during the European season, players who are involved miss several matches for their clubs.

It was subsequently announced that the tournament would be moved to odd-numbered years from this year, which means it will not take place in the same year as the World Cup.

There is just no getting away from the fact that the beautiful game of football has the potential to unintentionally solve conflicts among divided nations across the world, particularly the conflict-riddled African continent.

And while the majority of the pre-tournament favourites are firing blanks with goals very hard to come by after seven days of action - tournament debutants Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have certainly raised their hands and if their near faultless performances in the opening group matches is anything to go by - football followers across the continent can ready themselves for a football spectacle.

Gone are the days when continental powerhouses such as Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, Zambia, Ivory Coast and to a lesser extent the 2013 hosts South Africa would just pitch up to book their places in the knockout stages of the continental showpiece.

As opposed to the historical 2010 FIFA World Cup finals hosted on the African continent for the first time - Africa's biggest sporting event, the 29th edition of AFCON, started wobbly with empty stadiums greeting participating nations with the exception of the opening two matches involving the host nation.

To rub salt into the wound, the opening matches failed to produce goals with a significant chunk ending in goalless stalemates. For Mali, the competition started off well with former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita showing flashes of individual brilliance as he single-handedly steered the Eagles to a well-deserved 1-0 win over Niger in their opening match of the 16-nation tournament.

Star-studded Nigeria's Super Eagles were brought down heavily to Mother Earth when they squandered a 1-goal cushion to share the spoils with fellow West African entrants Burkina Faso.

Reigning African champions Zambia could only muster an uninspiring 1-all draw against continental minnows Ethiopia in a match that was certainly there for the taking, after Ethiopia lost their goalkeeper to a red card early in the first half.

Results aside, the heart throbbing reality of the African spectacle is the large contingent of travelling supporters - some of them selling their valuables just to witness Africa's biggest showpiece in human flesh. After all, that's what the beautiful game of football is all about - uniting people of different backgrounds, political views and cultures.

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