The 50s and 60s – the early years

You can trace the origins of the African Nations Cup back to June 1956 when the creation of the Confederation of African Football was proposed during the third FIFA congress in Lisbon.

There were immediate plans for a continental nations tournament to be held, and in February 1957, the first African Cup of Nations took place in Khartoum, Sudan.

There was no need for qualification as the competing teams were the four founding nations of CAF (Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa).

South Africa's insistence on selecting only white players for their squad due to that nation's apartheid policy led to its disqualification, and as a consequence Ethiopia were handed a bye straight to the final.

Egypt were crowned as the first continental champions after defeating hosts Sudan in the semi-final and Ethiopia in the final.

Two years later, Egypt hosted the second tournament in Cairo with the same three teams. Hosts and defending champions Egypt won again, this time beating Sudan.
 
Nine teams entered the 1962 tournament held in Addis Ababa. There was a qualification round for the first time to decide which two teams would join hosts Ethiopia and reigning champion Egypt who received automatic places. They were joined by Nigeria and Tunisia. Egypt made their third consecutive final, but it was Ethiopia who emerged as victors, first beating Tunisia and then downing Egypt in extra time.
 
Ghana made their first appearance in 1963 as hosts, and won the title after beating Sudan in the final. They repeated the feat two years later in Tunisia with a squad that included only two members from the 1963 team.
 
By the time the 1968 finals arrived the tournament format was expanded to eight out of the 22 teams entered in the preliminary rounds. The qualifying teams were distributed in two groups of four to play single round-robin tournaments, with the top two teams of each group advancing to semi-finals, a system that remained in use for the finals until 1992. The Democratic Republic of Congo won its first title, beating Ghana in the final.

Ghana reached the final of the 1970 tournament, their fourth final in a row. The 1970 finals were won by the hosts Sudan and were the first finals covered by television. Côte d'Ivoire forward Laurent Pokou led the 1968 and 1970 scoring charts in both tournaments and his total of 14 goals remained the all-time record until 2008.
 
Six different nations won titles from 1970 to 1980: Sudan, Congo-Brazzaville, Zaire, Morocco, Ghana, and Nigeria. Zaire's second title in the 1974 edition (they won their first as the Democratic Republic of Congo) came after facing Zambia in the final.

The 1974 final saw the only replayed final after the first contest between the two sides ended in a 2–2 draw after extra time. The final was re-staged two days later with Zaire winning 2–0. Forward Mulamba Ndaye scored all four of Zaire's goals in these two matches: he was also the top scorer of the tournament with nine goals, setting a single-tournament record that remains unmatched.

Morocco won their first title in the 1976 Ethiopian tournament and Ghana took its third championship in 1978, becoming the first nation to win three titles.

In 1980, Nigeria hosted the event and beat Algeria to capture its first honours.
 
Ghana didn’t have long to wait for a fourth title. In 1982 they bbeat hosts Libya in a penalty shootout in the final.

Cameroon won their first title two years later by beating Nigeria and in the 1986 cup they faced Egypt—absent from the final since 1962—with Egypt winning the title on penalty kicks. Cameroon reached its third consecutive final in the 1988 tournament and won their second championship by repeating their 1984 victory over Nigeria.

In 1990, Nigeria lost once again as they made their third final appearance in four tournaments, this time falling to Algeria.

The finals got bigger in 1992. The Cup of Nations expanded the number of final tournament participants to 12 with the teams divided into four groups of three. The top two teams of each group advanced to the quarter-finals.

Ghanaian midfielder Abedi ‘Pelé’ Ayew, who scored three goals, was named the best player of the tournament after he helped Ghana to their first final in 10 years. He was suspended for the match,a nd Ghana lost to Côte d'Ivoire in a penalty shootout that saw each side make 11 attempts to determine the winner. Côte d'Ivoire set a record for the competition by holding each of their opponents scoreless in the six matches of the final tournament.
 
The 12-team, three-group format was used again two years later, where hosts Tunisia were humiliated by their first round elimination. Nigeria  won the tournament, beating Zambia, who a year before had been struck by disaster when most of their national squad died in a plane crash while traveling to play a 1994 World Cup qualification match.
 
South Africa hosted the 20th ACN competition in 1996, marking their first ever appearance after a decades long ban was lifted with the end of apartheid. They had failed 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 at the final moment for political reasons. Swept on a tidal wave of home emotion, Bafana Bafana won their first title on home soil, defeating Tunisia in the final.
 
The South Africans would reach the final again two years later in Burkina Faso, but were unable to defend their title, losing to Egypt who claimed their fourth cup.
 
The 2000 edition was hosted jointly by Ghana and Nigeria, who replaced original hosts Zimbabwe. Following a 2–2 draw after extra time in the final, Cameroon defeated Nigeria on penalty kicks.

In 2002, Cameroon's Indomitable Lions made it consecutive titles for the first time since Ghana had done it in the 1960s and after Egypt had done it in the 1950s. Again it took penalty kicks, the Cameroonians beat first-time finalists Senegal, who also debuted in the World Cup later that year.

Both finalists were eliminated in quarter finals two years later in Tunisia, where the hosts won their first title, beating Morocco 2–1 in the final.

The 2006 tournament was also won by the hosts, Egypt. The Egyptians won on penalties after a 0-0 draw with Cote d’Ivoire. It was a continental-record fifth title, and one they retained in 2008 in Ghana when they beat Cameroon.

Egypt set a new record in the 2010 tournament hosted by Angola by winning their third consecutive title in an unprecedented African achievement after defeating Ghana 1–0 in the final, retaining the gold-plated cup indefinitely and extending their record to seven continental titles.

In May 2010, it was announced that the tournament would be moved to odd-numbered years from 2013. This will mean the tournament will not take place in the same year as the World Cup. It also meant there would be two tournaments within twelve months in January 2012 (co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea) and January 2013 (hosted by South Africa).
 
Perhaps the tournament’s most poignant champions were crowned in 2012. The final took place in Gabon, scene of the 1993 plane crash that had decimated the Zambian team and it seemed almost pre-ordained that Zambia would be there. They faced a Cote d’Ivoire who were once again favourites. Drogba missed a penalty for the West Africans and with nothing between the two teams after extra time it was Zambia who sealed a popular victory on penalties.

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