The 30th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), which kicks off on January 17, is here – a tournament that almost didn’t happen because of the deadly Ebola virus.
Morocco refused to play host, after asking for a postponement that Caf refused to grant, even though they were more than willing for the Club World Cup to come to their shores. Caf retaliated by banning Morocco for the next two Afcon editions. Equatorial Guinea rescued the continent when they put up their hand to host the tournament in a short space of time.
The port city of Bata will host the opening matches of the tournament when Equatorial Guinea face Congo while Burkina Faso will take on Gabon in Group A’s double-header. There are a number of memorable moments that have come from the continental showpiece, Njabulo Ngidi picks his five.
1: Zambia winning the Afcon in Gabon
Chipolopolo’s success – beating a star-studded Ivory Coast 8-7 on penalties, after the final ended goalless – was written in the stars by the romantic football gods. The victory went some distance in healing a 19-year-old wound, at the time, turning Libreville from a venue of their worst sporting tragedy to that of their finest footballing moment.
April 27, 1993, was a dark day for African football. A promising Chipolopolo side’s story was brought to an abrupt end when the Zambian Air Force Buffalo DHC-5D – carrying 18 players, four technical team members, five crew members and three other occupants – crashed 2km offshore from Gabon after making their second refueling stop in the country.
The outfit was en route to Senegal for their 1994 World Cup qualifier against the Lions of Teranga in Dakar. But they never made it. Kalusha Bwalya – then Chipolopolo captain before he went on to coach the national team and now serving as Zambia’s Football Association president – wasn’t on that ill-fated flight. He had arranged to fly from Netherlands, where he was based with PSV Eindhoven, to Senegal. Instead of flying to Senegal he went to a Zambia in mourning. Chipolopolo regrouped to reach the final of the 1994 Afcon where they lost to Nigeria after being only one point shy from appearing in their first World Cup.
Almost two decades after that terrible evening, Zambia were finally crowned African champions when they defeated the Elephants in Libreville. Bwalya joined his countryman on stage to lift the trophy, a fitting tribute to the generation that lost their lives in Gabon.
2: Mali’s great comeback
Before a ball was kicked, the 2010 Afcon in Angola made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Togolese national team was attacked in Cabinda, two days before the tournament was supposed to kick off. Three people died while nine were injured. Togo withdrew from the tournament and were later disqualified by Caf, who at one point threatened them with a ban. Sanity prevailed and that ban didn’t come.
What did come was a brilliant game in the opening encounter on January 10 in Luanda between hosts Angola and Mali. The Sable Antelopes looked set to give the home crowd a great night. They were 4-0 up with 11 minutes to go thanks to a brace from striker Flavio and penalties from Manucho and Gilberto. As they cruised, coach Manuel Jose substituted Flavio and Gilberto to rest them for the second match with three points in the bag.
But a Seydou Keita-inspired Mali had other ideas. The Barcelona man, who came from the bench in the first half, started the comeback when he scored what looked like a consolation goal in the 79th minute. Two minutes before fulltime Frederic Kanoute made it two. In the four minutes that were added Keita scored again and Mustapha Yatabare delivered the final blow that left Angola dejected while the Malian Eagles soared in one of the greatest comebacks in football history.
3: Cameroon’s vests
The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon flexed their muscles in more way than one in Mali during the 2002 Afcon. They became only the third side to win the tournament four times, along with Egypt – who went on to win it a record seven times – and Ghana. They did so wearing distinctive kit, vests to be specific. The muscular frames of the late Marc Vivien Foe, Patrick M’Boma, Joseph N’Do and Geremi Njitap, to name just a few, were visible for all their opponents to see.
They defeated an exciting Senegalese side 3-2 on penalties after the final ended goalless. The Lions of Teranga went on to stun the world champions France in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup that Japan and South Korea hosted jointly. The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon on the other hand had to stitch sleeves into their vests for their 2002 World Cup appearance. Fifa objected to the kit being used at the global showpiece. The vest kit also coincided with the last time Cameroon would be crowned African champions.
In Equatorial Guinea the four-time African champions have one of the best looking kits in the tournament. Sport apparel group Puma, which also designed the vests, have come up with a work of art for their home jersey. It’s a green strip with a semi-dashiki print. Even if they fail to win the tournament, they have already won in the fashion stakes.
4: Benni in the box
I had just turned five years old when Bafana Bafana won the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil in 1996. My memories of the tournament are non-existent. But two years later, in Burkina Faso, a 20-year-old Benni McCarthy endeared himself to the hearts of millions of South Africans. I was one of those and remember that match vividly. That love affair started two days after Valentine’s Day.
After drawing the first two matches in their group, Bafana Bafana needed a win to advance to the knockout stages in their title defence. McCarthy delivered that win and became only the second player in the Afcon history to score four goals in a match. The first was Egyptian great Ad-Diba who found the back of the net four times in the inaugural Afcon final in 1957. McCarthy finished the tournament mentioned in the same line as another Egyptian great, prolific striker Hossam Hassan, when the duo were picked up front in Caf’s Team-of-the-Tournament.
McCarthy’s performance on February 16 also helped him win the Player-of-the-Tournament award. McCarthy led Bafana Bafana with his goals in the 4-1 win over Namibia. But the team would however fail to defend their title, losing to Egypt in the final.
5: Egypt win a hat-trick of Afcon titles
Egypt are the undisputed Kings of Africa. The Pharaohs have won a record seven Afcon titles while their biggest club Al-Ahly has 19 continental titles. Egypt immortalised themselves in Afcon folklore between 2006 and 2010 when they won the tournament three times in a row, becoming the first nation to do so and stretching their Afcon tally to seven.
In those four years Egypt were invincible. They went a record 19 matches unbeaten in the continental showpiece. During that spell some of the finest players in the continent donned the famous red and white colours of Egypt from Hossam Hassan, Essam El-Hadary, Mohamed Aboutrika, Wael Gomaa, Mohamed Barakat to the inspirational captain Ahmed Hassan.
Their dominance started on home soil in 2006 when they beat Ivory Coast 4-2 in the final on penalties after the match finished goalless. In 2008 in Ghana, it was the Cameroon’s turn to go down to the Pharaohs in the final. Aboutrika was the hero in the 1-0 win. Two years later Angola were the hosts while the Ghanaians were the finalists with Egypt. The Black Stars couldn’t stop Egypt’s steam train, going 1-0 down to Gedo’s goal.
The sad part is that Egypt’s reign wasn’t stopped on the football pitch. But it was the political uprising in the country, which started in January of 2011 that led to the overthrowing of Hosni Mubarak, that destabilised them. They haven’t qualified for the Afcon since then.
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