African Cup of Nations, also called Africa Cup of Nations and African Nations Cup, the most prestigious football (soccer) competition in Africa. It is contested by national teams and is organized by the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF). The competition’s format has changed over time, with the number of teams increasing from 3 in 1957 to 16 in 1996. Growing participation also led to the introduction of qualifying rounds in 1968, the same year that CAF decided to hold the tournament biennially.
The African Cup of Nations was first held in February 1957 in Khartoum, Sudan, where Egypt defeated the host nation in the final to win the Abdel Aziz Abdallah Salem Trophy, named after its donor, an Egyptian who was the first CAF president. That trophy was permanently awarded to Ghana in 1978 when it became the first country to win the tournament three times. The next trophy, known as the African Unity Cup, was awarded permanently to Cameroon in 2000 when that team claimed its third championship since 1978. In 2002 a new trophy called the Cup of Nations was introduced.
The competition has served as a showcase for the talents of African players. In the 1950s and ’60s the tournament’s attacking, entertaining style of play seized the imagination of African fans and attracted European talent scouts, agents, and journalists. Under the leadership of Ethiopian Ydnekachew Tessema, CAF president from 1972 until his death in 1987, the cup earned greater international prestige. Professionalism was allowed in 1980 and corporate sponsorships accepted in 1984. Among the cup’s greatest performers are Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon, who holds the record for most career goals scored in the Cup of Nations (18), and Ivorian striker Laurent Pokou, who tallied five goals in a 6–1 victory over Ethiopia in 1970.
Beyond the boundaries of the playing fields, the Cup of Nations has been a conduit for the articulation of political values and ideas. Having inherited colonial institutions devoid of indigenous symbols of national identity, many independent African governments invested considerable economic and political capital into national football teams in order to elicit pride and build unity among their diverse populations. For example, with the enthusiastic support of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana won the cup in 1963 and 1965. In winning the 1996 tournament at home, South Africa’s racially mixed team seemed to symbolize football’s power to bridge the gaping social and economic inequalities left by apartheid. In contrast, the Algerian government was unable to capitalize on Algeria’s victory in the 1990 Cup of Nations, as fans celebrated the team’s triumph in Algiers by chanting their support for the opposition Islamic Salvation Front. Political tensions violently disrupted the Cup of Nations in 2010: the Togo team bus was attacked by separatist gunmen as it traveled into the Angolan exclave of Cabinda on its way to the tournament; two team officials and the bus driver were killed in the attack, and the Togolese team withdrew from the 2010 Cup of Nations, which was held with 15-team field.
*Finals held in even-numbered years 1968–2012;