What is the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON)?

The Africa Cup of Nations Cup (AFCON) was first held in 1957. And, whilst the continent contains fifty-eight of the world’s countries, only three of these, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia took part in the first tournament. Over the last six decades the numbers have swelled. There are now 52 countries involved in the qualifiers leaving 24 countries left to play in the main competition. 

The tournament is organised by the Confêdération Africaine de Football (CAF), one of the six world-wide FIFA confederations. The cup has been held 33 times since its inception. Dates for competitions were arbitrarily organised in its first years but it is currently a bi-annual event that is held in odd-numbered years to prevent a clash with The FIFA World Cup.

Despite starting with a small number of competing sides, the Africa Cup of Nations is now a respected and revered tournament that provides fans on the African continent, and around the world, with the opportunity to see football that thrills, inspires and ethuses. 

Evolution of AFCON 

The first ever tournament saw Sudan lift the winning trophy after beating Ethiopia 4-0 in the final. In 1968, when the tournament was formalised as a biannual event, five more teams took part. 

In the next decade the Africa Cup was won by six countries, five of those for the first time. By 1992, those competing increased even further to twelve and in 1996, this rose to 16. Now, once the qualifiers have been played out, there are 24 remaining and it has been this way since 2019. 

In 2017 AFCON was moved from the months of June and July to January and February. The tournament takes place in January and February for various reasons. Africa experiences a more temperate climate at this time which reduces the health impacts associated with the extreme heat. Playing at this time of the year eliminates the possibility of games being played during the season where other weather events may cause challenges. 

Some of the European domestic leagues take a mid-season break during these months. African nationals taking part in AFCON can participate with less disruption to their commitments to their domestic teams – though obviously, not all clubs remain unaffected and there can be scheduling clashes. 

The tournament has seen episodes of pure footballing brilliance over years. Footballing legends such as Samuel Eto’o, Laurent Poko, Mohamed Salah and Didier Drogba all graced the field of play. For this reason it has generated ever accumulating audiences, and in 2019 this reached more than 800 million. 

The tournament that started off inaudibly is now roaring around the globe.

Format and Participants 

Presently, there are 54 teams who are eligible to play in the AFCON tournament. This is because they are members of FIFA’s Confederation for African Football. 

Games are played to qualify for the cup in the calendar year before the actual tournament itself. So, the qualifiers for the tournament played in 2024 took place in 2023, this explains why the next tournament is called AFCON 2023 when it starts in January 2024. 

The 24 teams that qualify are placed into six groups with four teams per group. Those that finish in the top two of each group progress to the next round. Four best-ranked third place teams also progress. The final 16 move forward to the knockout rounds. 

A round of 16 follows, with quarter-finals, semi-finals and the AFCON final. 

AFCON has become a huge global success and because of this the prize pot has risen to meet the prestige of the tournament. It now stands at $14.8 million, with the winning team set to take home $7million. This prize is up 40% on the previous tournament. 

CAF claim this is down to their own success as a confederation and they want to distribute wealth where they can in order to develop the game and support nations with their own progress in football. 

CAF is a dynamic body that has pledged to raise the profile of African football. And it’s fair to say it’s doing that. Evidence can be seen in global viewing figures and the increase in prize funds. CAF has a clear agenda to raise the bar and it’s doing it well. 

AFCON is now a global event, followed by football fans on every continent. Whilst the rest of the world follow the tournament avidly, the African nations follow it with a burgeoning sense of pride and celebration. It is a tournament the African people are fiercely proud of. 

AFCON brings nationals from each of the participating countries together. Shared pride and sporting passion unites fans around the continent. 93% of the 1.4 billion African nationals are football fans and this competition brings people together in celebration of the footballing genius that can be seen during the tournament. 

Over the years Egypt have proved themselves the most successful team in the competition. In total they have raised the cup seven times with a successive three wins between 2006 and 2010. 

Runners up are Cameroon, with five wins. Most recent winners are Senegal, it was also their first tournament win after they beat Egypt on penalties in the 2021 tournament. 

Significance and Impact 

Both socially and culturally, AFCON can consider itself influential in addressing prevalent issues on the continent.

This influence has been noticeable since 1957 when AFCON made a stand against the South African apartheid regime. When the country insisted only white players would make the national side, they were banned from the competition. In 1987, they were served a second ban which lasted for ten years and were only allowed to re-enter after the end of apartheid. 

In a similar way, who and what AFCON chooses as sponsors for their tournaments is significant. Selecting and promoting humanitarian charities to act as sponsors have promoted humanitarian, animal welfare and issues with human poverty. 

AFCON also brings in huge revenues which in turn are used to create modern infrastructure and filter in economic boosts to the countries fortunate enough to host the competition. The tournaments in 2015, 2017 and 2019 brought in an estimated $83 million for the host countries Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Egypt. 

There are still some hurdles to overcome. Issues with corruption have created stumbling blocks for AFCON’s image. And, pressures that come from the dominance of European football have caused challenges to the tournament over the last years with debates about the tournament schedule and players being released. 

The importance of the tournament has unfortunately been questioned in the past, but this is rarely the case with the tournament a fixture in the football calendar. Players are released from their clubs for the tournament and it is televised worldwide with the games now broadcast live around the world. Fans now wait to watch players like Mohamed Salah who plays for Liverpool in the Premier League, Nicolas Pépé, Victor Osimhen who plays for Napoli in Serie A and Youseef En-Nesrri who plays for Sevilla in La Liga.

However, CAF and the passionate footballing fans are not sitting back, their continued mission is to make African football the best in the world, and they’re not intent on stopping until it is. 

AFCON is a tournament with a long and rich history – it has showcased the footballing brilliance of Yaya Touré, Roger Milla, George Milla and Ahmed Hassan. 

Fans have been left on the edge of their seats, perhaps even jumping up and down on it as hat tricks, rainbow kicks and boxes of tricks have been unleashed. The world is waiting to see what unfolds at future tournaments with baited breath. And the Confederation for African Football will wait for nothing as they pursue world domination in the game of billions. It’s all to play for and the world is waiting. 

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