Jewels of The Nile: The Birth of The Africa Cup of Nations

The 2019 African Cup of Nations takes place in Egypt from 21 June to 19 July, featuring 24 teams for the first time in history. The Cult of Calcio is ready to follow the event in its “Jewels of The Nile” column, with contributions from local football fans and journalists.
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Did you know that the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations will be the 32nd edition of the tournament? Do you know how and when it all started? If the answer is no, then you are in the right place. So let’s dive back into history and have look at how the idea of a continental tournament for African countries came to life, 62 years ago.

The 1953 FIFA Extraordinary Congress

It all started when FIFA held their Extraordinary Congresses in 1953 in Paris. Back in the days, most congress members seemed to be against the idea of creating an African continental federation and consequently recognizing Africa’s rights in the Executive Committee.

Argentina and many other European countries refused to give their green light, believing African and Asian football to be of a lower level compared to the older powerhouses, and therefore with no right to sit at their same table.

This unjust representation of Africa was also unexpectedly supported by colonial power Great Britain, which had joined FIFA only after World War II, and the Soviet Union. However, the Congress went down to history as the one where, with 24 votes in favor and 17 against, Abdelaziz Salem of the Egyptian Federation was elected to the Executive Committee of FIFA.

Salem was born in 1895 in Sharkyah, on the Delta of the Nile in Britain-ruled Egypt. A graduate in agriculture engineering, he finished his studies in the United Kingdom, and eventually came back to Egypt in 1952 to become a Minister and eventually the head figure of the Egyptian Football Federation.

The 29th FIFA Congress

The CAF – Confederation of African Football – began its formation during the 29th FIFA Congress held in Bern, Switzerland in 1954. Africa was represented by four national associations: Egypt, which had joined FIFA in 1923, Sudan (affiliated in 1948), Ethiopia (1953) and South Africa, which joined in 1910 and was eventually readmitted in 1952. This was the Congress where Africa was recognized as a zonal group for the first time, and the first with a local representative as part of the FIFA Executive Committee.

The 30th FIFA Congress

The following Congress, hosted by Lisbon on June 7, 1956, was not short of action either. During the 30th FIFA Congress, a side event to discuss the future organization of African football was held, with the participation of African representatives Abdelaziz Salem and Mohamed Latif (both Egyptian), Abdelhalim Shadad, Badwai Mohamed and Abdelhalim Mohamed from Sudan, and Fred Fell from South Africa. No representative from Ethiopia could join due to lack of funds.

To that date, there was no official confederation to qualify any African selection for the World Cup, FIFA’s most important tournament. Egypt had received an invitation to join the first edition in 1930, but they refused. They would eventually participate four years later, becoming the first and till then only African nation to have played in the major football competition.

South Africa had been having a local federation since 1892. They joined FIFA in 1910, withdrew and eventually rejoined in 1952. Sudan’s and Ethiopia’s federations were younger, having been established in 1936 and 1943 respectively.

Egypt had played into the World Cup Qualifiers in 1950 and 1954, mostly paired with European or Asian teams. But the increase in the number of federations suggested the idea that there needed to be an African confederation to take care of the local football affairs, organizing an autonomous qualification tournament for the World Cup, and possibly even a continental a cup of nations – inspired by the success of the South American CONMEBOL, which was already up and running since 40 years.

The Birth of the CAF and the African Cup of Nations

Just eight months later, the Constitutional Assembly of the Confederation of African Football took place at the Grand Hotel in Khartoum, Sudan. It was February 8, 1957.

Abdelaziz Salem was elected President of the Confederation, whereas the other attendees nominated members of the Executive Committee.

The first matter discussed was the creation of an Africa Cup of Nations, involving all the four countries – Egypt, Sudan, South Africa, and Ethiopia. The first edition was to be held in Sudan to celebrate their independence. South Africa were eventually disqualified because its government’s apartheid policy forbade its federation from sending a multiracial team – something that was not accepted by the other participants.

The first edition of the AFCON thus ended up being contended by three teams only. Ethiopia won a bye to the Final, and waited for the outcome of the opening match between Egypt and Sudan.

The Egyptians defeated their Southern neighbors 2-1. From the penalty spot, Refa’at Atia scored the first official goal of the competition in the 21st minute. Mohamed El-Attar, nicknamed Ad-Diba, eventually rounded up for his side.

Ad-Diba El-Attar also put his stamp on the Final, scoring a sensational haul to lead his side to a 4-0 win over Ethiopia, thus becoming the first Africa Cup top scorer. Egypt were the first to lift the “Abdelaziz Salem Trophy,” as the cup was named in honor of their fellow countryman, the first Confederation President.

The rest is just history. The Confederation of African Football grew from 4 to 56 member associations, and since June 21, 24 of them will battle to conquer once again that trophy that started as a crazy Egyptian idea, more than 60 years ago, among the skepticism of most of the football establishment.

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