The continent’s top nations will gather in Gabon from January 14 for the 31st edition of the African Nations Cup, with each hoping to lift one of the oldest national team trophies in world football.
It is a tournament steeped in folklore, often played in difficult conditions, with unlikely heroes and massive upsets.
The Nations Cup was first staged in 1957 and is actually older than its counterpart in Europe, the European Championship, which only began three years later.
The first tournament saw just three teams compete – hosts Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia – after South Africa, originally scheduled to play, were expelled from the newly-formed Confederation of African Football (CAF) due to their Apartheid practices. They would not play for another almost 40 years.
Egypt were the inaugural champions that year, the first of their record seven titles, which puts them comfortably ahead of Ghana and Cameroon, who have four titles to their name.
The Pharaohs have also been the most dominant side of recent times, winning three tournaments in a row between 2006 and 2010, but then failing to qualify until they make a return in Gabon in 2017 after much upheaval in their domestic football caused by the Arab Spring.
The Egyptians were also champions in 1959, before hosts Ethiopia won their one and only title in 1962 as the tournament switched to being played in ‘even’ years, something which CAF would reverse some 50 years later for the 2013 finals staged in South Africa.
By 1962 the field had grown to eight teams and Ghana embarked on a period of dominance as they won four of the next 10 tournaments. But their last win came in 1982, meaning they have had a 35-year wait for their next title that they hope will be ended in Libreville on February 5, having also been losing finalists in 1992, 2010 and 2015.
Sudan claimed their one and only trophy win in 1970, while Congo-Brazzaville did likewise in 1972. Neighbours DR Congo, who also previously went by the name of Zaire, had success in 1968 and 1974.
Nigeria won their first of three titles in 1980 before repeating the triumph in 1994 and then again with a surprising win in 2013 as their young side, led by the late Stephen Keshi, defied expectations to go all the way.
Cameroon’s rise to power on the continent came in the 1980s when they won the Nations Cup in 1984 and 1988, before another two further successes in 2000 and 2002.
Cote d’Ivoire’s have had some recent heartache, but also the sweet taste of victory and go into the Gabon tournament as holders after winning two years ago in Equatorial Guinea to go with a 1992 triumph.
But their Golden Generation that contained the likes of Didier Drogba, Boubacar Barry, Kolo Toure and Didier Zakora were also losing finalists in 2006 and 2012, never quite managing to reach their full potential.
The Ivorians’ victory 25 years ago over Ghana was among the more remarkable finals played, despite it finishing 0-0 in Senegal. The game went to post-match penalties and amid unbelievable tension, The Elephants triumphed 11-10 in the shoot-out.
They were beaten on penalties by Zambia five years ago in what was perhaps the biggest shock final defeat. Zambia’s victorious coach in that decider was Herve Renard, who would go on to lead the Ivorians to the title in 2015.
Other winners of the trophy are Morocco (1976), Algeria (1990), South Africa (1996) and Tunisia (2004), making it a fairly exclusive group of just 14 countries to have won the title in the previous 30 installments of the competition.
AFRICAN NATIONS CUP PAST WINNERS
1968 DR Congo
1992 Ivory Coast
1996 South Africa
2015 Ivory Coast
AFRICAN NATIONS CUP WINS BY COUNTRY
7 – Egypt
4 – Cameroon, Ghana
3 – Nigeria
2 – DR Congo (including Zaire), Ivory Coast
1 – Algeria, Congo-Brazzaville, Ethiopia, Morocco, South Africa, Sudan, Tunisia, Zambia