Vibrant off the pitch but a low-scoring affair so far on it, this year’s Africa Cup of Nations also offers a window to the tournament’s beginnings.
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan contested the first-ever Nations Cup in 1957, and this is the first time in 52 years that the competition’s three initial contenders have all been present at the same tournament.
„The return of all three teams in one tournament does give a sense of pride and deep-rooted tradition of the competition,“ sports journalist Baderldin Bakheit said.
The trio have all lifted the coveted trophy, but while maiden champions Egypt have gone on to become record seven-times winners, Ethiopia and Sudan have just one title each to their name.
The east Africans have fallen behind since their heyday in the 1960s and 70s despite the immense popularity of the sport in both countries and, arguably, an abundance of talent.
There are parallels in the history of the game in Ethiopia and Sudan, the neighbours who remain the only two teams from east Africa to have won the Nations Cup.
Despite being pioneers, both those victories were on home soil. Ethiopia were absent from Afcon for 31 years before making a comeback in 2013 and Sudan returned in 2008 after 32 years away.
„Political and economic challenges have played a role in holding back Sudan and Ethiopia,“ explained professor Peter Alegi of Michigan State University, the author of ‚African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game‘.
„But recently they seem to be making positive strides and doing so at a propitious time with the expansion of Afcon and the World Cup finals from 2026.“
The consequences of prolonged civil wars, political instability, economic downturns and natural disasters in both countries eventually impacted the development and progress of the game.
Widespread pride in past achievements, nevertheless, has served as both a nagging reminder and an incentive to the possibilities in both countries over generations.
Ethiopia’s chances of reaching the knock-out stages in Cameroon have been hit by defeats in their opening two games, but Sudan have hopes of a place in the last 16 after a draw against Guinea-Bissau in their opener while Egypt must bounce back from a loss to Nigeria.
The birth of the Nations Cup
In 1956, officials from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, along with a representative from South Africa, met during world governing body Fifa’s general congress in Portugal to establish an African continental competition.
The first Nations Cup took place in February 1957 in the Sudanese capital Khartoum and, after the South African federation refused to send a multi-racial team and were disinvited, Egypt – who ousted Sudan in the semi-final – beat Ethiopia 2-1 in the inaugural final.
But Ethiopia’s Walias avenged their loss at the third Afcon in 1962 by beating Egypt (then known as the United Arab Republic) 4-2 in the final on home soil.
Captain Luciano Vassallo – among players originally from now independent Eritrea – received the cup from Emperor Haile Selassie, on the first of three occasions Ethiopia hosted the tournament.
„Ethiopia is famous for athletics but the most beloved sport in Ethiopia is football,“ Seid Kiar, an analyst for Super Sports in Addis Ababa, said.
The first two tournaments were three-team events before participants increased gradually over time, and Kiar believes it is important to reflect critically on past glory.
„We are proud and respectful of the players, the coaches, the history makers,“ he said. „[But] many African countries were still colonised, like Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Tunisia. Their national teams were not there.“
Domestic policies hamper Sudan
Sudan won its sole Nations Cup title in 1970 in Khartoum, with a golden generation that included the likes of Ali Gagarin and Nasr Eddin Abbas – known as Jaksa – beating Ghana 1-0 in the final.
Sudan came close to qualifying for that year’s Word Cup in Mexico and two years later the side reached the Munich Olympics in 1972 where the team performed relatively well, but the years that followed saw the decline of the Secretary Birds.
„At the time there was stability that helped the state develop football but political instability and economic difficulties made the state pay attention to other issues,“ Jaksa, now 77, said.
Several governmental policies left their imprint, including the 1976 al-Riyadha al-Jamahiriya or „sports for the masses“ policy of former dictator Jaafar Nimeiri in which he suspended the national league and reduced football to local competitions.
In response, top Sudanese players departed to neighbouring countries and leagues, especially in the Arabian Gulf. The policy was abandoned nearly a year later, but the damage was done.
„There was a generational disconnect that Sudan never recovered from,“ Bakheit, of kooora.com, said.
There are other factors to consider as well, like the failure of east African players and coaches to adapt when the game became more physical and tactical – making it difficult to compete with West and North African sides.
„If we can change our style from physical to mental, we are good with possession, short passes, technical skill,“ Kiar said.
Off-field organisation required
Improved management of the game and long-term strategies, like Spain’s implementation of a passing style or Germany’s restructuring of youth football programs following poor results at the European Championship in 2000 provide a model to follow.
„It’s not just about having resources or getting good players but properly managing and planning,“ Hassan el Mistikawi of Modern Sport said.
The veteran sports journalist still believes Egypt has room to improve, given that they have qualified for just three World Cups despite their Afcon record and three consecutive triumphs from 2006 to 2010.
Another factor Bakheit points to is the dominance of big clubs in Sudan, which impacts the development of other sides. Al-Hilal and Al-Marriek do relatively well in continental competition but their support from wealthy backers hinders competition.
West and North African sides also benefit from their players‘ exposure to top European clubs and leagues, while Ethiopia and Sudan have largely domestic-based squads in Cameroon this month.
„The players bring back their experiences to their home national teams,“ el Mistakawi said.
Ethiopia and Sudan are far from Nations Cup contenders but their fans have hopes they can impress despite the same political challenges, with an ongoing conflict in Ethiopia and October’s military coup in Sudan.
Kiar believes Ethiopians are keen to display their passing game on the 60th anniversary of their continental triumph while for Bakheit it is a matter of Sudan rebuilding after a disappointing Arab Cup performance which saw them fire coach Hubert Velud and overhaul their squad.
If both sides are to continue their trajectory and feature in the Ivory Coast in 18 months‘ time, then better structures need to be put in place to help capitalise on qualification for Cameroon.