On 7 February next year, the kick-off for the 21st African Cup of Nations takes place in Ouagadougou with 16 teams. This competition, which once started with only three teams, looks back on an eventful history.

God created the Sudan, then he started to laugh! It is a proverb that the Sudanese often quote with a touch of humour. The economic difficulties, the political uncertainties and all types of obstacles do not spare this country which stretches over a huge territory, irrigated only by the majestic Nile and its tributaries. It is, however, in this former Anglo-Egyptian protectorate whose independence dates from only 1January 1956, that the first African Cup was organised, the first competition of the newly founded Confederation of African Football(CAF), itself conceived in Lisbon on 9 June 1956 and born in Khartoum on8 February 1957.

Of the four founder members of CAF, in fact, only the Sudan Football Association appeared to be in a position to fulfil such a commitment. Ethiopia still did not have a suitable stadium, Garnal Abdelnasser's Egypt was facing its first test: the Suez war of October 1956.

Revision of Regulations
Mourad Fahmy's selection (he was to be the General Secretary of CAF from1961 to 1982) including in its ranks the Greek-Egyptian goalkeeper Brascos, the playmaker Rifaat Al Fanaguili and the attackers Ala Al Hamuli, Abdelfattah Hamdi, Diab Mohammed Al Attar "Addiba", Raafat Attia and Ibrahim Toafiq outclassed its rival from the Nile (2-1), then Ethiopia (4-0). The A.A. Salem cup went back to Cairo where it was to remain for four years.

The second competition, which was hosted by Cairo from 22 to 29 May1959, saw the scenario repeated, with the same three finalists and the same winner. After Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria,Uganda and Tunisia joined CAF from between 1958 to 1960, the African Cup began anew. Under the impetus of the Ethiopian, Ydnekatchew Tessema, its rules were submitted to a regular revision and the formula of its final phase was adapted to the evolution of African football and to the demands of the modern competition.

Whereas the first competition brought together three competitors, that of 1998, in other words the 21st competition (final phase in Burkina Faso from 7 to 28 February 1998) includes thirty six. The progression, which has never slowed down in the forty years the event has existed, has brought about several transformations to the final tournament: from three teams in 1957, it increased to four (1962), six (1963-1965), eight(1968-1990), twelve (1992-1994) and finally sixteen (since 1996). Since the 20th competition, 32 fixtures have been registered in the programme and the formula corresponds to that of the World Cup from 1958 to 1978.

With the adoption of a "championship of African clubs" project in January 1962, the African Cup then took on the name African Cup of Nations (CAN). The participation of ex-patriot, amateur or professional players provoked debate at the heart of CAF. In 1967, authorisation was given to use a maximum of two expatriate players. And since 1982, there has been no limit. The opening up to footballers who have emigrated has changed the face of the competition and has increased its international credibility.

Born with difficulty at a time when Africa, as a whole, was bent under colonisation, when football was practised in a non-uniform way, the African Cup of Nations has become a symbol. A symbol of the sporting unity of the continent. Has it not, especially since the readmission of South Africa in 1992, united behind the African ball under the banner of CAF whose empire today stretches across fifty two nations? A symbol and also a mirror of the intense life and popularity of football. A symbol too of the liberation of the continent.

Television partnership
History demonstrates this: scarcely had they joined the UN and the OUA(Organisation of African Unity), the young African states affiliated themselves to FIFA and CAF and entered the CAN, the first place where anew and ambitious nationalism can express itself.

A symbol, in short, of Africa's stumbling and eventful march towards progress. What of the trials and contradictions of the development policy of the African countries has it not reflected? From 1957 to 1997,the CAN has had concrete stadiums built in many African capitals and towns. How many heads of state have not skimped on resources in order to welcome the CAN, build new stadiums and form top-level national clubs?

The Cup of Nations has mobilised, moved, upset and plunged entire nations into enthusiasm or sadness. Both national pride, whether uplifted or wounded, and patriotism of a more or less hostile nature have triggered explosions of passion. But, regularly, it is the sporting value which has determined popular reactions, whether or not it results in prestige.

In short, the CAN allows stock to be taken every two years of technical progress in football on the move. Significant progress if you take into account the unique nature of Africa: a huge surface area, numerous natural obstacles, weakness of means of communication in spite of the growth of airlines Progress, however, which is somewhat held back by the unbalanced implantation of sporting infrastructure, the laborious organisation of national competitions, the instability of the national federations, the dependence on foreign companies for the acquisition of sports equipment, the hybrid status of players and the technical and administrative framework and above all the huge exodus of muscle as a result of an unfavourable economic situation.

If, since the epic of the prestigious Larbi Ben Barek, the "black pearl", African footballers have had the opportunity to demonstrate, in all the stadiums of the world, their brilliant individual qualities(monkey-like skill in the "handling" of the ball, sense of the move to be made, suppleness, relaxation, speed, innate sense of creation and the attacking game...) they have now been able to see their assured talent promoted by the CAN via the small screen for several years. Since 1984,television has in fact become an unavoidable partner of the CAN. Whoever speaks of television, also speaks of advertising and sponsoring. In addition to the takings at the stadium ticket offices, commercialisation and sale of rights are nowadays the lifeblood of the CAN: "The CAN,“ states the President of CAF, Issa Hayatou, "supplies 80 % of the resources of CAF. We are uncompromising about this. We will not change its regularity. The CAN will not change for anything in the world."

At forty years old, the CAN is a competition which cannot be avoided on the international calendar, which is shown by the extent of its ever increasing media coverage. It hopes to see you on 7 February at the Ouagadougou "4 août" stadium for the kick-off of its 20th competition between the Burkina Faso Stallions and the indomitable Cameroon Lions.