So we’ve seen the history of the European and South American championships; next up is Africa. This has always been a keenly contested championship, with the title changing hands regularly. In fact, a total of 36 different countries have, at one time or another, being unofficial African champions. This includes some of the poorest and unheralded of all African countries: Malawi, Mauritania and Burundi have all held the title in the last five years alone.
The story begins with a pair of Olympic qualifying matches in 1956 between Egypt and Ethiopia, both won by Egypt. Egypt, both in official and unofficial circles, have been one of the most prominent nations in African football, and it’s no surprise that they were the first unofficial champions. The following year, they became the first official African champions too.
Ethiopia themselves were the first team to knock Egypt off their perch, though it didn’t happen until 1962. Ghana then held the title from 1963 to 1967. Zaire held the title for much of the 1970-72 period, setting themselves up for a historic (though ultimately catastrophic) qualification for the 1974 World Cup finals. However, teams rarely held the title for more than a handful of matches, before it moved on, showing that African football has always had a competitive strength in depth that other continents have perhaps lacked.
In the 1990s, the big boys began to impose themselves. From 1992 to 1998, only three countries held the title – Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Morocco. However, this was partly due to the fact that Nigeria, having done well at the 1994 World Cup, then spent two and a half years travelling the globe playing friendlies, whilst not playing a single match against African opposition. They even skipped the 1996 African Cup of Nations, for which they were punished with a ban from the 1998 competition. The 1996-98 Moroccan reign, meanwhile, was the longest (in terms of matches played) in the competition’s history.
The title has usually been contested at the African Nations Cup, though there have been exceptions. The years when the title holder has not taken the title into the African Nations Cup (holder in brackets) are as follows: 1968 (Dahomey (later Benin)), 1974 and 1976 (both Senegal), 1978 (Guinea), 1980 (Senegal), 1982 and 1984 (both Kenya), 1990 (Mozambique), 1996 (Nigeria), 2004 and 2006 (both Mauritania). Mauritania, in fact, didn’t play a single match between November 2003, when they took the title off Zimbabwe, and September 2006.
In 2010, Egypt won a historic third African Nations Cup in a row. The success also saw them regain the unofficial African title, but in October 2010, they suffered humiliation when losing a qualifying match for the 2012 edition to Niger. How could a side that had swept all before them in Africa for several years lose to a team with no pedigree whatsoever. Well, one theory is that the man who paraded a black goat around the pitch before kick-off was a witch doctor, and it was his black magic that was responsible for the result. Niger’s first defence was the following month against Libya. Although only a friendly, the 1-1 draw was followed by penalties, which Libya won 4-1; they thus became Africa’s 36th unofficial champions. Maybe the goat should have taken a penalty.
For the record, the full list of countries who have held the African title at least once is as follows: Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Dahomey (later Benin), Guinea, Sudan, Zaire (later Congo DR), Zambia, Mali, Congo, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Togo, Tunisia, Gambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania, Algeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Mozambique, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Angola, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Burundi, Botswana, Chad, Niger and Libya.
Follow the progress of the unofficial African championships over at the UFWC Forum.
Read more continental UFWC features.