Maputo’s body painters must have taken great care with their work. Mozambique had just scored in its Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Tanzania. When the man sitting two rows in front of me turned around to high-five someone, I saw for the first time that every inch from his waist upward was neatly painted in the red, green, black, yellow and white stripes of the Mozambican flag. Then, plumb center across his chest, someone had painstakingly copied the emblem that adorns all national insignia — a rifle crossed with a hoe in front of an open book.
We were standing high up in the stands of the brand-new national stadium on the outskirts of the city, and Jerry Sitoe had just sauntered onto the end of a fine cross and calmly sent the ball into the back of the Tanzanian net with a single touch. The game restarted, but the jubilant man in the paint, and thousands like him around the stadium, kept on dancing and blasting triumphantly on their vuvuzelas for 10 minutes or more.
There would be a long and tense afternoon of football ahead, but the crowd knew that the Mambas — their Mambas — had just given the country a chance of playing for Africa’s greatest footballing prize at next year’s Africa Cup of Nations.*
In January, 15 nations will join host South Africa for the 29th AFCON. New pages will be written in what is already a wonderfully rich history, and millions of fans across the continent will once again be enthralled by the race to be crowned champions of Africa. Egypt, seven-time winners (they competed and won as the United Arab Republic in 1959) and Africa’s dominant force over the past decade, crashed out in qualifying at the hands of Central African Republic. So once again, the tournament promises to be one of the most open and exciting international football competitions.
The usual powerhouses are expected to go far. Nothing short of a place in the final will satisfy supporters of teams like Ivory Coast, four-time victors Ghana and defending champions Zambia. But as ever, fans of less-illustrious footballing nations are also dreaming big.
“It will not be acceptable for Mozambicans to watch [the AFCON] without the Mambas being there,” says Roberto Dimande.
I met Dimande, a life-long fan of the Mozambican selecção (“national team”), before the qualifier against Tanzania. He was beaming with excitement, leaning out the window of a battered minibus packed with 25 other Mambas fans dressed head to toe in red, with two coolers chock full of ice-cold lager. A bright green vuvuzela had been taped to each wing mirror and Dimande had carefully coiled a large black plastic snake around his baseball cap. As we talked, the snake’s wide-open jaws hovered menacingly around my eyes.
“Africa is a continent that’s traveling in different ways,” Roberto says, “but this is a dream that all nations on the continent share. In terms of soccer, Africa is already united.”
Dimande’s hero is Tico-Tico Bucuane, a deadly forward who holds all of Mozambique’s goal-scoring records and is the greatest player the country has produced since the 1960s. Recently retired, Tico-Tico won't be playing in South Africa, but having led his country to three AFCON finals, he understands the weight of expectations.
“It’s hard when you know that the whole continent is watching you,” Tico-Tico says. “If you’re not strong enough you’ll just collapse, because there’s so much pressure.”
Clearly, Tico-Tico himself had no problem performing under that pressure. As a 22-year-old rookie, he scored a famous goal against Tunisia after only four minutes, in his very first AFCON.
“Everyone wants to challenge themselves against the best in Africa,” he says. “In 1996 I played against Tony Yeboah, when he was playing in England for Leeds United, and Abedi Pele. I couldn’t believe I was there on the same pitch with those guys, coming from where I did.”
Like so many of Africa’s soccer superstars, Tico-Tico grew up playing informal street games, known locally as finta finta. He says the skills he learned in those tough contests on Maputo’s pavements, roads and empty lots helped him when he found himself taking on the best in Africa.
“Those street games are very competitive, very difficult,” he recalls. “It was bare feet, and our soccer balls were made out of all kinds of things: old socks, plastic bags, whatever we had. We just had that willingness to play. We’d really fallen in love with the game.”
Tico-Tico is not alone. As a 2006 FIFA survey of registered footballers revealed, at least 46 million other Africans have also fallen in love with the sport. And for more than half a century, AFCON has given those players, and many millions more, the chance to dream of becoming the best in Africa.
From the very beginning, the competition has been tightly interwoven into the fabric of the African continent. The very first AFCON was organized to mark the 1957 launch of the Confederation of African Football, making Africa’s continental prize three years older than its European equivalent.
And the competition has always been about more than “just” football. One of CAF’s founding fathers, the influential and charismatic Ethiopian Yidnekatchew Tessema, gave a stirring speech in 1974 in which he laid out a vision of football as a force to unite the continent.
“I’m issuing a call to our general assembly that it affirm that Africa is one and indivisible, that we work towards the unity of Africa together,” Tessema told his Cairo audience. “That we condemn superstition, tribalism, all forms of discrimination within our football and in all domains of life. We do not accept the division of Africa into Francophone, Anglophone and Arabophone. Arabs from North Africa and Zulus from South Africa, we are all authentic Africans. Those who try to divide us by way of football are not our friends.”
But when CAF was founded in 1957, many African countries were still struggling to win independence from European colonial rule, and only three nations took part in the first competition. South Africa had been banned from the tournament after its apartheid administrators refused to field a racially mixed team, and so just two matches were played, with Ethiopia given a pass to the final.
Egypt narrowly defeated host team Sudan 2-1 in the semifinal, before blowing Ethiopia away 4-0 to become the first-ever nation to be crowned champions of Africa. Pharoahs striker Mohammed Diab El-Attar put in a performance that would never be forgotten, scoring all four of Egypt’s goals. One of the great figures of midcentury African football, “Ad Diba,” as he was known, went on to appear at another Nations Cup final in Addis Ababa nine years later, but this time as the referee.
The number of competing nations grew rapidly as independence movements began to triumph across the continent. In 1960, 16 nations won their independence, and by the 1962 tournament there were so many teams that qualifying rounds had to be introduced.
Newly independent Ghana swept to victory twice in a row in 1963 and 1965, inspired by its soccer-mad president Kwame Nkrumah. In line with Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism, Ghana’s Black Stars borrowed their famous nickname from the radical Jamaican intellectual Marcus Garvey’s shipping line, which was established to take black Americans “back to Africa.”
Today they remain one of the continent’s footballing powerhouses, though after seeing a succession of richly talented sides perform disappointingly in recent tournaments, Ghanaians will be praying for a change of fortunes in South Africa next year.
Whichever team lifts the trophy in Johannesburg on February 10 will be writing its name into a very special African story.
With appreciation for Peter Alegi’s African Soccerscapes for its detailed history.
*The Mambas later failed to qualify for the 2013 tournament, but the team’s fans reflect each African nation’s passion to participate in the AFCON.
Elliot Ross is a Scottish freelance writer who writes about literature, culture, politics and sports. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Guernica, Foreign Policy and the late Nigerian paper 234Next. He blogs regularly for the well-known African affairs website Africa is a Country.