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AFCON Archives 1957: Egypt triumphant, South Africa sidelined

Welcome to the first edition of AFCON Archives, the weekly deep dive into the history of Africa’s continental football tournament.

What better place to start than the very first Africa Cup of Nations, played in 1957?

A different world

Sudan were the first host nation of AFCON, and Egypt its first champions. That leaves Ethiopia, the only remaining competitor, with the less ceremonious title of first runners-up.

South Africa, the would-be fourth participant, became the first team to be banned from the tournament – excluded on account of their apartheid sporting policies.

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South Africa’s triumphant debut in 1996 will be covered in a later AFCON Archives

Whereas only three nations contested the first AFCON, twenty-four will be vying for the 34th edition which kicks-off in January. There is now a group stage, round-of-16, quarter-finals, semi-finals, and final; Egypt needed just two wins to claim glory in 1957.

Having beaten Sudan 2-1 in the semi-final, they faced Ethiopia – who had received a bye – in the final.

Egypt then claimed the inaugural AFCON title in emphatic fashion: a 4-0 win.

Mohamed Diab Al-Attar remains the only player to score a hat-trick in a men’s AFCON final, having netted all four on this historic day.

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Perpetua Nkwocha scored four for Nigeria in the 2004 Women’s AFCON final

The eight-fold increase in participants today is instructive. The 1957 AFCON was played in a different Africa, a different world.

Dr Peter Alegi is a Professor of History at Michigan State University and the author of Laduma! Soccer, Politics & Society in South Africa and African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game.

He describes the dynamic global political context within which AFCON was born, with the rising tide of independence movements and Pan-Africanism.

“[Independence movements] were a boost for football officials to search for self-determination in sports as much as in politics.

“AFCON, as a tournament, comes out of the creation of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) which was arguably one of the first, if not the first, truly successful Pan-African institution,” he tells the Sports Gazette.

As Egypt lifted the first AFCON trophy, then, they lifted it to a continent in the midst of its struggle for sovereignty.

The first of their seven titles is perhaps the most lasting legacy of the 1957 AFCON, but what happened off the field was arguably more important.

“We don’t accept that, we want black and white”

Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, and South Africa became the founding members of CAF in Khartoum, Sudan, during February of 1957.

Planning for a continental tournament began shortly after, with the four nations agreeing on Khartoum as the host city.

Alegi notes the hopes vested in the continental showpiece.

“There was a sense of expectation that this tournament is soon going to be a showcase for an independent Africa, showing the belonging and the citizenship of the continent within world football,” he says.

Then came the issue of South Africa’s apartheid policy, applied unequivocally in sports as well as society.

Fred Fell, the South African representative, informed his fellow CAF delegates of his government’s stance.

“It is either a pure white team or a black team,” he said.

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An all-white crowd watching rugby in Johannesburg, 1964

The response of Abdel Halim Mohammed, the Sudanese representative, and his fellow delegates is recorded in Ian Hawkey’s Feet of the Chameleon.

“We said we don’t accept that. We want black and white.”

In sidelining South Africa, CAF sent a clear message: AFCON would enact Pan-Africanism and shun racism.

While condemning the apartheid regime, the boycott also sent a message of solidarity to those suffering under it.

“Another part of the South African audience was not so much the white oppressors, but rather, the black oppressed. In a sense it’s CAF reaching out to them and saying look, you’re not alone,” says Alegi.

Football became a vehicle for contesting apartheid in the coming years. The South African Soccer League, founded 1961, featured multi-racial teams until it was shut down in 1966.

“It was one of the major anti-apartheid organisations within the country at the time, not just in sports, but in general,” says Alegi.

The 1957 AFCON marked Africa’s conviction in contesting racism through sports.

It was just the beginning.

Pan-African Sports

African sports would continue to be a vehicle for anti-racist ideals in the coming decades.

Until 1960, FIFA had no anti-racist clause in its constitution. Under the influence of CAF delegates, that soon changed.

“It’s because of CAF that you finally get a statutory clause that states the world body’s commitment to fighting racism. That also puts in place the conditions by which you can then legally fight to exclude South Africa,” says Alegi.

CAF definitively expelled South Africa in 1960, but African delegates also fought for their exclusion from FIFA, amongst other global sporting bodies.

A 1963 edition of the West African Pilot summarises one such effort:

“It sparked off a heated debate between the Afro-Asians and the favouring white elements. But the battle was lost when a total of 11 nations all of whom European countries voted in favour of South Africa’s readmission.”

West African Pilot, February 2nd 1963 (Lagos, Nigeria) / Courtesy of The British Library Board

These efforts were rebuffed in 1963, but continued pressure from African delegates led FIFA to suspend the Football Association of South Africa (FASA) – who only represented white South Africans – in the following year.

In 1966, Africa made an even more resounding statement of their Pan-African sporting ethos by boycotting the world cup in protest against FIFA’s allocation of a singular, shared qualifying spot with Asia.

It was Ghanaian officials, operating under the guidance of their president Dr Kwame Nkrumah, who had shaped this campaign.

For a closer look at the sporting-political project undertaken by Nkrumah, stay tuned for next week’s AFCON Archives.

You can read the full AFCON Archives collection here.


  • Jonny Coffey

    Jonny Coffey, 21, is a London-based sports journalist focusing on football. Fascinated by tactics, Coffey is famed for his introduction of inverted full backs to the second division of Cambridge college football, and his admiration for Carlo Ancelotti’s eyebrows. A lifelong Arsenal fan, his interest in analysing wing play is a thinly-veiled ploy to rave about Bukayo Saka.