Soon the 34th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations will kick off in Côte d’Ivoire. For many Africans, there is no better time than this, when the anticipation, belief, and excitement are at their zenith and the continent’s biggest party is about to begin.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve realized that footballing institutions such as clubs or competitions are empty vessels that we fill with whatever worldview we find important on an individual level.
Some fill their containers with a flimsy notion of identity and self-definition. Others mix their search for companionship into a bigger receptacle that already holds the loneliness of others; they find each other and combine to form a homogenous community. Hell, look into some cups and you might even see God, or at least how overzealous nitwits manifest God into our physical world.
Me, I love the Africa Cup of Nations, that’s my vessel.
Inside, I try to consciously pour a sense of curiosity about the world around me. Nowadays—rightly or wrongly—I sincerely believe that nothing explains the modern history of the African continent like African football.
Ask me about the nascent nationalism that preceded independence movements in the early 20th century and I’ll recommend some reading on the role of sporting associations such as Al Ahly SC or Mouloudia of Algiers. If you ask me what common values we as Africans hold dear, I’d point you towards the sports boycott of apartheid South Africa and its exclusion from the first iteration of the CAF until that racist system of governance was eradicated.
There are entire volumes of literature about how African heads of state instrumentalized their national teams to score political points. Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, for example, was perhaps the greatest example of using his national team to transmit a political philosophy with his Black Stars in the 1960s.
Such are concrete examples of how African football and the Africa Cup of Nations inform my understanding of the African continent. And, as valuable as that is, it is still not the best thing about the tournament.
The very best aspect of the Africa Cup of Nations is how it unites people from all corners of the African continent for a months’ time. For 30 days, we learn about one another’s customs and particularities and celebrate a togetherness that is unequaled on any other continent
How else could an Egyptian forward named Mahmoud Abdelrazek Hassan “Shikabala” (who would later blossom into one of Zamalek’s most iconic forwards), be nicknamed after a Zambian forward, Webster Chikabala, if not for the latter’s stellar performance at the 1990 Africa Cup of Nations?
How else would Laurent Pokou (nicknamed “the Asmara man”) forever be associated with Asmara, the capital of Eritrea were it not for the five-goal performance against Ethiopia he forcibly etched into our collective memories during the 1968 Cup of Nations?
Such names might not mean much to your average European football fan, but on the continent they are absolute giants.
When my Nigerian colleague, Calvin Emeka Onwuka, pulled me aside in the media center during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations and recounted watching Lakhdar Belloumi and Salah Assad as a young boy, it really struck a chord.
I think it is because I saw the same mix of reverence and fear on my father’s face when he would tell me stories about the Tunisian goalkeeper Sadio “Attouga” Sassi or the former Senegalese shot-stopping giant Amady Thiam.
The players, memories, performances, kits, celebrations, and stadiums act as collective mementos that mark the passing of time that we as Africans spent with one another completely immersed, with a singular focus.
Therein lies the real value of the Africa Cup of Nations. It is that those who contribute to the show—whether players, administrators, journalists, or fans—are closer to one another than their counterparts on other continents.
As a result, the love, unity, and joy become palpable. That is why it is a tournament like no other and that is why it is our tournament.
Now let’s enjoy it!