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THE BIGGEST AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS IN HISTORY: LET THE GAMES BEGIN!

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BY KUNLE SOLAJA

When the referee blasts his whistle at 9 pm (GMT, also Nigerian time) to signal the beginning of the biggest Africa Cup of Nations in history at the Cairo International Stadium, Egypt will want to avoid their national team in 1986 when they surprisingly lost 0-1 to unheralded Senegal.

This time, Egypt will be facing Zimbabwe in the opening match.

In the previous 31 editions, the hosts have often won the opening games. There are 19 of such instances while nine were drawn and five lost, including the 1986 edition by Egypt.

No home nation has lost in the 13 previous curtain raisers involving the home side. The last home side to lose an opening game was Tunisia, losing 0-2 to Mali. One of the memorable defeats of a home side in an opening match was inflicted on Senegal by Nigeria at the 1992 edition.

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The Super Eagles took the lead in the first half through Samson Siasia before Senegal leveled up through a defensive error.

Stephen Keshi made amends on the dot of the clock when he fired home the winner for Nigeria.

The opening match is just one of the projected 52 matches as the competition has expanded to 24 teams instead of the 16 that characterized the preceding 12 editions in which 16 teams featured since 1996 – even though Nigeria boycotted the initial 16-format edition.

The number of participating teams has been fluctuating.  At it beginning in 1957, there were three teams, all by invitation following the disqualification of the fourth team, South Africa, owing to the prevailing apartheid policy.

Qualifying series began for the 1962 edition following entries by nine countries, including Nigeria. Ethiopia and Egypt both automatically qualified as the host country and titleholders respectively. Morocco would withdraw before play began, thus leaving only six teams vying for the remaining two spots in the finals.

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Tunisia eliminated Nigeria after an ill-advised walkout in the return leg in Tunis in which advantage was still in Nigeria’s favour.

Teams in the finals increased to six at the 1963 edition in Ghana.

Nigeria qualified by default after CAF disqualified the initially qualified Guinea on technical ground. Guinean referees officiated the return leg in Conakry in which the host team won 1-0 after a 2-2 draw in Lagos.

The 1968 tournament, the sixth edition heralded the standardization of format. Eight teams featured in the finals and a two-year interval in the even-numbered year was adopted which ran till that of 2012.

The eight-team format was changed to 12 at the Senegal 2012 edition. The 12 teams were divided into four groups of three. For the first time, quarterfinals were introduced as two top teams advanced.

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The format changed to 16 teams at South Africa 1996.  This year’s edition is the first to involve 24 teams.

They are split into six groups of four teams at the draw conducted in April. Thus, another phase, Round of 16 is introduced. Two teams from each group will advance into the Round of 16.

Four others among the best third-placed teams from the six groups will join the 12 that emerged first and second from each group.

The Round of 16 is a direct knock out stage.  

OPENING MATCHES OF PREVIOUS 31 EDITIONS

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      1957 – Sudan 1-2 Egypt

      1959 – Egypt 4 – 0 Ethiopia

      1962 – Ethiopia 4 – 2 Tunisia

      1963 – Ghana 1 – 1 Tunisia

      1965 – Tunisia 4 -0 Ethiopia

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      1968 – Ethiopia 2 -1 Uganda

      1970 – Sudan 3  – 0 Ethiopia

      1972 – Cameroon 2 -1 Kenya

      1974 – Egypt 2  -1 Uganda 1

      1976 – Ethiopia 2  – 0 Uganda

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      1978 – Ghana 2 – 1 Zambia

      1980 – Nigeria 3-1 Tanzania

      1982 – Libya 2 -2 Ghana

      1984- Cote d’Ivoire 3 – 0 Togo

      1986 –Egypt 0 -1 Senegal

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      1988  –Morocco 1 – 0 DR Congo

      1990 – Algeria 5 -1 Nigeria

      1992 – Senegal 1-2 Nigeria

      1994 – Tunisia 0 – 2 Mali

      1996 – South Africa 3-0 Cameroon

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      1998 – Burkina Faso 0-1 Cameroon

      2000 – Ghana 1 – 1 Cameroon

      2000 – Nigeria 4 – 2 Tunisia

      2002 – Mali 1 – 1 Liberia

      2004 – Tunisia 2 – 1 Rwanda

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      2006 – Egypt 3 – 0 Libya

      2008 – Ghana 2 – 1 Guinea

      2010 – Angola 4 – 4 Mali 4

      2012 – Equatorial Guinea 1-0 Libya

      2012 – Gabon 2 – 0 Niger

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      2013 – South Africa 0 -0 Cape Verde 0

      2015 – Equatorial Guinea 1 -1 Congo

      2017 – Gabon 1 -1 Guinea Bissau

Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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