JOHANNESBURG, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Africa’s premier soccer competition has come a long way. From two matches in 1957, captured on grainy black-and-white newsreel footage, this year’s African Nations Cup will feature 32 matches and attract billions of global television viewers.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) said it was confident of exceeding the record 6.6 billion television viewers who watched last year’s edition in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
“We believe there will be a jump again in the numbers even though Egypt, which is one of our largest markets, did not qualify for the tournament,” CAF’s marketing and television director Amr Shaheen told Reuters ahead of the tournament’s kickoff in South Africa on Saturday.
The event has always been popular in Africa and now draws a global following thanks to the increasing number of players who enjoy high-profile careers such as Ivory Coast and former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba.
It is a long way from the humble origins of the inaugural 1957 tournament, when just three teams competed.
Old newsreel footage still exists of the first tournament when the Egyptians emerged as champions ahead of Ethiopia and hosts Sudan.
All three, along with South Africa, were founder members of the African organising body in 1956 but South Africa were quickly expelled from the CAF ranks for their Apartheid policy.
South Africa were ordered to send a team that transcended racial barriers to the 1957 tournament but recently unearthed archive documents show the South Africans had no intention of defying government policy and were also concerned with the cost of sending their team by ship.
Exclusion from the Nations Cup kicked off a global boycott that left South Africa in sporting wilderness for decades and it was not until 1996 when they finally made their debut in Africa’s premier football tournament.
By then the finals had grown rapidly on the back of substantive, continent-wide television exposure, first introduced in 1990. Hosts Algeria offered a free signal to national broadcaster of each African state, ensuring blanket coverage.
In formative years, the tournament, older than its European equivalent, was slow in gaining a foothold but grew in the 1960s as more territories gained independence.
In the first tournaments, pitches hardly had a blade of grass and match officials were shipped in from Europe. British army officer John Brooks took charge of the 1962 final.
With political emancipation and growing nationalism, African leaders quickly realised the value of a Nations Cup win in terms of prestige, profile, patriotic fervour and even tempering opposition.
As a result most Nations Cup campaigns were government funded and many African countries still receive handsome grants from state coffers for their football expeditions.
Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko gave his players plots of land and cars after Zaire triumphed in 1974. Idi Amin often visited his Uganda squad to ensure they had the best possible conditions for success. (Editing by Pritha Sarkar)