The Africa Cup of Nations has changed greatly from its inauguration in 1957 when only three countries participated.
The 2019 edition, held in the tournament’s most successful nation Egypt, has now been expanded to 24 teams.
Each participating country has once again proudly provided their own contribution to an eclectic collection of nicknames.
Well, this doesn’t need explaining too much, with the hosts of the 2019 tournament (a record fifth-time and last-minute change from Cameroon) paying tribute to their famous ancient history in an evocation of strength and power.
Those who were hoping for a tribute to King Julien or even Maurice will be sorely disappointed.
Picture a giant flabby cow with a bit of an attitude problem. Madagascar have adopted it onto their seal, though with more exaggerated horns that the typical zebu (the humped cattle) despite the animal not being indigenous to the country - they’re an export of South Asia.
The Eagles of Carthage
Now here’s a proper strong, powerful nickname to stir fear into the hearts of their opponents, and also the first of many aquila-related monikers to puncture this list. Carthage was the centre of the ancient civilization that lasted from the 8th Century to the 2nd century BC, in what would be today somewhere on the north coast around Tunis. The Carthagians used the Eagle as their national symbol.
The Lions of Teranga
Ready for a panthera leo double-whammy? First up we have Senegal. According to Denver Post correspondent Dominique Badji, “In Wolof, the national language of Senegal, “Teranga” means a peaceful, welcoming place. A paradise of sorts. And the Lions, our national soccer team, protect that paradise - and all who inhabit it.”
The Atlas Lions
Morocco ‘shares’ the territory of the Atlas Mountains, stretching 1,600 miles also across Algeria and Tunisia. The range includes North Africa highest and second-highest peaks in Mount Toubkal and Rass Ouanoukrim and the Barbary Lion - said to be the largest in the world - which inhabited the region may or may not be completely extinct in the wild; the animal’s rarity, exoticism and symbolism of power and royalty leading to its adoption in the national football mindset. Morocco have won the competition just once in the AFCON’s over six-decade history, in 1976.
The Super Eagles
One of the most-recognised African teams on the global stage, the Super Eagles moniker has become ingrained in football culture. They were, however, originally called the UK Tourists, before becoming the Red Devils ahead of their first ever international game, against Sierra Leone in 1949. This moniker lasted for just over a decade until they were made to wear green to play Egypt in 1960.
The Eagles evolved from Green to Super after the 1988 AFCON Final, when they lost to Cameroon.
Mali, who have reached just one final in their history (1972), have also adopted the bird for their nickname (simply ‘Les Aigles’, ‘The Eagles’).
The Gray Crowned or Crested Crane is the national bird depicted on the flag of ‘The Pearl of Africa’ Uganda.
Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see these two neighbouring nations go tête-à-tête, or more appropriately tusk-à-tusk.
You can probably deduce from ‘Ivory Coast’ that the nation has taken the animal to heart, it being the largest animal in the country, the tragic object of their most famous trade in the 19th Century, and takes centre-stage in their majestic coat of arms.
The National Elephants
Guinea shares a large border with the Cote d’Ivoire in the west of the continent, and also has a dwindling population of the animal from with the national football team takes its name, with numbers of the forest elephant dwindling atrociously to around 200. In Guinean culture, the elephant represents strength and unity and has great importance in its Sousou language form ‘Syli’ which was the country’s currency from 1971 to 1985.
The Desert Warriors
For general coolness, and bonus points for sounding like a Tom Clancy novel or a Marcel Carne flick from the ‘30s, “The Desert Warriors” or “Les Guerriers du Desert” to give it its proper name wins hands down. Astonishingly, Algeria - the tenth largest country in the world - is 80% desert.
We’d have emptied my bank account (for anyone outside of Mauritania and without a relevant degree) for where this elegant sounding beauty came from. The Almoravid dynasty was an imperial Berber Muslim dynasty that emerged in the 5th and 6th AH in the Islamic Maghreb region, which stretched all the way up past present-day Mauritania, to Morocco where it was centred, and even onto the Iberian peninsula.
Like Ghana and Tanzania to take ‘star’ in their moniker, International Sports Center researcher Rafael Pauli says that they have been “inspired by celestial bodies out of the belief that this would eliminate bad luck and bad omens.” Harambee deliciously means “pull together” in Swahili, and is the official motto of the country.
The Black Stars
All-time top scorer Asomoah Gyan described the importance of Ghana’s nickname, one of the most recognised of all African nations and reflecting the image that dominates their flag, to news network Al Jazeera;
"The black star is a characteristic of our performance. In football we are regarded as shining stars and masters of the game.
"When you put on that shirt with the stars, you just want to die for your country. That is the pride and inspiration that comes with the nickname."
The Sable Antelopes ('Palancas Negras')
Sorry Angola, but you’ve competing for the wooden spoon on this one with the plain ‘Sable Antelopes’. The animal is found across their territory.
Les Hirondelles en Bataille
Another debutant at the 2019 tournament and the lowest-ranked team; the competition has been a long wait for Burundi; poetically bringing the fantastic mantra; "Intamba Mu Rugamba" ("The Swallows in the War")
The holders were stripped of hosting the 2019 tournament but have still been allowed to participate to try and retain their title. Cameroon went from the kingly but rather vanilla ‘Lions’ in 1972 to the valiant ‘Indomitable” by president Ahmadou Ahidjo .
The Wild Dogs
Guinea-Bissau made their AFCON debut at the 2017 edition; ‘Djurtus’ means ‘Wild Dogs’, continuing the prevalent animal theme many countries have liked to adopt.
Zimbabwe and Namibia
Warriors and Brave Warriors
Warriors, come out to play! Both nations have included the powerful evocation of the fighter, but Namibia have gone one better in the upmanship in attaching the adjective ‘Brave’ in front of it.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
The country formerly known as Zaire have had a feline frenzy when it comes to their nickname, going from the Leopards whilst under dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, then to the Simbas (Lions) in 1997 and then back to Leopards again in 2006.
Huddersfield Town striker Steve Mounie sensibly reversed his suggestion to rename the national side from ‘The Squirrels’ to ‘The Pythons’. ‘Les Ecureuils’ was adopted in the 1960s ‘apparently to reflect a small nation aiming to climb high’ (BBC).
“We have qualified and some other big animals have not,” said Mounié in an interview with The Guardian. “So we will keep this nickname. It’s part of our history. We are the squirrels. And squirrels are strong.”
It’s fitting that Tanzania respects their most famous monument in their national football mindset; one of the most recognisable mountains on the planet and the highest in Africa.
The 2010 World Cup hosts gained a whole legion of new fans through their rambunctious unabashed support, and their nickname ‘Bafana Bafana’, the most audibly joyous nickname has been in existence since 1992 when it was coined by Soweton sports reporters, the plural for ‘boy’ in the post-apartheid climate, and replacing the dire ‘Go boys, go boys’ chant that preceded it.
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