The big kick-off is nearly upon us. Just 11 months after that extraordinary Zambian triumph in Libreville, starting Saturday we have another month of football ahead as Africa's top teams (and South Africa, there as hosts) fight it out to be champions of Africa.

Africa is a Country will be covering the tournament more intensively this time around on a brand new page: Football is a Country. We'll start with a very brief and very selective tournament history.

The very first CAN was organised to mark the Confederation of African Football's (CAF) official launch in Khartoum in 1957, making Africa's continental prize three years older than its European equivalent. The competition has always been about more than "just" football. One of CAF's founding fathers, the influential and charismatic Ethiopian Yidnekatchew Tessema, would later gave a stirring speech in Cairo in 1974 in which he laid out a vision of football as a force to unite the continent.

I'm issuing a call to our general assembly that it affirm that Africa is one and indivisible, that we work towards the unity of Africa together... That we condemn superstition, tribalism, all forms of discrimination within our football and in all domains of life. We do not accept the division of Africa into Francophone, Anglophone, and Arabophone. Arabs from north Africa and Zulus from South Africa, we are all authentic Africans. Those who try to divide us by way of football are not our friends.

But when CAF was founded in 1957, many African countries were still struggling to win independence from European colonial rule, and only three countries took part in the first competition. South Africa (a founding member) had been banned after its apartheid administrators refused to field a racially mixed team, and so just two matches were played, with Ethiopia given a pass to the final. Egypt narrowly defeated hosts Sudan 2-1 in their semi-final, before blowing Ethiopia away 4-0 to become the first ever nation to be crowned champions of Africa.

Pharoahs' striker Mohammed Diab El-Attar put in a performance that would never be forgotten, scoring all four of Egypt's goals. One of the great figures of mid-century African football "Ad Diba", as he was known, went on to appear at another Nations Cup final in Addis Ababa nine years later, but this time as the referee, having swapped his shooting boots for a whistle.

The number of competing nations grew rapidly as independence movements began to triumph across the continent. In 1960, 16 nations won their independence and by the 1962 tournament there were so many teams wanting to compete that qualifying rounds had to be introduced. Newly independent Ghana swept to victory twice in a row in 1963 and 1965, inspired by their soccer-mad president Kwame Nkrumah.

In line with Nkrumah's Pan-Africanism, Ghana's Black Stars borrowed their famous nickname from the radical Jamaican intellectual Marcus Garvey's shipping line, which was established to take black Americans "back-to Africa". The stars of the 60s were Ghana's Osei Kofi and Cote d'Ivoire legend Laurent Pokou (nicknamed "L'Homme d'Asmara" for the five goals he scored in a single match against Ethiopia), who top-scored at both the 1968 and 1970 tournaments.

The 1970s was a great decade for Central African nations, with Republic of Congo's 1972 victory followed by Zaire's in 1974 (they'd already won the competition as Congo-Kinshasa in 1968). West African sides dominated through the 1980s and early 1990s. This was also an era of great players: Hassan Shehata (he would later coach Egypt to three Cup of Nations victories), inventor of the blind pass Lakhdar Belloumi, Théophile Abega (who passed away late last year), Thomas N'kono (Gianluigi Buffon decided to become a goalkeeper after watching N'kono's performances at Italia 90, and named his son after him), Rashidi Yekini, Abedi Pele, Roger Milla (so good he got his own song), Rabah Madjer, Kalusha Bwalya and George Weah (click on the links, the videos are tasty). Then in 1996, the last time South Africa hosted the tournament, Bafana Bafana had their own "Invictus" moment to savour.

Since the turn of the millennium, the tournament has been the stage on which the likes of Samuel Eto'o, Mohamed Aboutrika, Jay-Jay Okocha, Patrick M'Boma, Hossam Hassan and Didier Drogba have shone. CAN has been dominated since 2000 by Cameroon (back-to-back winners in 2000 and 2002) and Egypt ( three-in-a-row between 2006 and 2010). Both of those heavyweights are missing for the second tournament running, after Bob Bradley's Egypt lost to Central African Republic and Cape Verde beat Cameroon.

No team looks to be very far ahead of the rest, and, refreshingly given Spain's recent domination of the World Cup and European Championship, this year's African Cup of Nations is as open a tournament as you'll find in international football.

Join AIAC's Fantasy Football league for the tournament where you can test your football knowledge against theirs – the league pin is 9132137935284.

Thanks to Peter Alegi and his book African Soccerscapes, and Steve Bloomfield and his book Africa United. An earlier version of this post formed part of the tournament preview for Selamta

More from Guardian Africa network partners on the championship:
• Daily Maverick: Africa Cup of Nations for dummies
• Addis Rumble: The Ethiopian comeback