The Africa Cup of Nations has provided fireworks on and off the pitch since it was first played in 1957

Fans, players and the world’s media will soon descend on Ivory Coast for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, which kicks off on 13 January.

The tournament provides colourful material for photographers such as Gavin Barker, who first covered the finals in 1996.

As he prepares to travel to West Africa for his 15th Afcon, the South African has shared some of his favourite images from his archives of the past 30 years.

1996: Hosts – South Africa, Winners – South Africa

My first Nations Cup (Afcon) was not only on home soil but also coincided with the start of my career. Having covered a few games, I watched the final from the stands as the FNB Stadium erupted.

However, it was not one of mine but a shot by fellow photographer Matthew Ashton that best captured the post-match celebrations while also epitomising football’s role as a great leveller.

Prominent leaders like Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk and King Goodwill Zwelithini all joined the players for a special picture.

On a personal note, it was a triumph for my late father Clive, the then coach who had transformed the team from strugglers in 1994 to continental champions 18 months later – unfortunately, we have never achieved that football high again.

South Africa players and staff celebrate winning the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations with politicians FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela and King Goodwill Zwelithini
Nelson Mandela, then President of South Africa, is pictured behind the trophy wearing a replica Bafana Bafana shirt as the hosts celebrate winning Afcon in 1996

1998: Hosts – Burkina Faso, Winners – Cameroon

Under a new coach, my beloved Bafana Bafana made the final again only to lose to an excellent Egyptian team, for whom Hany Ramzy shone.

I love the surprise Ramzy shows here at the triumph and how the Egyptians were wearing South Africa kits when holding up the cup – something you don’t see so often today given marketing and sponsor concerns.

Burkina Faso was an adventure, showcasing the challenge poorer countries face when hosting such a big event, but also effectively launched my career as I was one of very few photographers at the finals.

Egypt's Hany Ramzy lifts the Africa Cup of Nations trophy in 1998
Hany Ramzy lifts the Africa Cup of Nations trophy in 1998 after Egypt beat South Africa to win what was then their fourth title

2000: Hosts – Ghana & Nigeria, Winners – Cameroon

Before digital cameras revolutionised our industry – and I often laugh today when photographers moan about their pitch-side connectivity – this was one of the last tournaments where we still used film.

Back in those days, we would hurry to our hotel to heat our chemicals – sometimes on open fires if there was a power outage – so we could process film in a mobile dark room.

After drying, the prints went into a portable scanner whereupon we prayed for a clean line on an international dial-up modem to transfer the images back to Johannesburg for distribution.

Nigeria’s Taribo West was a colourful character, whom your lens is drawn to whether celebrating or, in this case, downcast after losing the final on home soil to arch-rivals Cameroon – one of the pictures we successfully filed just hours later.

Nigeria defender Taribo West reacts after the Super Eagles lost on penalties in the Africa Cup of Nations final in 2000
Taribo West caught the eye with his hairstyles but the Nigeria defender had to settle for a silver medal after a 4-3 shoot-out defeat in the final

2002: Hosts – Mali, Winners – Cameroon

Cameroon retained their title against a strong Senegal team that would reach the World Cup quarter-finals just months later, with the Indomitable Lions’ sleeveless kit also catching the eye.

Moments after their triumph, superstar striker Samuel Eto’o was not just sleeveless but largely clothes-less too.

Over two decades on, I still have no idea if the celebrations prompted him to strip down or fans to raid his kit – but suspect the latter!

Samuel Eto'o - wearing nothing but underpants and socks - celebrates Cameroon's 2002 Africa Cup of Nations triumph
Samuel Eto’o – the Nations Cup’s record scorer with 18 goals in total – celebrates his nation’s second straight triumph at the 2002 finals in Mali

2004: Hosts – Tunisia, Winners – Tunisia

At a time when African players were populating the European leagues, Tunisia decided to naturalise Brazilians Jose Clayton and Francileudo Santos to balance the exodus of talent.

Both helped secured the title in front of ecstatic home fans and while there are obvious images from a final, like the trophy handover and celebrations, action pictures can also convey who came out on top.

I like this shot as you don’t often capture the full force of a tackle – as Clayton ironed out Morocco’s Mustapha Hadji in the final – that sparks an unwitting somersault.

Jose Clayton of Tunisia fouls Mustapha Hadji of Morocco during the Africa Cup of Nations final in 2004
Jose Clayton helped keep Mustapha Hadji, the 1998 African footballer of the year, in check as Tunisia beat Morocco 2-1 in the 2004 Afcon final

2006: Hosts – Egypt, Winners – Egypt

I consider this the best Afcon I have covered as it assembled arguably the best crop of talent in generations – with Egypt’s Mohamed Aboutrika, Ivorian Didier Drogba, Ghana’s Michael Essien and Eto’o all at the peak of their powers.

Drogba and Eto’o went head-to-head in the quarter-finals in one of Afcon’s most memorable games, with the two strikers converting in the shoot-out before then seeing every other player, including the goalkeepers, also score.

At 11-11, Eto’o then missed, so leaving Drogba to send the Ivorians through.

Yet the Elephants would suffer shoot-out heartbreak in the final, with Aboutrika netting the winner after Essam El-Hadary had saved twice. The legendary goalkeeper had a unique celebration and I also like his expression saying ‘I told you so’ to the 70,000 delirious home fans.

Egypt goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary celebrates while sitting on the top of a crossbar after winning the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations final
Goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary found a good vantage point to celebrate Egypt’s triumph over the Ivorians in 2006

2008 – Hosts: Ghana, Winners – Egypt

Egypt legend Aboutrika was the star once again, scoring the only goal against Cameroon in the final, and it’s still a shame he never played in Europe as I don’t think there’s ever been an African footballer with greater big-match temperament.

The picture I’ve chosen though is of Essien.

A decent celebration picture it may be, but it was really referencing criticism of the Black Stars during the tournament – namely, that the Ghanaian was carrying his teammates on his back.

A beaming Michael Essien is pictured surrounded by five Ghanaian team-mates
Ghana have failed to lift the Nations Cup since winning their fourth title in 1982

2010: Hosts – Angola, Winners – Egypt

As the Pharaohs triumphed once again, I knew that capturing Hassan Shehata and Ahmed Hassan would be vital given they had just won three straight titles as coach and captain.

I was surprised at how emotional Shehata was in the moment as he had revealed little after the 2006 and 2008 successes.

Hassan was his inspirational captain and after Egypt’s late winner sank a youthful Ghana in the final, this felt like a father-son moment between two men whose achievements may never be matched.

Hassan Shehata and Ahmed Hassan celebrate after Egypt win the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations
Hassan Shehata embraces midfielder Hassan after becoming the first coach to win the Afcon trophy three times

2012: Hosts – Gabon & Equatorial Guinea, Winners – Zambia

Some things are just meant to be.

In 1993, the plane taking the Zambia squad to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal crashed off the coast of Gabon, killing all on board.

Just under 30 years later, the Chipolopolo honoured their memory in the best way as the outsiders won their first Afcon title in the Gabonese capital.

They did it with few stars but an astute tactician in coach Herve Renard. This shot by staff photographer Sydney Mahlangu perfectly captures the Frenchman’s passion, an ingredient key to his success.

Zambia coach Herve Renard kicks out at a water bottle during the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations
Wearing his famous white shirt, fiery Frenchman Renard vents his frustration ahead of leading Zambia to a fairytale win

2013: Hosts – South Africa, Winners – Nigeria

It’s always a challenge to get a good wide-angle shot of the victorious coach at the final whistle as squad players and assistant coaches normally stream onto the pitch and block a clear shot.

Luckily, Nigeria’s Stephen Keshi was already on the pitch when the whistle blew, so allowing me to capture his wry smile.

For me, the tournament was more about him than the team – given the late coach inspired a Nigeria side without the abundant talents of the past to unexpectedly win the title.

Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi celebrates beating Burkina Faso in the final of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations
The late Stephen Keshi, who died aged 54 in 2016, became just the second man to win Afcon as a player and a coach after Nigeria beat Burkina Faso 1-0 in the 2013 final

2015: Hosts – Equatorial Guinea, Winners – Ivory Coast

This picture of Ghana’s beaten finalist Afriyie Acquah is a moment of raw emotion.

I had the awkward task of trying to get the final’s man of the match to look happy while receiving his award, but he kept looking at the ground and shaking his head.

The moment got to him and seconds later, he screamed his tears into his shirt – briefly, I felt like crying with him.

Afriyie Acquah screams into his shirt in frustration after Ghana lost the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations final on penalties
Afriyie Acquah was one of three Ghana players to fail to convert from the spot as the Black Stars lost the final 9-8 on penalties following a 0-0 draw

2017: Hosts – Gabon, Winners – Cameroon

After Libya withdrew as hosts, Gabon welcomed the continent back.

Pre-dating the introduction of VAR, this image could be considered a ‘home-town’ decision as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s flight convinced the referee he had been fouled by Burkinabe goalkeeper Herve Koffi.

Despite the resulting goal, Gabon failed to go beyond the group stage, leaving an inexperienced Cameroon side to lift their fifth title.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang flies through the air after a challenge by Burkina Faso goalkeeper Herve Koffi at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations
Gabon captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang wins a penalty against Burkina Faso but the hosts failed to win a match at the 2017 Afcon

2019: Hosts – Egypt, Winners – Algeria

Security concerns meant Egypt in 2019 was a very different experience to the joy of the 2006 finals on the same soil.

For the opening game, photographers had their drinks confiscated, meaning my four staff members and I were dehydrating in 40-degree heat.

Two days earlier I had been in England covering the Cricket World Cup, wondering whether to have my morning coffee with normal or almond milk, which illustrates the changing terrain of a sports photographer.

I had been looking for this type of picture for a while – namely, how players react to the very final whistle – with the Algerians erupting in celebration while Senegal’s Mbaye Diagne crumpled to the floor.

Algeria players celebrate after winning the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations final
There were contrasting emotions at the final whistle after Algeria beat Senegal 1-0 thanks to Baghdad Bounedjah’s second-minute goal

2021: Hosts – Cameroon, Winners – Senegal

Having slipped a disc covering the semi-final, my younger staff photographers ran around the pitch getting their images while I took refuge in the media centre with a long lens.

The tribune pictures gave a different perspective of the defining moment as Sadio Mane starts his celebration run after scoring during the shoot-out to seal Senegal’s first triumph.

Mane’s win meant he pipped the Egypt of then Liverpool team-mate Mo Salah to the title, and now I wonder – who will we capture on 11 February when the next Nations Cup final is decided?

Sadio Mane celebrates his penalty shoot-out goal that earned Senegal their first Africa Cup of Nations triumph, winning the 2021 edition
Sadio Mane celebrates his penalty shoot-out goal that earned Senegal their first Africa Cup of Nations triumph, winning the 2021 edition