Football-loving Cameroon counts down to first AFCON in 50 years

Days before the tournament kickoff, excitement reaches fever pitch despite coronavirus and security concerns.

A general view of the Olembe stadium in Yaounde, Cameroon
A general view of the Olembe stadium in Yaounde [File: Daniel Beloumou Olomo/AFP]

Yaounde, Cameroon – Ndongo Minsoko was 10 years old in 1972 when he was among 1,000 students who were selected to join thousands of other spectators for the opening ceremony of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) at Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde.

Half a century later, he is now set to witness his country hosting Africa’s top football tournament for a second time.

“I feel so excited and honoured,” said Minsoko, a professor at the National Institute of Youth and Sport in Yaounde. “We should give a very, very good image of our country.”

On Sunday, Cameroon’s national team – known as “The Indomitable Lions” – will take on Burkina Faso at AFCON’s opening game at Yaounde’s Olembe Stadium.

Cameroon was first scheduled to host the month-long tournament in 2019, but it was replaced by Egypt due to preparation delays and security worries. It was then awarded the 2021 edition, which was pushed back by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

And just a few weeks ago, doubts persisted over whether Cameroon would be able to host the 24-tournament amid fears of COVID-19 outbreaks and security concerns over a years-long conflict in the country’s Anglophone regions. The uncertainty was increased by reported rifts among members of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) executive committee, as well as opposition by European clubs which threatened to withhold their African players bound for the tournament because of the pandemic.

There were also concerns over Cameroon’s readiness in terms of organisation and completion of infrastructure. But on December 22, following a “fruitful” meeting between CAF President Patrice Motsepe and Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, the football body said it was going ahead with “preparations of a successful hosting” of the tournament.

But the clouds hanging over the AFCON build-up left football legend and current president of the country’s football federation, Samuel Eto’o, fuming. “If the Euros took place in the middle of the pandemic, with full stadiums in several cities in Europe and there was no problem, why wouldn’t Afcon be played in Cameroon?” Eto’o told French media Canal last month.

Tijani Babangida, a former Nigeria international who was in Cameroon in October to inspect AFCON facilities as part of a group of African football aces invited by Cameroon’s presidency, said he believed the country was up to the task.

“I’m very impressed with what I saw,” the 48-year-old, who played for Nigeria between 1994 and 2004, told Al Jazeera. “Cameroon has done very well. If you see the pitches, the hotels, the hospitals … all are of standard.”

People gather around the AFCON mascot during the presentation tour in Cameroon
A security forces member poses with the Africa Cup of Nations mascot in Limbe [File: Josiane Kouagheu/Reuters]

Cameroon has built or renovated more than 30 stadiums and training pitches in five of its 10 regions in the build-up to the 24-tournament which will take place in the cities of Yaounde, Douala, Garoua, Bafoussam and Limbe.

Security concerns have been centred on Limbe, a coastal town located in the English-speaking part of Cameroon where Anglophone separatists have been clashing with government forces for about five years. The government has beefed up security by deploying more officers in Limbe, which is seen as a relatively calm resort town in the troubled southwestern region.

Tournament officials have also made several trips to Limbe which hosted one of the groups of the 2020 African Nations Championship – a tournament for Africa-based players – in January 2021, without any incident.

‘Beautiful football jamboree’

Meanwhile, Olembe Stadium, the brand new 60,000-seat facility due to host the opening ceremony and match on Sunday, has been the subject of debate on whether it will be ready in time  But Jules Denis Onana, the stadium coordinator and former Cameroon international player, insisted there was no reason to worry.

“I can assure you we are ready to have that competition in the stadium on January 9,” the 57-year-old told Al Jazeera. “We are only working on the flowers in the west entrance of the stadium.”

On Tuesday, CAF said that it had agreed with the local organising committee that Cameroon’s matches will be played in front of 80 percent of the stadium’s capacity due to the pandemic, while capacity at the other games will be capped at 60 percent. Spectators would need to present proof of vaccination, as well as a negative PCR test result. CAF said it will also bring its own laboratory to test players during the competition.

In his New Year speech, Biya called on Cameroonians “to mobilise massively to make AFCON 2021 the most beautiful football jamboree ever organised in our continent”.

Egypt's Mohamed Salah
Superstar Mohamed Salah will lead Egypt’s attack at the tournament [File: Andrew Medichini/AP Photo]

Football superstars such as Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah (Egypt) and Sadio Mane (Senegal), as well as Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez (Algeria) are all set to represent their countries at AFCON. But their clubs were allowed to keep the players until January 3, instead of December 27 as per FIFA’s rules, after CAF accepted a request by domestic leagues. However, there has been controversy surrounding the release of some players, including Emmanuel Dennis (Nigeria) and Ismaila Sarr (Senegal) of English side Watford.

“You will ask yourself, why didn’t we have this backlash in the days of George Weah, Didier Drogba or Samuel Eto’o?” he said, citing past football greats hailing from African countries. “It is confirmation African players are highly sorted now,” added Elume, suggesting that European clubs are finding it hard to release their top talent in the middle of the season.

Since its inception. the AFCON had been taking place in the months of January and February when European championships are in full swing. In 2017, CAF decided on a June-July period, with an expansion from 16 to 24 teams. Egypt staged the first revamped edition in 2019, but Cameroon decided to hold the tournament in January because of rains during June.

Though Elume believes the approach of the Europeans towards AFCON has been disrespectful, he also said CAF and FIFA have a lot to account for.

“It was really disrespectful to Africa that few weeks to the AFCON, CAF was still thinking about postponing the event, after all the pressure it has been putting on Cameroon. CAF and FIFA need to fix a proper calendar to avoid such a show again,” he said.

In football-crazy Yaounde, however, excitement has been building up before The Indomitable Lions’ first match.

“I can’t imagine this tournament I used to watch on TV is happening in our country in a few days,” 20-year-old Gervais told Al Jazeera. “I wasn’t even born when we had our first tournament – I feel so happy.”

Source: Al Jazeera