Cameroon has not hosted the Africa Cup of Nations since the 1972. Optimists hope the goodwill generated by the tournament can be used to foster national unity, with the south west of the country still mired in violence.
After 40 years in power, President Biya is famously not a man fond of public appearances.
But Sunday’s opening ceremony of the 33rd Africa Cup of Nations was taken as an opportunity to be centre-stage – at least briefly. The 88-year-old entered the new stadium that bears his name in a motorcade that lapped the athletics track as he and the first lady, Chantal, waved through the open roof. His speech, when it came, was only a few sentences, a formal declaration of the tournament’s start.
Biya had more to say in his New Year address to the nation 10 days ago, pitching the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon or CAF) as part of a grand plan for infrastructure development, before calling “on our Beloved Indomitable Lions to do their utmost to ensure that they end this festival in grand style on the evening of 6 February 2022”.
Dose of reality
The optimism was, however, to be contrasted with the heart of the speech focusing on national disunity. “Many of our compatriots remain within the ranks of armed groups”, he warned. “They continue to engage in criminal activities, increasing attacks with improvised explosive devices and murders of unarmed civilians. The recent assassination of three students and a teacher of Bilingual High School Ekondo Titi added to their long list of abuses and atrocities.”
That attack in the Southwest region in November 2021 served as an inconvenient reminder that the five-year “Anglophone crisis” continues without resolution. If hasn’t been enough to undermine Cameroon’s hosting status this time round, memories are still fresh from enduring the humiliation of CAF’s decision in 2018 to strip Yaounde of the tournament and hand duties to Egypt for the summer 2019 edition. Delayed preparations and the “Ambazonia” crisis played a central role.
Politics at bay…for now
This year politics has not altered the itinerary – with Group F’s Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and Gambia still set to train in the restive south-west regional capital Buea and eight matches to be played in coastal Limbé, where there were reports of an explosion as recently as 5 January and the security presence is heavy. The government will be hoping that a tournament without major incident will buttress the official position that the worst has passed.
If Cameroon make the final at the Paul Biya Stadium on the outskirts of Yaoundé, critics of the $300m facility will still be entitled to rail against the total costs of the tournament. Around $700m has been sunk into stadia and roads but home success at Afcons tends to drown out opposition.
There will have been relief that the Lions recovered from 1-0 down to Burkina Faso on Sunday, taking advantage of two rashly conceded penalties to squeeze home 2-1.
There is genuine excitement
After all, Cameroon has not hosted the tournament since 1972 (when it featured just eight teams in two groups) and have a formidable home record in competitive matches. The recent defeat of Cote d’Ivoire in the battle for World Cup qualification raised expectation further.
In 2017, a young, largely unfancied Lions side beat Senegal, Ghana and, finally, Egypt to lift the country’s 5th Afcon title in dramatic fashion. Aboubakar’s late win in Libreville sealed a tournament that entertained without ever quite hitting great heights. It had political resonance too.
In the week after that win, goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa expressed solidarity on television with the country’s English-speaking minority. “My brothers, I am from Bamenda. For you, for you,” he said, a Francophone star dedicating the victory to the north-western anglophone city at a time of ongoing repression.
On the downside, the team hasn’t progressed significantly since that title win and exited at the last 16 stage in Egypt the last time out. Defending champions Algeria and an exciting Senegal side are a rank above on current form.
The greatest threat to the tournament may yet come from Covid-19. CAF, having vigorously resisted calls for postponement, now has to cope with public health concerns, a complex testing regime and, inevitably, missing players.
It may be that things settle down once squads have fully entered the country and remain in their bubbles. But already Senegal has been badly affected, with nine players testing positive – including Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy and Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly – just days before their opening game against Zimbabwe on Monday. Gabon, Malawi, Ivory Coast and Tunisia also had preparations disrupted by new cases.
With only 2.5% of the population double-vaccinated, the tournament requirement for fans to prove their status to gain entry to stadiums is being watched closely. According to CAF, “supporters may only enter stadiums if they are fully vaccinated and are able to show a negative PCR test result that is no older than 72 hours or a negative antigen test result no older than 24 hours.” Cameroon’s matches are already restricted to 80% capacity to ease social distancing while all other fixtures are capped at 60%.
Biya’s name may be on the stadium but the popular figurehead for this Afcon will undoubtedly be the new President of the Cameroon football federation, Samuel Eto’o.
The four-time African Footballer of the Year and two-time Afcon winner has staked his reputation on a smooth tournament and a new era for the troubled domestic game. He was at the forefront of resistance to calls for delay at the end of last year and issued a warning to voices from Europe seeking to undermine Afcon’s credibility.
“The federation that I represent will strongly defend the competition,” he said. “The Euros were played in the middle of the pandemic with full stadiums. Why shouldn’t we play?” For all the politics and problems, there is once again no compelling riposte to that question.
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