Fri. Jan 21st, 2022

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

Half a century later, he will now see for the second time how his country hosts Africa’s top football tournament.

“I feel so excited and honored,” said Minsoko, a professor at the National Institute of Youth and Sports in Yaounde. “We have to give a very, very good picture of our country.”

On Sunday, Cameroon’s national team – known as “The Indomitable Lions” – will take on Burkina Faso at AFCON’s opening match 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 delays in preparation and security concerns. It was then awarded the 2021 edition, which was moved back a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

And just a few weeks ago, doubts continued as to whether Cameroon would be able to host the 24th tournament amid fears of COVID-19 outbreaks and concerns over security over a years-long conflict in the country’s English regions. Uncertainty has been heightened by reported discord among members of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) executive committee, as well as opposition by European clubs that have threatened to withhold their African players heading to the tournament due to the pandemic.

There were also concerns about Cameroon’s readiness in terms of organization and completion of infrastructure. But on December 22, after a “fruitful” meeting between CAF president Patrice Motsepe and Cameroon’s president Paul Biya, the football body said it was continuing “preparations for a successful presentation” of the tournament.

But the clouds hanging over the AFCON buildup have angered football legend and current president of the country’s football federation, Samuel Eto’o. “If the Euros took place in the middle of the pandemic, with full stadiums in various cities in Europe and there was no problem, why would Afcon not be played in Cameroon?” Eto’o told Canal French media 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 footballers invited by Cameroon’s presidency, said he believed the country was up to the task. task.

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

People gather around the AFCON mascot during the presentation tour in CameroonA security force member poses with the African Cup mascot in Limbe [File: Josiane Kouagheu/Reuters]

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

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

Tournament officials also undertook several trips to Limbe that hosted one of the groups of the 2020 African Nations Championship – a tournament for African-based players – in January 2021 without incident.

‘Beautiful football jamboree’

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

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

CAF said on Tuesday that it had agreed with the local organizing committee that Cameroon’s matches would be played before 80 percent of the stadium’s capacity due to the pandemic, while the capacity at the other matches would be limited to 60 percent. Spectators will have to submit proof of vaccination, as well as a negative PCR test result. CAF said it will also bring its own lab to test players during the competition.

In his New Year’s speech, Biya called on Cameroonians “to mobilize on a large scale to make AFCON 2021 the most beautiful football jamboree ever organized on our continent”.

Egypt's Mohamed Salah Superstar Mohamed Salah will lead Egypt’s attack at 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) will all represent their countries at AFCON. But their clubs were allowed to keep the players until January 3, instead of December 27 according to FIFA’s rules, after CAF accepted a request by local leagues. However, there has been controversy over the release of some players, including Emmanuel Dennis (Nigeria) and Ismaila Sarr (Senegal) from English side Watford.

“You will ask yourself, why did we not have this setback in the days of George Weah, Didier Drogba or Samuel Eto’o?” he said, referring to previous football greats coming from African countries. “It is a confirmation that African players are now highly sorted,” Elume added, suggesting that European clubs are finding it difficult to release their top talent in the middle of the season.

Since its inception. the AFCON took place in the months of January and February when European Championships were in full swing. In 2017, CAF decided on a June-July period, with an expansion from 16 to 24 teams. Egypt hosted the first refurbished edition in 2019, but Cameroon decided to hold the tournament in January due to rain during June.

Although Elume believes that the Europeans’ approach to AFCON was disrespectful, he also said that CAF and FIFA have a lot to account for.

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

In football mad Yaounde, however, excitement built up before The Indomitable Lions’ first game.

“I can not imagine that this tournament I watched on TV will take place in our country within a few days,” the 20-year-old Gervais told Al Jazeera. “I was not even born when we had our first tournament – I feel so happy.”

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