On Friday afternoon, 48 hours before the Africa Cup of Nations was due to kick off at the newly … nearly … finished Stade d’Olembe in Yaounde, the Cameroonian capital already had a sizzling, feverish pre-match feel.
It’s been 50 years since Cameroon last hosted the continental showpiece — a lifetime in footballing terms, particularly considering the Nations Cup is hosted every two years — and the young population of this Central African country have only heard about that 1972 tournament in whispered memories passed down through the generations. In the intervening years, neighbouring Equatorial Guinea and Gabon have hosted one and a half tournaments each, Egypt have hosted four, yet Cameroon — one of the great heartlands of African football — have been made to wait again.
Cameroon were meant to host the tournament in 2019, only for CAF’s decision both to expand the tournament to 24 teams and shift it to a June-July calendar to prove obstacles too far for the would-be hosts to manage. In November 2018, citing a lack of confidence in the Central African nation’s readiness, the tournament was withdrawn from Cameroon and given to Egypt.
They were made to wait again last year, with CAF first moving the tournament forward six months to January 2021 due to the unfavourable climate conditions in the Central African nation — as if that couldn’t have been foreseen when the calendar was originally shifted in July 2017 — and then shoving it back a year because of the impact of COVID-19 across the continent.
So from January 2019 to July 2019 to July 2021 to January 2021 to January 2022. We’re finally here.
Time has bred anticipation, and the waiting has bred enthusiasm, bubbling out in every passer-by on the main streets of the capital. Replica football shirts, some genuine, some not so genuine, are ubiquitous in African cities in any weather, but here, Le Coq Sportif greens, yellows and whites of the Cameroon kits appear on every pavement, muddled in alongside the cassava, the plantains and the liver … or at least I hope it was liver.
There are ladies wearing Cameroon hats, selling Cameroon flags, there are children wearing Cameroon flags, selling Cameroon hats, and there was even one outrider — weaving recklessly through the tooting Yaounde traffic — who wore both flag and hat, and an additional flag attached to his hat … just in case anyone questioned his loyalty. It wasn’t clear if he realised the game didn’t actually take place until Sunday.
– Africa Cup of Nations fixtures, results and bracket
There is pride, there is passion, but while these are the fruits that African football — and this charabanc known as the AFCON — can bring to the continent’s capitals, there’s no hiding that the Nations Cup comes to Cameroon in the midst of a period of turmoil. There’s turmoil across the world of course, due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it takes a different tone here. By the end of 2021, less than 3% of the country’s population were vaccinated, and while masks are being worn, they’re largely being worn over the chin rather than the nose and mouth.
“There’s a fear in this country,” one taxi driver told me, “of things we cannot see, of things we cannot know. So people do not take the vaccine.”
There’s hope that CAF’s insistence that supporters demonstrate their vaccine status before entering the AFCON stadiums will prompt a greater vaccine uptake — indeed, the tent outside the Hospital Central where I tried to take my prematch PCR test was chokka with only a day to go until the big kickoff.
The coronavirus concerns live predominantly in the frustrations of coaches — both here, attempting to put together teams and compose tactical strategies not knowing who will be available until the results are in, and of course, back in Europe. This year, more than any other AFCON year, surely heightened by the COVID context, the pushback from European clubs about losing their players midway through the campaign has felt sharper than ever.
Jurgen Klopp’s allegedly misperceived comments about “a small tournament” back in 2021 prompted a predictable backlash, but while some commentators perhaps mistook his words knowingly in order to make their point, they brought out in others a deep-seated protectionist impulse toward the tournament. It’s not hard to see why.
The European Clubs Association’s letter in mid-December, threatening to FIFA that the group of clubs would not release players due to then-obscure coronavirus safety measures in Cameroon, not to mention the dates of player releases overlapping with key European fixtures, fuelled the sense that the AFCON was unwanted and unloved, an inconvenience in the game’s true centre of influence.
It hardly helped that Gianni Infantino, whose ties with newly elected CAF president Patrice Motsepe had been so tight during the latter’s 2021 ascent, suggested that the tournament might be moved to a September-November schedule. The scheduling of Infantino’s gleaming new Club World Cup to clash with the latter stages of the tournament — despite players from Al Ahly potentially having games on the same day — also made FIFA somewhat complicit in the undervaluing of the tournament, and it’s to Motsepe’s credit that he stood strong in light of pressure from all quarters and pushed through with the original dates.
Perhaps, in light of the growing discontent on the continent, he had no choice.
The response was Ivory Coast forward Sebastien Haller slamming the disrespect toward the tournament, while Arsenal legend Ian Wright took to Instagram to state that coverage of the competition was “tinged with racism” and that representing one’s country is the pinnacle in football.
“Yes, your club pays you,” Cameroon captain Vincent Aboubakar told ESPN, “but to represent your country is a huge pride, so of course you leave Europe to come and play. There are so many people who would want to be in our place, to wear the jersey, this is a point of pride for us.”
Similarly, while no one can be entirely confident that the country is ready to host a major tournament until fans are present, games are taking place, matches are being broadcast and crises are avoided, Cameroon largely appear prepared despite the obstacles and challenges that have come their way.
There is a relaxed atmosphere around the Stade d’Olembe with a day to go until the arrival of president of the nation Paul Biya, his first lady Chantal, the head of state of the Comoros, and both FIFA and CAF presidents, even though it’s clear that substantial work is still taking place to ready the stadium for the watching world. Coronavirus is a context that must be dealt with, rather than a genuine existential threat to the tournament’s existence in the eyes of volunteers and CAF officials alike, and certainly, the overwhelming desire now is for the attention to turn to the football itself.
“The [coronavirus] situation that’s happening is the same for everyone,” Cameroon head coach Toni Conceicao told ESPN. “The pandemic of course has affected us, our programme, and [the tournament] should have happened last year, but instead we’ll do it this year.
“The team was affected by COVID, and we couldn’t conduct our [pre-tournament] friendlies, but we did other things, we followed a different path, and I’m confident we’ll get a good result [in our opener against Burkina Faso].
“Every team is worse off for this pandemic, so the impact on us hasn’t been so negative,” he concluded. “We’re just focusing on training, and we only have a few cases in Cameroon, so we’ll just adapt to the situation as we have done since the beginning.”
The election of national legend Samuel Eto’o to the post of FECAFOOT president has fuelled optimism, and there’s hope in Yaounde that he can restore the country to the former glories of the 1980s or the early 2000s. Indeed, driving through the streets of the capital, you would think he — and not Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting or skipper Aboubakar — are the stars of this current Indomitable Lions selection, such is the popularity he enjoys in his homeland. A successful AFCON would be a major early boost to Eto’o’s reign, which will surely test the nous and strategic intelligence of this most magnificent of footballers to their limits.
“We pass our congratulations to the president,” Aboubakar said on Saturday. “When you’re the president you have a vision different to your predecessor in the post, and [Eto’o] was also a former player, he knows what the people need.
“It’s going to have a positive impact, and we wish him all the best. The team are keen to support him — as am I personally — and we want to do something big for him.”
Beyond his initial pledges of boosting the women’s game in the country and eradicating corruption, he must proceed to end the chronic mismanagement and infighting that has long plagued the country’s footballing authorities. Eto’o himself knows how important the AFCON will be for his legacy, and it could give him the momentum to overhaul one of the continent’s fallen giants.
“You can make 27 million Cameroonians dream, in your own home,” Eto’o told the team in an intimate prematch pep talk as seen by ESPN. “You will play in front of your families, your mothers, your little brothers, in front of your friends.
“Dream, dream, please, dream. If you dream, we will dream, too.”
Political problems emerging during the tournament, or logistical issues, or COVID controversies, or a poor showing by the national side, would all serve to dampen the fervour that exists around Eto’o’s decision to take the reins of the federation.
“His presence is positive,” Aboubakar concluded, “and we all hope it works out well.”
While stadiums can be dragged to deadline, and the coronavirus can perhaps be worked around, Cameroon’s political climate is one factor that may be trickier to overlook during the course of the tournament.
The country has been in a civil war — sometimes described as the Anglophone Crisis, political instability or regional unrest — since late 2017, as nationalists from the English-speaking region of the country have variously fought against marginalisation and for secession from the majority Francophone Cameroon. Educations have been shattered, lives have been compromised and solutions do not appear forthcoming.
With Group F set to be held in the coastal town of Limbe, in the contested region, threats have been made against the tournament and the competing teams; menaces that ought not be taken lightly when more than 3,500 people have been killed in the violence. An explosion near Limbe injured 13 people as recently as November, and there was burning of vehicles — with no injuries — ahead of the African Nations Championship that took place in Cameroon a year ago.
The country have promptly ramped up security in the region — military presence on major routes is increasing — but Blaise Chamango, head of an NGO in the region, has warned AFP that threats from both separatists and jihadists must be taken seriously. Nothing draws attention to a cause quite like global headlines.
The world’s media descending on Cameroon for the Nations Cup should represent an opportunity for a global spotlight to illuminate injustices that are taking place or the marginalisation of people who, by a quirk of geopolitical history, find themselves apart from the country in which they belong. As Cameroon — both the country and the football — finds itself at a crossroads, it’s perhaps not in everyone’s interest for the controversies and complications to be swept to one side, and for the focus to entirely be on the football from now on.
Perhaps this “little tournament” can make a positive difference after all.