Africa’s premier football tournament ready for kickoff in Cameroon
The biggest football tournament in Africa is under a day away from kick-off in Cameroon, a nation that has managed to take the top continental honor five times in its history.
Much has been said leading up to the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON); from Cameroon’s preparedness to host the tournament to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to ravage the world.
Initially scheduled to be played in January 2021, the pandemic forced a postponement as the world ground to a halt, battling the novel coronavirus.
The 2021 AFCON is scheduled to start on the 9th of January and run through to February 6.
The Central African host nation is however now confident of staging a safe and competitive tournament. But the journey here hasn’t been without hiccups.
As the tournament drew near, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) received a major setback as the European Clubs Association (ECA) threatened to block players from representing their countries at the tournament, with concerns over the rise in Omicron variant cases and travel restrictions put in place by government authorities.
At the time, multiple African countries were victims of travel bans from various nations across the world, including within the continent.
In quick response to the ECA threat however, CAF issued a raft of strict measures to be followed by players, staff, officials and fans to ensure their safety throughout the tournament.
Among the measures, fans will have to show proof of full vaccination and also provide negative PCR test results taken within 72 hours before they can be allowed into stadiums at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Cameroon.
Players will also undergo tests during the tournament, and the continental body has contracted a foreign entity to be in charge of the tests throughout the month-long event.
With such elaborate measures promised, some calm returned, and preparations continued in earnest.
But that calm did not last too long, as another storm quickly engulfed the tournament. Some European clubs declined to release players to their countries for the tournament, and even more, some Western media publicly put African players on the spot, seemingly questioning whether their allegiance was to club or country.
Western media racism
Former England and Arsenal
striker Ian Wright slammed Western media coverage of Europe-based players
travelling to the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) terming it
"disrespectful" and "tinged with racism".
Wright, says that coverage of the tournament and the issue of player release during the European season, is in marked contrast to how Euro 2020 was treated.
"Is there ever a tournament more disrespected than the Africa Cup of Nations?" Wright said in a video posted on social media.
"There is no greater honors than representing your country.
"The coverage is completely tinged with racism.
"We played our Euros across 10 countries in the middle of a pandemic and there's no issue at all. But Cameroon, a single country hosting a tournament, is a problem."
Wright added that he objected to players being asked whether they intend to play for their countries.
"You are getting journalists asking players... players getting asked if they will be honouring the call-ups to their national teams.
"Imagine if that was an English player representing the Three Lions. Can you imagine the furore?"
English Premier League intransigence
English Premier League side Watford was on record for refusing to release Senegalese forward Ismaila Sarr and Nigerian striker Emmanuel Dennis to their national federations for the tournament.
The club said Sarr was not fit to be involved, having returned from a lengthy injury. On Dennis however, it accused Nigeria of not communicating their desire in time to include the prolific goal-poacher in their squad.
Nigeria accused the club of “baring fangs” and opted to omit the player from the squad, but Senegal threatened further action with FIFA. Sarr was later allowed to join the Teranga Lions.
Past this, the foggy air seemed to start clearing, and the countdown to the tournament was initiated.
As December wound down, qualified countries announced their squads and began preparations, all eyes set on the trophy.
Players began arriving to their national team camps and the hype began burgeoning.
Cameroon made its final touches on the physical aspects of the event, and journalists, corporate representatives and fans – both local and foreign – began making plans for the showpiece.
But even that close, challenges continued to arise. Just days before the tournament, some teams were forced to cancel their training plans, others had to delay travel schedules, and another yet had to leave players behind.
A week to AFCON 2021, Egyptian football authorities postponed the Pharaohs’ flight to Cameroon following positive infections in the camp.
Guinea on the other hand left three players behind at their training base in Rwanda after they tested positive for COVID-19, while the rest of their delegation departed for Cameroon.
Sadio Mane’s Senegal, which was also scheduled to camp in Rwanda for final preparations, opted out of the trip to avoid the risk of players contracting the disease during travels.
Gabon was also affected by the pandemic, as captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, midfielder Mario Lemina and assistant coach Yala Anicet tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Cameroon. They were all omitted from the team’s training routines as they went into isolation.
Despite all these however, the continent remains optimistic the glitz, glamor and pomp that comes with an AFCON tournament will be experienced in whole.
Cameroon is scheduled to open the tournament with a game against Burkina Faso at the newly constructed Olembe stadium, which will also host the final game.
Many eyes will however be on teams like Senegal, whose main man Mane has always voiced his desire to win an AFCON title. In fact, the Liverpool forward has said in the past the AFCON trophy would be his biggest sporting achievement.
Mane’s Liverpool teammate, Mohamed Salah, comes into the tournament Egypt’s main goal threat. If he can manage to replicate the form that he has shown consistently at Liverpool and also inspire his teammates, the Pharaohs could well be in contention for a record-extending eighth title.
The hosts, buoyed by the recent election of football legend Samuel Eto’o as their federation’s president, hope he can inspire the Indomitable Lions to a second title in five years.
Strong and talented squads from Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Algeria, Ghana and Tunisia promise fans quite the experience.
Muslims, Christians pray for tournament
Meanwhile on Friday hundreds of Muslims and Christians gathered in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, to pray for peace during the Africa Football Cup of Nations games.
In Arabic, Imam Souleymane Bouba of Yaoundé’s Tsinga Mosques prayed to God to protect football players, supporters, and match officials travelling to Cameroon for the TotalEnergies 2021 African Football Cup of Nations (AFCON).
Jean Mbarga, archbishop of Yaounde, was among the more than 60 Muslim and Christian clerics present. Mbarga said that the prayer at Yaounde’s Mary Queen of Apostles Basilica begged God to intervene for a peaceful AFCON.
Mbarga says he believes Cameroonians are passionate about football and will come out to support their team, the Indomitable Lions, as well as other African teams. According to him, AFCON should usher in a new era for a Cameroon that is peaceful, strong and united.