Yaoundé (AFP) – The wait is finally over for Cameroon, which from Sunday hosts the Africa Cup of Nations three years later than initially planned as its own Indomitable Lions measure up to the likes of reigning champions Algeria, the Senegal of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah’s Egypt.
Cameroon was initially supposed to be the host nation in 2019, before being stripped of the tournament due to delays in its preparations, with Egypt replacing it. The 33rd Cup of Nations was then postponed last year because of the pandemic.
The Central African country of 27 million people was therefore determined to press on with the competition amid reports last month that leading European clubs wanted it postponed again due to Covid concerns.
This time it does go ahead, starting Sunday when Cameroon, coached by Portugal’s Toni Conceicao, take on Burkina Faso in Yaounde, but the spectre of the coronavirus is not going away.
Arsenal star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and his Gabon team-mate Mario Lemina tested positive on Thursday and were in isolation in their hotel.
Senegal, Africa’s top-ranked national team, travelled to Cameroon without three members of their squad who had tested positive.
“Unprecedented times,” tweeted Egypt coach Carlos Queiroz on Friday after reports emerged of positive tests in his squad’s camp.
“The more the situation becomes difficult, the more we stay together and strong,” he added.
– Covid not the only concern –
Covid, though, is far from the only concern in a country dealing with a conflict in the English-speaking west.
Matches in Group F, featuring Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and Gambia, are due to be played in Limbe, a coastal city close to Mount Cameroon which is also a hotspot of separatist unrest.
Jihadist raiders also pose a problem in the north, at least beyond the city of Garoua where Salah’s Egypt and Nigeria will play group games.
It is because of the health crisis that organisers have capped crowd limits at 60 percent of capacity, or 80 percent when the hosts play.
Spectators must be vaccinated and have a negative test result, but only six percent of the adult population is inoculated.
It therefore remains to be seen how many venues will come close to filling the restricted capacity, in particular the vast new 60,000-seat Olembe Stadium in Yaounde and the 50,000-seat Japoma Stadium in Douala.
Cameroon, though, is football mad and many fans will be desperate to attend games in a country that has only hosted the Cup of Nations once before, in 1972 when there were just eight participants.
The dream for Cameroon this time is to be in the final in the capital Yaounde on February 6, as they look to add to their five titles, a tally bettered only by Egypt, African champions a record seven times.
“We know that Cameroonians have high hopes because the competition is taking place here,” coach Conceicao told the BBC.
– Senegal, Algeria the favourites –
However, the nation that gave the world the likes of Roger Milla and Samuel Eto’o — the latter now president of the Cameroonian Football Federation — no longer boasts the same level of stardust.
They have Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana and Bayern Munich striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and they should certainly qualify from a group also containing Ethiopia and Cape Verde, but the real superstars of the continent will be elsewhere.
Senegal, who face Zimbabwe, Guinea and Malawi in the western city of Bafoussam, boast not just Liverpool forward Mane but also Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly and Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Idrissa Gana Gueye.
Holders Algeria, unbeaten in 33 competitive games, will be led by Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez, while Morocco have PSG full-back Achraf Hakimi and Sevilla goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, amongst others.
Little wonder some European clubs are not happy about losing such a calibre of player for up to a month mid-season.
Nigeria, meanwhile, cross the border without Napoli striker Victor Osimhen, or Watford’s Emmanuel Dennis, whose club said they received notice of his call-up too late.
In any case this Cup of Nations is not just about the big names, as Gambia, ranked 148th in the world, and the Indian Ocean island state of the Comoros make their debuts, while South Africa are among those to miss out.
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