Yaoundé (AFP) – Hosts Cameroon became the first team to qualify for the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations on Thursday as captain Vincent Aboubakar and Karl Toko-Ekambi both scored twice in a 4-1 demolition of Ethiopia in Yaounde.

It was a game that brought the tournament to life after a goal-shy first round of group matches saw a meagre total of just 12 goals in 12 encounters, four of which were penalties.

Cameroon had been the only team out of 24 at the tournament to score more than a single goal in their first match when a brace of Aboubakar penalties saw them beat Burkina Faso 2-1 on Sunday.

Back at the same Olembe Stadium in the capital Yaounde they ran riot, although only after Dawa Hotessa gave Ethiopia a shock lead.

Lyon forward Toko-Ekambi quickly headed in the equaliser and then Aboubakar added a brace early in the second half before Toko-Ekambi completed the victory.

“We played well going forward but we still need to improve defensively. Things are only going to get tougher,” said Cameroon’s Portuguese coach Toni Conceicao.

Toko-Ekambi, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Collins Fai all also hit the woodwork for the Indomitable Lions, and the five-time African champions are now well-placed to finish top of Group A, although they must still play Cape Verde, who face Burkina Faso later on Thursday.

Ethiopia, the 1962 champions, are left still looking for their first win at the Cup of Nations since 1976. This is their third appearance at the finals since then but they have now gone 10 matches without a win at the tournament.

– Fans stay away –

Cameroon’s fine victory was played out in front of vast swathes of empty seats at the 60,000-capacity Olembe Stadium, with supporters in the football-mad country choosing to stay away from venues in large numbers.

“We hope there will be more people there for the third match,” said Toko-Ekambi.

Organisers have restricted crowds to 60 percent of capacity because of the pandemic, although for games involving Cameroon the limit is raised to 80 percent.

Nevertheless fans must also be vaccinated against Covid-19 and provide proof of a negative coronavirus test, enough to put off many in a country with a very low rate of inoculation.

Despite that Cameroonians are very much behind their team, while the country deals with separatist violence in its two anglophone regions, both of which straddle the Nigerian border in the west.

– Separatist violence –

Troops and armed men exchanged fire on Wednesday in the town of Buea in the Southwest region, leaving several injured.

Buea is a short drive from the coastal town of Limbe, which is hosting eight matches at the Cup of Nations including all games in Group F.

The teams in that group — Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and Gambia — are using Buea as their training bases.

An opposition senator was also found shot dead in the region on Wednesday, when the road to Limbe from economic capital Douala — a distance of around 80 kilometres — was lined with elite solders and members of the police.

Wednesday’s match in Limbe between Mali and Tunisia was marred by controversy when Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe blew the final whistle before 90 minutes had been completed, with Mali 1-0 up.

Officials ordered that the teams would have to come back out to play three more minutes, but Tunisia decided not to bother returning, despite being furious with the referee.

The Confederation of African Football said on Thursday it was investigating the incidents.

On Friday, Senegal, Africa’s top-ranked national team, will look to make it two wins from two in Group B as they play Guinea in western city Bafoussam before Malawi take on Zimbabwe.

Morocco, another of the title contenders, play tournament debutants the Comoros in Group C in Yaounde, where Ghana face a Gabon side who could have star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back from from Covid-19.