Football-loving Cameroon counts right down to first AFCON in 50 years

Yaounde, Cameroon – Ndongo Minsoko was 10 years previous in 1972 when he was amongst 1,000 college students who had been chosen to affix 1000’s of different spectators for the opening ceremony of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) at Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde.

Half a century later, he’s now set to witness his nation internet hosting Africa’s prime soccer event for a second time.

“I feel so excited and honoured,” mentioned Minsoko, a professor on the National Institute of Youth and Sport in Yaounde. “We should give a very, very good image of our country.”

On Sunday, Cameroon’s nationwide group – often known as “The Indomitable Lions” – will tackle Burkina Faso at AFCON’s opening recreation at Yaounde’s Olembe Stadium.

Cameroon was first scheduled to host the month-long event in 2019, but it surely was changed by Egypt as a consequence of preparation delays and safety worries. It was then awarded the 2021 version, which was pushed again by a 12 months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

And only a few weeks in the past, doubts continued over whether or not Cameroon would be capable to host the 24-tournament amid fears of COVID-19 outbreaks and safety considerations over a years-long battle within the nation’s Anglophone areas. The uncertainty was elevated by reported rifts amongst members of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) govt committee, in addition to opposition by European golf equipment which threatened to withhold their African gamers certain for the event due to the pandemic.

There had been additionally considerations over Cameroon’s readiness by way of organisation and completion of infrastructure. But on December 22, following a “fruitful” assembly between CAF President Patrice Motsepe and Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, the soccer physique mentioned it was going forward with “preparations of a successful hosting” of the event.

But the clouds hanging over the AFCON build-up left soccer legend and present president of the nation’s soccer federation, Samuel Eto’o, fuming. “If the Euros took place in the middle of the pandemic, with full stadiums in several cities in Europe and there was no problem, why wouldn’t Afcon be played in Cameroon?” Eto’o instructed French media Canal final month.

Tijani Babangida, a former Nigeria worldwide who was in Cameroon in October to examine AFCON services as a part of a bunch of African soccer aces invited by Cameroon’s presidency, mentioned he believed the nation was as much as the duty.

“I’m very impressed with what I saw,” the 48-year-old, who performed for Nigeria between 1994 and 2004, instructed Al Jazeera. “Cameroon has done very well. If you see the pitches, the hotels, the hospitals … all are of standard.”

People gather around the AFCON mascot during the presentation tour in CameroonA safety forces member poses with the Africa Cup of Nations mascot in Limbe [File: Josiane Kouagheu/Reuters]

Cameroon has constructed or renovated greater than 30 stadiums and coaching pitches in 5 of its 10 areas within the build-up to the 24-tournament which can happen within the cities of Yaounde, Douala, Garoua, Bafoussam and Limbe.

Security considerations have been centred on Limbe, a coastal city situated within the English-speaking a part of Cameroon the place Anglophone separatists have been clashing with authorities forces for about 5 years. The authorities has beefed up safety by deploying extra officers in Limbe, which is seen as a comparatively calm resort city within the troubled southwestern area.

Tournament officers have additionally made a number of journeys to Limbe which hosted one of many teams of the 2020 African Nations Championship – a event for Africa-based gamers – in January 2021, with none incident.

‘Beautiful football jamboree’

Meanwhile, Olembe Stadium, the model new 60,000-seat facility as a consequence of host the opening ceremony and match on Sunday, has been the topic of debate on whether or not will probably be prepared in time  But Jules Denis Onana, the stadium coordinator and former Cameroon worldwide participant, insisted there was no motive to fret.

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

On Tuesday, CAF mentioned that it had agreed with the native organising committee that Cameroon’s matches will probably be performed in entrance of 80 p.c of the stadium’s capability because of the pandemic, whereas capability on the different video games will probably be capped at 60 p.c. Spectators would wish to current proof of vaccination, in addition to a destructive PCR take a look at consequence. CAF mentioned it can additionally convey its personal laboratory to check gamers throughout the competitors.

In his New Year speech, Biya referred to as on Cameroonians “to mobilise massively to make AFCON 2021 the most beautiful football jamboree ever organised in our continent”.

Egypt's Mohamed Salah Superstar Mohamed Salah will lead Egypt’s assault on the event [File: Andrew Medichini/AP Photo]

Football superstars similar to Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah (Egypt) and Sadio Mane (Senegal), in addition to Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez (Algeria) are all set to signify their nations at AFCON. But their golf equipment had been allowed to maintain the gamers till January 3, as a substitute of December 27 as per FIFA’s rules, after CAF accepted a request by home leagues. However, there was controversy surrounding the discharge of some gamers, together with Emmanuel Dennis (Nigeria) and Ismaila Sarr (Senegal) of English aspect Watford.

“You will ask yourself, why didn’t we have this backlash in the days of George Weah, Didier Drogba or Samuel Eto’o?” he mentioned, citing previous soccer greats hailing from African nations. “It is confirmation African players are highly sorted now,” added Elume, suggesting that European golf equipment are discovering it onerous to launch their prime expertise in the course of the season.

Since its inception. the AFCON had been happening within the months of January and February when European championships are in full swing. In 2017, CAF selected a June-July interval, with an growth from 16 to 24 groups. Egypt staged the primary revamped version in 2019, however Cameroon determined to carry the event in January due to rains throughout June.

Though Elume believes the approach of the Europeans in the direction of AFCON has been disrespectful, he additionally mentioned CAF and FIFA have quite a bit to account for.

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

In football-crazy Yaounde, nonetheless, pleasure has been increase earlier than The Indomitable Lions’ first match.

“I can’t imagine this tournament I used to watch on TV is happening in our country in a few days,” 20-year-old Gervais instructed Al Jazeera. “I wasn’t even born when we had our first tournament – I feel so happy.”

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