Fifty years after hosting the African Cup of Nations for the last time, Cameroon kicks off the continental centerpiece on Sunday by aiming for a sixth title while hoping that the specter of the coronavirus does not eclipse the tournament .
Cameroon, who face 2013 finalist Burkina Faso in their opening Group A match at the vast new 60,000-seat Olembe stadium in Yaoundé, know that expectations are high for the Indomitable Lions.
However, they will have to face the defending champions Algeria, Sadio Mane’s Senegal and Mohamed Salah’s Egypt.
Cameroon was initially scheduled to be the host country in 2019, before being deprived of the tournament due to delays in their preparations, with Egypt taking over. The 33rd Nations Cup was then postponed last year due to the pandemic.
The central African country of 27 million was therefore determined to continue the competition amid reports last month that major European clubs wanted it to be postponed again amid Covid concerns.
This time things are moving forward, and Cameroonian coach Toni Conceicao is well aware of the pressure on his side.
“That’s what they put on the table when I signed my contract: at least go to the final, do everything to win it,” Conceicao told AFP.
“We believe that the people and the history of Cameroon force us to do this. It sets the bar high enough, but we are convinced that we can achieve these goals.”
“We have a big weight on our shoulders,” added the Portuguese.
African football officials have established strict Covid-19 rules in an attempt to prevent the competition from becoming a mainstream event, forcing teams to play even if only 11 players are available.
Gabonese star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was forced to self-isolate at his hotel after testing positive on Thursday, while Senegal, Africa’s top-ranked national team, traveled to Cameroon without three members of the his team for the same reason.
Senegal then saw key defender Kalidou Koulibaly test positive shortly after their arrival.
‘Scandal’ Burkina Faso captain Bertrand Traoré called the testing procedures a ‘scandal’ after at least four squad members and coach Kamou Malo tested positive as the match drew up Sunday opening.
“It’s a scandal, we cannot be deprived of the players of the first team 24 hours before the match,” said Traore.
“The authorities must review the organization.”
Covid, however, is far from the only concern in a country facing conflict in the English-speaking West.
Group F matches, featuring Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and The Gambia, are expected to be played in Limbe, a coastal town near Mount Cameroon which is also a hotspot of separatist unrest.
Jihadist raids are also a problem in the north, at least beyond the town of Garoua where Salah’s Egypt and Nigeria will play group matches.
It is because of the health crisis that organizers have capped crowd limits at 60% of capacity, or 80% when hosts are playing.
Spectators must be vaccinated and test negative, but only six percent of the adult population is vaccinated.
Cameroon, however, is football mad and many fans will be desperate to attend games in a country that has only hosted the Nations Cup once before, in 1972, when there had only eight participants.
However, the nation that gave the world Roger Milla and Samuel Eto’o – the latter now president of the Cameroon Football Federation – no longer has the same level of stardust.
Comoros, Gambia debut They have Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana and Bayern Munich forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, but the real superstars of the continent will be elsewhere.
Senegal not only have Liverpool striker Mane, but also Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Idrissa Gana Gueye.
Algeria, defending champion, unbeaten in 33 competitive matches, will be led by Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City, while Morocco will include, among others, PSG full-back Achraf Hakimi and Sevilla goalkeeper Yassine Bounou.
Nigeria, meanwhile, crosses the border without Napoli striker Victor Osimhen and Watford’s Emmanuel Dennis, whose club said they were told too late of his call-up.
In any case, this Nations Cup is not just big names, since The Gambia, ranked 148th in the world, and the Indian Ocean island state of the Comoros are making their debuts.
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