Football-loving Cameroon counts down to host AFCON for the first time in 50 years | Football News

Yaoundé, Cameroon In 1972, Ndongo Minsoko was only 10 years old when he was one of 1,000 students who were selected to participate in the opening ceremony with thousands of other spectators. Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon.

Half a century later, he will now witness his country’s second African top football championship.

“I feel very excited and honored,” said Minsoko, a professor at the National Youth and Sports Academy in Yaoundé. “We should give our country a very, very good image.”

On Sunday, the Cameroonian national team-known as the “indomitable lions”-will face Burkina Faso in the first AFCON match at the Orembe Stadium in Yaoundé.

Cameroon was originally scheduled to host a one-month competition in 2019, but due to delays in preparations and safety issues, it was replaced by Egypt. Then it was awarded the 2021 edition, but it was postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Just a few weeks ago, people still doubted whether Cameroon would be able to host 24 games due to concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak and the security problems caused by years of conflict in the English-speaking part of the country. According to reports, disagreements among the members of the African Football Federation (CAF) executive committee and opposition from European clubs have increased uncertainty, which have threatened to deny their African players from participating in the competition due to the pandemic.

Cameroon’s preparations for the organization and completion of infrastructure are also worrying. But on December 22, following a “fruitful” meeting between CAF President Patrice Mosepe and Cameroonian President Paul Biya, the football organization stated that it would continue to be “prepared to successfully host” matches.

However, the dark clouds hanging over the AFCON rally made the football legend and current chairman of the football association Samuel Eto’o angry. “If the European Cup took place during the pandemic and the stadiums in several European cities were packed and there were no problems, why not hold the Afcon in Cameroon?” Eto’o told French media Canal last month.

Former Nigerian international Tijani Babangida visited AFCON facilities in Cameroon in October as part of a group of African football ace invited by the President of Cameroon. He said he believes the country is capable of the task.

“I was very impressed by what I saw,” the 48-year-old player, who played for Nigeria from 1994 to 2004, told Al Jazeera. “Cameroon has done a good job. If you see stadiums, hotels, hospitals… all are standard.”

During the show tour in Cameroon, people gathered around the AFCON mascotA member of the security forces poses with the African Cup of Nations mascot in Limbe [File: Josiane Kouagheu/Reuters]

Cameroon has built or renovated more than 30 stadiums and training grounds in 5 of its 10 regions in preparation for the 24 Tournament.

Security issues have been concentrated in the coastal town of Limbe, located in the English-speaking part of Cameroon, where English-speaking separatists have clashed with government forces for about five years. The government has strengthened security by deploying more police in Limbe, which is regarded as a relatively peaceful resort town in the troubled southwestern region.

Event officials have also visited Limbe several times, where a team of the 2020 African National Championships (a tournament for African players) was held in January 2021 without any accidents.

‘Beautiful Football Orgy’

At the same time, the brand new 60,000-seat Orembe Stadium, which will host the opening ceremony and games on Sunday, has been the subject of debate about whether it can be ready in time, but the stadium coordinator and former Cameroonian international player Jules Dennis Onana, insisted that there is no reason to worry.

“I can assure you that we are ready to hold that game in the stadium on January 9,” the 57-year-old told Al Jazeera. “We only work on the flowers at the west entrance of the stadium.”

On Tuesday, CAF stated that it has reached an agreement with the local organizing committee that due to the pandemic, Cameroon’s games will be played before 80% of the stadium’s capacity, while the capacity of other games will be limited to 60%. The audience needs to show a vaccination certificate and a negative PCR test result. CAF said that it will also bring its own laboratory to test the players during the competition.

In his New Year’s speech, Biya called on Cameroonians to “make a large-scale mobilization to make AFCON 2021 the most beautiful football event ever held in our continent”.

Mohamed Salah of Egypt Superstar Mohamed Salah will lead the Egyptian team to attack in the game [File: Andrew Medichini/AP Photo]

The Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah (Egypt) and Sadio Mane (Senegal) and Manchester City’s Riyadh Mahrez (Algeria) will represent their countries in AFCON. However, after CAF accepted the domestic league’s request, their club was allowed to keep players until January 3, instead of keeping them until December 27 according to FIFA regulations. However, there has been controversy surrounding the release of some players, including Emmanuel Denis (Nigeria) and Ismaila Sal (Senegal) of the English team Watford.

“You ask yourself, why did we not have such strong opposition in the era of George Weah, Didier Drogba or Samuel Eto’o?” He said, citing past football superstars from African countries. . Elum added: “This confirms that African players are now ranked very high,” which shows that European clubs find it difficult to release their top talent in the middle of the season.

Since its inception. AFCON has been held in January and February, when the European Championships were in full swing. In 2017, CAF decided to expand from 16 teams to 24 teams from June to July. Egypt hosted the first revised competition in 2019, but Cameroon decided to host the competition in January due to rain in June.

Although Elume believes that Europeans have disrespect for AFCON, he also said that CAF and FIFA have a lot to explain.

“In the weeks of AFCON, CAF is still considering postponing the event. This is really disrespectful to Africa because it has put all the pressure on Cameroon. CAF and FIFA need to develop a suitable schedule to avoid There will be such a game again,” he said.

However, in the football-crazy Yaoundé, before the first game of the indomitable Lions, excitement had already been established.

20-year-old Gervais told Al Jazeera: “I can’t imagine that the game I used to watch on TV will happen in our country within a few days.” “When we first participated in the game, I was not born yet-I I am very happy.”