Cameroon starts to believe – AFCON kicks off

IT TOOK just a minute or so for Burkina Faso’s Steeve Yago to earn a yellow card in the Africa Cup of Nations opener, raising fears that recklessness might spoil the long-awaited game in the Olambe Stadium. Happily, that wasn’t the case and CAF must have been pleased with level of entertainment and quality on show from both teams. 

Cameroon, we have been told, have a great team spirit among their players and everyone is happy, something that has not always characterised their squads in past major competitions. On the evidence of this first game, they are very much “together” and they will be a force to be reckoned with in the coming weeks. Cameroon may not have the most skilful or coveted players in AFCON, and they may not be the equals of some of their teams of the 1990s, but they’ve got enough to progress deep into the knockout stages and will surely benefit from their host status

The Indomitable Lions had been in command in the first 20 minutes, but were stunned by a 24th minute goal from Burkina Faso. Firstly, Bertrand Traoré, one of the many players that Chelsea have loaned out to European clubs over the past 15 years, but now at Aston Villa, had a header cleared off the line. The ball went out to Gustavo Sangare, who sent over a cross that almost deceived Cameroon’s flapping keeper Andre Onana, and then Traoré returned it for Sangare to left-foot volley into the net with agility. A fine goal that had literally come out of the blue.

Cameroon resumed their early pressure and in the 38th minute, Traoré fouled former Fulham midfielder André-Frank Zambo Anguissa in the area and after a prolonged VAR check, a penalty was awarded. Vincent Aboubakar of Saudi club Al-Nassr, who scored the winning goal in the 2017 AFCON final against Egypt, confidentally stepped-up to equalise. 

Aboubakar is something of a force of nature, very imposing but lacking a little finesse. Nevertheless, he has personality and could become one of the players of the tournament if Cameroon do enjoy a lengthy run.

As the first half went into added time, Cameroon were awarded another penalty, Issoufou Dayo sliding in on Nouhou Tolo. Aboubakar, who had sent Burkina Faso goalkeeper Herve Koffi the wrong way with his first effort, sent his spot-kick to the opposite side of the goal.

Burkina Faso tried to retaliate in the second period and Onana did well to stop Cyrille Bayala from close range. Later on, Aboukabar thought he had secured his hat-trick, but VAR runed his effort out due to offside. Cameroon hung on to win 2-1 and take a step closer to the last 16. They have been unbeaten for 33 years in Yaoundé, the capital city.

Cameroon last hosted the competition in 1972 and they have had to wait for their chance to stage the AFCON. “Fifty years later, it’s time to reintroduce ourselves to the world,” said Samuel Eto’o. the president of the Cameroon FA. “After nearly three years since Africa’s biggest players last came together on the football pitch we’re finally ready. It has not been easy, but thanks to an incredible team of seasoned and passionate professionals, African football with shine like never before.”

The Olambe Stadium in Yaoundé is named after Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, who was desperate for AFCON to return to his country. But there has been no small amount of controversy surrounding the competition. Human rights activitists and separatists from Ambazonia argue that AFCON will act as a big distraction from some of the country’s problems. In Limbe, some groups have said they may attack some of the national teams accommodated in the region. There have also been clashes between shepherds and farmers in the north, but nobody seems too worried about these disturbances. What is very concerning is the scarcity of water that has resulted in many deaths.

On top of these issues, some squads have been badly hit by outbreaks of the virus and there have been problems around testing among the competing nations. There are claims some of the tests are unreliable and also the legitimacy of some of the testing staff has been questioned. Hosting a major tournament is complex at the best of times, but in such an environment of uncertainty, the AFCON appears to be walking a tightrope. Meanwhile, Cameroon is celebrating their first victory. In the very difficult circumstances, never has “taking one game at a time” appeared more appropriate.

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