AFCON 2021: Tragedy hangs over the next phase

THE AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS (AFCON) may have reached a crucial stage, but there is a very dark shadow hanging over it in the form of the loss of at least eight people at the Cameroon versus Comoros game. 

While the hosts were winning through to the last eight, there was a crush at the south end of the Olembe Stadium, allegedly caused by a closed gate, a rush of people and below-par policing. As one local journalist told the BBC: “I have been to football matches in seven African countries and every time I make the same observation: there are so many police officers and so little safety.”

Before the event even began, there were misgivings about AFCON being held in Cameroon, a country with a very low rate of covid vaccination and one with pockets of political and social unrest. They have gamely tried to manage a trouble-free tournament, but apparently, a similar incident was only just avoided in the early group games. It wasn’t the first time tragedy has hit AFCON for in 2010, Togo’s team bus was attacked in Angola and three people were killed.

In such circumstances, football seems relatively unimportant and trivial, but AFCON continues and CAF must be hoping that on-pitch events dominate the headlines in the next week or two. There have already been some bizarre incidents, such as the referee who blew for time with four minutes remaining and the brave display by a covid-hit Comoros side who had to improvise in order to field a keeper. Covid, of course, has been a major obstacle and more than 25% of the 24 participants have been hit by the virus. Furthermore, VAR seems to have taken an age at times.

There have been some premature departures from the party, such as holders Algeria, who earned one point from their three games against Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast. Ghana were also a group stage casualty, finishing below Morocco, Gabon and first-timers Comoros. 

So far, though, classic contests have been in short supply, but there has been no lack of enthusiasm from the spectators who provide the usual colourful backdrop for AFCON.

Goals have been very scarce, the average per game is just 1.82 which is lower than just about every major competition in recent times, but this is hardly a new development, the 2019 version had a sub-two goals average (1.96) and 2017 was just over two (2.06). There’s no shortage of decent strikers, but big names like Mo Salah (Egypt) and Sadio Mané (Senegal) have only three goals between them. Larger-than-life character Vincent Aboubakar of Cameroon leads the way with six goals having scored in every game so far.

Cameroon’s hopes are growing by the day and they come up against debutants The Gambia in the quarter-final in Douala. They are favourites to go through to the last four but they will be aware that Tunisia were beaten 1-0 in their group clash with the Scorpions. 

Tunisia, the Eagles of Carthage, made it into the quarter-finals after beating one of the favourites, Nigeria in the round 16. They will play Burkina Faso in Guaroa.

Highly fancied Senegal, who have never won AFCON, face Equatiorial Guinea in the next round after disposing of Cape Verde, who had two men sent off, including a goalkeeper. Senegal have yet to concede in their four matches, perhaps understandable given they have Chelsea’s Édouard Mendy between the posts.

The tie of the round is arguably Egypt versus Morocco which takes place in the Ahidjo stadium in Yaoundé. Egypt, the most successful AFCON nation, have been a little goal-shy so far and have netted just twice in four games, relying on penalties to get through against Ivory Coast. Morocco, who have Paris Saint-Germain’s Achraf Hakimi in their squad, have scored twice in every game except their opener with Ghana.

Of the last eight, five of the countries are still in with a chance of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. One of the five two-legged ties that will determine who goes to Qatar later this year is Egypt versus Senegal, and that may well be the final of AFCON 2021 on February 6. Cameroon may have something to say about that, though.

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.