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.

AFCON 2021: Watch Senegal, Nigeria and Egypt… and others

CONSIDERING the continent of Africa comprises more than 50 countries and is home to 1.3 billion people, the attitude shown by some football folk towards the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) has been less than appropriate. The impression one gains from some of the comments is this competition is very “inconvenient” for some clubs and their managers.

It is simply wrong to dismiss a tournament that ranks alongside the Euros and Copa America in terms of regional importance. Pundits have hit back, claiming the negative media coverage has been “disrespectful” and “tinged with racism”. If confederations keep expanding and loading-up the fixture list, the noise around too many games and bad timing will surely continue well beyond 2022. However, if a club from England signs African players, this is a consequence they have to live with. There is a price to pay for globalisation.

This year’s AFCON, delayed from 2021, could be one of the best yet. There are more than half a dozen contenders and there’s scope for a surprise challenger or two. Some of the world’s best players are from African countries, for example, the Liverpool duo, Mo Salah (Egypt) and Sadio Mané (Senegal) are now two of the most coveted strikers in Europe.

Algeria are the holders and a lot of smart money will be placed on them retaining the title, but do they rely too much on Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City? They also have in their ranks one of the most promising players in Saïd Bennacer of AC Milan, a defensive midfielder who is tenacious, energetic and versatile. He was voted player of AFCON 2019.

Senegal are highly fancied, and rightly so given 23 members of their squad play across the top five leagues in Europe, including 10 in Ligue 1 and six in the  Premier League. They have never won the Africa Cup of Nations, but they surely have the resources to do it this time. As well as Mané, they have Chelsea keeper Édouard Mendy, possibly the world’s number one, and Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly in their squad.

Morocco have, rather surprisingly, only been champions once, in 1976. Their skipper, 31 year-old Romain Saïss, who plays for Wolverhampton Wanderers, will be one to watch. Morocco, in 2020, won the African Nations Championship, which features players from domestic football. Only two of the AFCON squad currently play for Moroccan clubs.

Any team with Mo Salah as captain and principal striker has to be taken seriously, and Egypt, winners seven times, will have a big advantage with the Liverpool front man in their side. Egypt are the dominant force in African club football, with Cairo-based Al-Ahly winning the CAF Champions League in four times in the last 10 years, including 2020 and 2021.

Nigeria also have a possible star in the making at the tournament in the form of Chidera Ejuke, a very fleet-footed winger who plays for CSKA Moscow. Nigeria also have Leicester City’s  Kelechi Iheanacho and will look to him for goals.

As for Cameroon, they are far off their golden days, but the local fans still have high expectations of Toni Conceicao’s team. “We feel people are more demanding because of our history and what we’ve accomplished in the past. I hope to win because if we don’t reach the objective of at least reaching the final, it’s going to be a difficult journey,” said the coach.

There have long been concerns about Cameroon as hosts, most recently because only 2.4% of the population have been fully vaccinated against covid-19. Cameroon has officially recorded 1,840 deaths from 110,000 infections, though there is some doubt these figures are accurate for a nation with 27 million people. Already some teams have been affected by outbreaks of the virus so precautions have been implemented, with most games limited to 60% of capacity and Cameroon’s games limited to 80%.

There are also security worries as in the south-west region, where unrest is rife and separatist gunmen are a constant threat. Only last week, a bomb exploded in a Limbe takeaway food outlet. The troubled area is some 250 kilometres west of the capital, Yaounde. Over the past year, around 3,000 people have been killed by militants. There have been threats of possible violence at AFCON and even the official mascot had to wear a bullet-proof vest when embarking on a recent publicity tour. The government insists that safety will be guaranteed.

President Paul Biye, who won a seventh term in office in 2018, often uses football to enhance his image. He currently runs a country that has a 40% poverty rate with a third of the population living on two euros a day. There have been protests about the “indecency” of staging the AFCON against this backdrop. Cameroon has built or renovated around 30 stadiums and training pitches in preparation. In his New Year speech, Biya called on Cameroonians to “make AFCON the most beautiful football jamboree ever organised in our continent”.

Cameroon kick-off AFCON 2021 on January 9 against Burkina Faso.