The stage is set for the Africa Cup of Nations to silence its cynics as this year’s showpiece finally prepares to get underway… after Covid delays, security concerns and Premier League moans, football now has the chance to provide Cameroon with a lift
- The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations is finally due to begin in Cameroon on Sunday
- Africa’s major tournament has twice been moved because of Covid-19 issues
- A number of Premier League bosses weren’t happy releasing players mid-season
- But the likes of Mohamed Salah and Riyad Mahrez are finally set to battle it out
- Mahrez’s Algeria and Senegal are the joint-favourites to win the tournament
After two false starts and attempts from its detractors to seemingly instigate a third, the 33rd Africa Cup of Nations is finally here. With it comes opportunity.
For Cameroon to have their moment in the spotlight as host nation for the first time since 1972, welcoming and showcasing Africa’s finest talents.
And for this football-loving country to prove that they can safely stage a major tournament that has twice been moved due to Covid.
The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations is finally due to get underway in Cameroon this Sunday
Some of the biggest stars in world football, including Mohamed Salah (left), will be taking part
FIVE STARS TO WATCH AT AFCON 2021
Sebastien Haller (Ivory Coast)
Today’s Sebastien Haller is very different to the striker West Ham sold for a huge loss just 18 months after signing him for £45million. Revived since moving to Ajax and likely to be in the running for the Golden Boot.
Hannibal Mejbri (Tunisia)
Talented Manchester United midfielder who interim manager Ralf Rangnick has his eye on. International duty has limited the time Mejbri, 18, has had with Rangnick so Afcon represents a chance to impress his new boss.
Pape Matar Sarr (Senegal)
A young midfielder Tottenham fans will want to keep an eye on. Sarr (above) will link up with Antonio Conte’s squad this summer after joining Spurs for £14.5m last year before being loaned back to Metz.
Samuel Chukwueze (Nigeria)
The tournament build-up has seen Nigeria’s attacking threat weakened by dropouts but Villarreal star Chukwueze remains. The 22-year-old right winger will be one of the Super Eagles’ main danger-men.
Steven Caulker (Sierra Leone)
Former spurs defender Caulker (right) has rebuilt his career in Turkey. Now starting an international adventure after switching from England, who he played for once, to Sierra Leone.
There is disgruntlement, even anger, in Africa about the tone of some of the pre-tournament moans in Europe and particularly from some in the Premier League about releasing players. ‘Why the hypocrisy towards Africa?’ said one Confederation of African Football official. ‘It irritates me.’
The tournament is being staged in its familiar mid-season slot so it is hardly a surprise to clubs but Covid has given them an extra reason to complain. The European Club Association even expressed their ‘deep concerns’ to FIFA regarding player welfare last year following the emergence of the Omicron variant.
Then there are security issues. Of the six host cities, only the coastal city Limbe — which will stage eight matches — is in the troubled south-west region and considered a potential concern.
The surrounding, rural areas of Limbe, in the English-speaking part of Cameroon, have been the scene of armed attacks since 2017 due to a domestic dispute involving Anglophone separatists clashing with government forces. Armoured vehicles are a common sight in Limbe’s remote areas.
In the capital Yaounde, locals have noted the increased levels of security, with more police, gendarmes and traffic officers on patrol. But that is to be expected for a tournament of this profile and will be ramped up further, in part as reassurance.
In Cameroon they have been living in this climate for years which perhaps explains why there is calm in the country ahead of the finals. Last year’s African Nations Championship, which included games in Limbe, passed without trouble, increasing confidence of an incident-free tournament.
Intense scrutiny this year has only sharpened the minds of those responsible for guaranteeing everyone’s safety, especially with the horror of the terrorist attack on the Togo team bus ahead of the 2010 tournament in Angola fresh in minds.
Football has the potential to provide Cameroon with a lift, even temporarily, as it did in 2017 when they won their last Africa Cup of Nations and sparked wild scenes of celebration in the affected regions.
And when Cameroon won the tournament in 1988, again against a backdrop of unrest, the trophy was paraded across all 10 regions.
Due to Covid, which has impacted a number of the competing nations including Gabon and Senegal, attendances at Cameroon’s matches will be capped at 80 per cent and 60 per cent at other games.
Premier League bosses such as Jurgen Klopp aren’t happy to have lost key players mid-season
Security concerns are also likely to play a part throughout this year’s tournament in Cameroon
But there will be football and home advantage has increased expectation on the five-time winners to reach the final. Coach Toni Conceicao said: ‘People here don’t forgive failure.’
Egypt, captained by Mohamed Salah, are under pressure to extend their record as the most successful AFCON side and win for an eighth time. But Sadio Mane and Edouard Mendy’s Senegal are favourites to triumph for the first time along with holders Algeria, captained by Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and fancied again on the back of a world-record 39-game unbeaten run.
Ivory Coast possess the attacking threat of Sebastien Haller, Wilfried Zaha and Nicolas Pepe to also make them outside contenders.
The Cameroon climate and the pandemic have led to this tournament being moved twice but the eagerly anticipated first whistle will be blown tomorrow when Cameroon face Burkina Faso in Olembe.
The stage is set.
But the showpiece will still be capable of providing a lift for the country over the next month