Insight

AFCON: Huge battle for global credibility despite massive talents

The Nations Cup 2021 has come and gone, our correspondent, CHARLES OGUNDIYA, who was in Cameroon for the competition, takes a look at all sides of the event.

Finally, luck was on the side of Aliou Cissé as he led the Terenga Lions of Senegal to their first Africa Cup of Nations title on February 6 in Cameroon. Senegal defeated Egypt 4-2 on penalties after score at full and extra time stood at 0-0. Cisse was the captain when the team played their first final in 2002 losing to Cameroon on penalties; he was one of the players who missed their kicks during the shootout.

In 2019, he was the coach as the team again lost the final 1-0 to Algeria and it was looking like the final in Cameroon will go same way after the captain of the team, Sadio Mane, missed a penalty that would have given Senegal the lead in the regulation time. However, he finally lifted the trophy that has eluded him as a player and once as a coach with Mane scoring the decisive kick against seven-time champion, Egypt, at the Olembe Stadium, Yaounde.

Liverpool striker, Sadio Mane, was named as the Man of the Competition while Cameroon captain, Vincent Aboubakar, with eight goals carted home the Golden Boot award. The Best safe hands award went to Senegal goalkeeper, Edouard Mendy while the Best Young Player Award was won by Burkina Faso’s Issa Kabore as the Fair Play Award went to Senegal.

The 33rd AFCON hosted by Cameroon will go down in history book as one of the most controversial Nations Cup in history with so many things to talk about, the most important being the stampede that claimed eight lives at the Olembe Stadium, Yaounde. While the competition should have gone down as one of the best in terms of performances on the field of play in recent years, it was meared by the stampede at the Olembe Stadium on January 24, during the round of 16 game between the host, Cameroon, and surprise team of the competition, Comoros. In the stampede at Olembe however, at least eight people were said to have died while over 30 others were injured as fans struggled to get access into the venue.

Despite the incident which occurred more than 30 minutes before kickoff of the game, the match went ahead with the Indomitable Lions winning the game 2-1. Prior to the start of the AFCON on January 9, there were so many factors militating against the commencement of the competition that was initially stated for 2021. The outbreak of a new COVID-19 variant across the world was the first hindrance, followed by European clubs’ decision to hold on to their players. Nigeria was one of the worst hit as they failed to secure some of their players for the competition with Watford holding onto Emmanuel Dennis while Odion Ighalo was not allowed to join his teammates in Garoua, Cameroon by Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia. Kudos must be given to the Cameroonian government’s health scheme put in place to curb the spread of COVID- 19 during the tournament.

Given that the competition would attract thousands of players, officials and fans from across the world, in the build-up to the competition, many were afraid over the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. To allay their fears, the Government of Cameroon, CAF and the Cameroon Football Federation (FECAFOOT), came up with a health response plan to minimise the spread of COVID-19 throughout the tournament. Fans will only be able to access stadiums if they are fully vaccinated and present a negative PCR test taken less than 72 hours beforehand, or a negative antigen rapid test taken less than 24 hours before a match. “The competent health authorities were on ground with necessary measures to facilitate vaccination and the carrying out of COVID-19 tests at all competition sites,” they decreed in a joint press statement.

“In addition, for the sake of objectivity and neutrality and with a view to guaranteeing confidence-building measures on both sides, CAF has an independent laboratory to test the players and officials of participating national teams.” With the measures taken and a coherent system put in place, the intention was always to avoid putting an extra burden on both Cameroon’s population and visiting participants.

Speaking with our correspondent at the Garoua centre where Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan and Guinea Bissau played their group games, Dr. Ibrahima Housseini, said he alongside his crew were happy to be of help during the competition as they were able to test over 1,000 people on a daily basis while some others were able to get vaccinated. Dr. Housseini is the coordinator of the Republic of Cameroon Public Health Emergency Coordination Center for COVID-19 vaccination and test situated at the front of the Roumde Adjia Stadium, Garoua.

“We have 28 teams helping to conduct the test while we have other teams who are here to help with those that have not been vaccinated before the start of the competition,” he said. “I am very happy with the performance of my team during the stay of all the teams here in Garoua starting from the group stage to the quarterfinal match between Tunisia and Burkina Faso which was the last game played at this centre. We tested everyone going into the stadium. “We have the facility to communicate with visitors especially those not speaking French and our local language.”

The upsets and great goals recorded were a big boost to the competition in Cameroon. It was a big shock that the defending champion, Algeria failed to scale through the group stages of the 33rd AFCON, same as Ghana, fourtime winner of the biennial tournament. Algeria recorded just a point as they could only draw against Sierra Leone while losing to Equatorial Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire, ensuring they failed to defend the title they won in Egypt in 2019. Ghana on the other hand was hoping to win their last group game to stand a chance of making it to the round of 16 after a 1-0 loss to Morocco and a 1-1 draw against Gabon, but got the shock of their life at the Stade Roumdé Adjia, Garoua, against debutant Comoros. The Comoros which had not scored a single point before the competition were theoretically out of the competition before the kickoff.

The Southern- African representatives lost the first two matches respectively to Gabon (1-0) and Morocco (2-0). But they achieved not just their first victory, also a progression to the round of 16 as they defeated the Black Stars 3-2 with captain Andre Ayew getting the marching order in the game.

Comoros and The Gambia were the debutants and they didn’t disappoint, while the former scaled to the last 16 and despite losing 12 players to COVID-19 including all their goalkeepers and had to play against Cameroon using a left back as a makeshift goalkeeper, the tiny Island country, located just off the East coast of Africa, the continent’s fourth-smallest country with a population of less than 900,000, was able to match their opponents man-to-man in the game. Despite playing without a recognised goalkeeper and playing almost all the game with 10 men as one of their players, Jimmy Abdou, was given a red card in the seventh minute of the game, Cameroon still laboured to a 2-1 win.

Another debutant, The Gambia, were not expected to achieve anything, especially finding themselves in the same group as 2004 winner, Tunisia and Mali who has been run-ners up once while winning the bronze medal twice. However, against all odds, The Gambia topped their group with seven points with a stuning victory against Tunisia in their last group game to set up a round of 16 date against Guinea, 1976 runners up. They defeated Guinea 1-0 but were eliminated by Cameroon 2-0 in the quarterfinal of the competition.

At AFCON 2021, a total of 100 goals were scored in 52 matches, for an average of 1.92 goals per match with host Cameroon losing in the semifinal to Egypt before coming from three goals down in the third place game against Burkina Faso to win the bronze medal on penalties.

Egypt did not win any match in the knockout stage all through to the final as the Pharaohs played 120 minutes three times to record wins and eventually did again in the final, but lost to Senegal. Indomitable Lions of Cameroon captain, Vincent Aboubakar, emerged the highest goal scorer with eight goals, first player to achieve such in years.

Cameroon 2021 AFCON witnessed the first use of VAR (Video Assistant Referee), but obviously the officials are yet to master it as there were so many complaints about the interpretation by the referees and teams. There were also some hitches in the operational areas of the competition coupled with some bad officiating.

In the first match of Group F between Tunisia and Mali, Zambian referee, Janny Sikazwe, ended the match in the 85th minute before changing his mind. He then blew final whistle in the 89th minute without calculating overtime, which would have been significant due to the large number of changes (nine changes between the two teams) and double checks from the VAR. However, the referee announced the return of the match after 25 minutes of stopping to complete three minutes, with the Tunisian team refusing to complete it.

A forensic report stated that Sikazwe suffered heat stroke, which contributed to his bizarre of the match. Before the second match of Group F between Mauritania and Gambia, the old Mauritanian national anthem was played three times, the stadium announcer said that the Mauritanian players would sing the anthem themselves, but a third failed attempt was soon cut off after the old anthem of the country was played again.

The President of CAF, Patrice Motsepe, was accused of not concentrating on the competition with some individuals already calling for his resignation. Discussing in a popular Whatsapp group, Soccer in Africa, which comprises of some top journalists and administrators, there was a heated argument on why Motsepe was not concentrating on the competition which is the biggest football event on the continent.

“Why is Patrice Motsepe, the CAF President, not in Cameroon for the entire duration of this tournament? He goes in and out of the country,” Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer cum journalist said. “What more important things has he got to do at the moment? Does he not realise he has a responsibility to be fully present in Cameroon?” For another top journalists on the continent, Mamadou Gaye, it’s obvi- ous the pre s i d e n t is not ready for the job. Gaye said the president only v i s i t e d Egypt, head- quarters of CAF, twice since he came to power while he has been travel- ing around during major championship. A Manager at DAAR Communications, Tony Akiotu, in his own opinion said Cameroon 2021 was the worst AFCON he ever witnessed. He added: “My opinion. This is the worst CAF tournament I have ever witnessed.

It will be remembered more for its deserved and undeserved red cards, abuse of the use of the VAR, referees whose integrity and state of mind are open to question. “A clear and sustained pattern from the officials to favour the host nation to progress far and possibly win the tournament, i.e use of COVID to disqualify players of opposing teams playing against the host Nation.

Cameroon players never tested positive for COVID. “Security and crowd control were deplorable leading to the death of eight spectators in one of the venues. Save AFCON of upsets, surprises Mane Salah for preserving the football tradition and image of Africa, an argument former Arsenal legend, Ian Wright sought to elevate in public domain in his pre-tournament video, Cameroun 2021 hardly elevated the status and standing of African players and the game in the eyes of football lovers.”

Richard Naha, a France-based Cameroonian, who was available for the AFCON said the competition showed a big gap in management. According to him, the way everything was managed showed that CAF is now the puppet of FIFA as he said the current president will go down in history as the president under which deaths were recorded during an AFCON match. Naha said: “This is the first time during a CAN that there are deaths at the stadium, CAF wants to put all the responsibilities on the back of the Local Organising Committee.

We should all realise that all members of the CAF Security Committee have no connection with security. “The chairman of the comm i s – sion, Christ i a n Emeruwa, is a former member of the Nigerian Football Federation, in this commission there are lawyers, referees, people who have no connection with the security aspects.

“Police officers who are experienced in the task have been set aside by the all-powerful Secretary General of FIFA-CAF, Véron Mosengo OMBA. “For the meetings that took place before the start of the tragedy, it is the same day that the members of the Security Commission travelled to manage the security of the matches. “Patrice Motsepe will go down in the history of CAF as being the first president of CAF who has known deaths during an edition of the AFCON,” he said. Another major problem encountered especially by the fans was the issue of transportation with few local flights traveling to some of the centres.

Prior to the competition, there was reports that journalists covering the competition would be airlifted to venues more than three hours by road, but it was never meant to be as most people, including supporters had to travel for more than 25 hours from Douala and Yaoundé, the main points of entries to a place like Garoua. With only one local flight available, Camair Co, and decision to increase the flight ticket to as high as 205,000CFA for a one way trip, it was an expensive experience for most people especially people from countries like Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan and Guinea Bissau, who played their group games at the centre. Also, at the Limbe centre, there was unrest with some Algeria journalists attacked, however, there were also some good talking points away from the crisis as the fans made sure all the stadium experienced interesting scenes during each match day.

The ‘Iya Onigele’ of the Super Eagles Supporters Club, Iyabo Makanjuola Afolabi, was the cynosure of all eyes anytime the Super Eagles are playing and she was adjudged by CAF as the best dressed fan at the Garoua stadium. Take Tunisia’s “Reda The Elephant”, who covers his belly in body paint and has the best goal reactions, or Cote d’Ivoire’s “Petit Bamba”, who orchestrates the National Elephants’ Supporters Committee dance moves. “The atmosphere is so pure,” says Alex Cizmic, an Italian freelance journalist, who has often been amazed at the relaxed atmosphere around the teams.

The home fans were not left out as they always come around to cheer their team to victory while also celebrating across the country after each victory. Nigeria Super Eagles failed to progress far in Cameroon, but the team’s performance showed that the future is bright. With a new champion in Senegal, Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana and other heavyweights on the continent will now be targeting the 34th AFCON coming up in Cote d’Ivoire in 2023 for another opportunity to lift the title.

The final between Egypt and Senegal saw Mohammed Salah, Trezequet, keeper Mohamed Gabal and Mohammed Eleny in Pharaohs’ colours battling against Senegal with Sadio Mane, Keeper Edouard Mendy and Kalidu Koulibaly also on parade. Toko Ekambi and Aboubakar of Cameroon, Gambia’s Musa Barrow together with Nigeria’s Moses Simon and Wilfred Ndidi were a delight to watch. Pharaohs’ goalie, Gabal, also known as Gabaski, will be remembered for his heroics between the sticks and his water bottle drama at the competition.

He looked at the water bottle before every spot kick in the shootout and went the right way in all but one of the five penalties he faced, but it was not enough for victory against Senegal in Cameroon. CAF will have to double its effort to perfect its operations to match the talents on the continent now that the world has seen the importance of the tournament.

 

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