The 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) kicked off in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde on Sunday, as tens of thousands of fans watched a dazzling opening ceremony.
With fireworks, traditional costumes and joyful songs by Congolese singer Fally Ipupa, the ceremony comprised hundreds of dancers exhibiting Cameroon’s cultural diversity and hospitality.
Over 40,000 people flocked to the newly inaugurated Olembe Stadium, 13km north of Yaounde.
Cameroon’s President Paul Biya arrived earlier at the stadium, giving the green light for the championship.
Earlier, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Patrice Motsepe in his inaugurating speech welcomed all African teams participating in the football jamboree, wishing them good luck.
“We can host a successful tournament. It’s gonna be the best that’s ever taken place. We must believe. Today shows that we believe in the people of Cameroon and the people of Africa,” Motsepe said.
Cameroon faces Burkina Faso in the tournament’s opener.
On Saturday people of all ages, clad in the country’s green, red, yellow colors and blowing their loud vuvuzelas joined a public parade in a neighborhood in Yaounde to cheer on the team.
Among them was 25-year-old Andrew Geli who was already making arrangements to drape himself in Cameroon’s colors and paint the flag on his face.
“I can’t believe that the Africa Cup of Nations is taking place in my country in my lifetime. It’s like I am still dreaming if this is a dream, I don’t want to wake up,” Geli told Xinhua as he continued blowing the vuvuzela.
“Everything is near, preparations are going very quickly, we hope that all of Africa will join us for this very, very beautiful celebration,” said football fan, Joseph Messi Awana.
The official song of the tournament plays in popular spots of Yaounde and football gadgets and flags are in high demand ahead of the game.
Cameroonians hope AFCON marks a new chapter for a country divided by sociopolitical and ethnic crises.
Even President Paul Biya said last week the football bonanza should help enhance unity and solidarity.
“As a nation, we have the duty and opportunity to remind the world that we are a united and indomitable people, capable of displaying this fighting spirit that has enabled us in the past to win great battles,” Biya said in a televised address to the nation.
“We want it (AFCON) to be a great moment of brotherhood. Let us offer our guests the rich cultural diversity that has earned our country the nickname “Africa in miniature”,” he added.
To boost fraternity among the people and visiting fans, the government has established viewing sites for fans in all the 10 regions of the country. In Yaounde alone, about eight fan parks and viewing sites have been set up, able to cater to some 20,000 supporters.
The nation has been preparing to host the tournament since 2019, but it was replaced by Egypt due to preparation delays and security concerns. It was then awarded the 2021 edition, which was again postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for almost four years, not just me, not just my children but … all of Cameroon. It is an exciting time to be a Cameroonian. Fans are anxious to support the team and welcome other Africans here,” said sports analyst, Julius Tabe.
For most Cameroonian football legends, the tournament has been a long time coming. The last time Jean Paul Akono played for the national team, Indomitable Lions of Cameroon was half a century ago.
“I remember and no one has ever forgotten the sad memory of how Cameroon hosted the 8th edition of AFCON in 1972 and we lost at the semifinal stage. I assure you that those who are still alive and who participated in this AFCON do not have enough strong words to tell you what happened in the country at that time, the famous February 5, 1972. It was terrible, all of Cameroon was touched and it was as if the sky was falling,” the former player and coach of the Indomitable Lions told Xinhua in Yaounde.
“But my most ardent wish is that our players, our indomitable Lions today can do the revenge for us and that we can win this AFCON. I think it will be the sweetest of all the AFCON we have won away from home,” he added.
“So much has changed since last hosting the Africa Cup of Nations in 1972. Fifty years later, it’s time to reintroduce ourselves to the world,” said Samuel Eto’o Fils, president of Cameroon Football Federation and four-time winner of African player of the year.
Eto’o has been sharing his experiences with the Indomitable Lions during training sessions in the build-up to the tournament.
“Listen to your coach and be focused. Give the best of yourself. We need to win,” Eto’o told the players on Saturday during their last training session to the opening of the tournament.
Cameroon will be seeking a sixth title and must work hard to achieve that goal, said Roger Mila, former Cameroonian striker and Confederation of African Football Best African Player of the last 50 years.
“It’s true we are the hosts but to reach the utmost level, that is, the final and perhaps win the trophy, we need to be very powerful on the pitch and off the pitch,” Milla told Xinhua before the kick-off of the tournament.
Fans at the tournament have to follow strict anti-COVID-19 measures to be able to watch the game.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) and Cameroonian authorities have stressed that proof of vaccination and presentation of a negative COVID-19 test result will be mandatory to access the stadium during the competition. Wearing face masks is also obligated and social distancing will be strictly applied. Stadiums will operate between 60 to 80 percent of capacity.
“The 80% maximum capacity will only apply for matches of the host country Cameroon while the rest of the matches will be capped at 60% of the stadium capacity,” CAF said in a statement prior to the kick-off of the championship.
With stadiums that feature cutting-edge equipment and first-class infrastructure, Cameroon looks forward to staging “the best AFCON ever,” said Narcisse Mouelle Kombi, the country’s Minister of Sports and Physical Education.
AFCON matches will be played in the capital, Yaounde, coastal town of Douala, West regional chief town of Bafoussam, Garoua in the North region and the Anglophone southwestern seaside resort town of Limbe where armed separatists have threatened to disrupt the game. The separatist fighters have already set off two improvised explosive devices in the town.
The army has deployed additional ammunition and troops to the region to secure fans and players. Locals told Xinhua, hundreds of troops now conduct systematic checks of vehicles and passengers entering the town and undertake day and night patrols.
Cameroon will play in Group A with, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Cape Verde while Group B includes Senegal, Zimbabwe, Guinea and Malawi. Group C comprises Morocco, Ghana, Comoros and Gabon while Group D has Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, and Guinea-Bissau. Group E is made up of Algeria, Sierra-Leone, Equatorial Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire and Group F has Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and Gambia.
The 24-nation tournament will run from Sunday to February 6.