The rescheduled African Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournament, officially known as the TotalEnergies AFCON Cameroon 2021, is set to hold from this weekend in Cameroon amidst the continuous battle with the novel coronavirus pandemic and its variants worldwide.
Cameroon host for only the second time since the first since 1972, the tournament returning 50 years after to the country of Issa Hyatou, the longest serving Confederation of African Football (CAF) president who enjoyed a 29-year reign.
Previously held in even-numbered years, the AFCON tournament was shifted to odd-numbered years in 2013 when Nigeria won its third and most recent continental title. Six years later the number of participating countries increased from 24 to 36 nations, and this latest 33rd edition welcomes two debutants, Comoros and Gambia.
It will rain money in Cameroon with participants jostling for the €4.5m winner’s prize. CAF also announced €2.64m for the runners-up, and €2.2m for the third-placed nation and semi-finalists. The continental body would also award €703,361 to quarter-finalists and all countries are entitled to at least €534,000 for participation.
Regardless of improved financial incentives, African football stars have left their clubs to represent their nations despite their threats to block their release – especially European clubs, citing possible on-field losses and the pandemic. The French Ligue 1 suffers the most with an exodus of 52 players, English Premier League next with 35 players while the Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga are short 21 and 11 players respectively.
African leagues are not left, Egypt’s Premier League losing 41 players while 17 players will join from South Africa’s Premier Soccer League. The Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) contributes two goalkeepers, John Noble of Enyimba and Nigeria, and Akwa United’s John Efala who represents Cameroon.
In the tournament proper, North African nations could be set to dominate again, the quartet of defending champions Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco leading the onslaught against perennial West African powerhouses of hosts Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Senegal, the highest FIFA-ranked country in Africa. These two African sub-regions have won 11 of the past 12 titles, Zambia’s triumph in 2012 the only blot on the records. Algeria’s win in 2019 made it six titles for the North since Ghana/Nigeria 2000, one more than West African countries.
Several players are also expected to light up the occasion, Egypt and Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah considered the star player of this tournament. Sadio Mane, Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly lead Senegal’s bid to dethrone Algeria, who have Riyad Mahrez at the forefront of their title defence, with Sebastian Haller, scorer of 10 UEAFA champions league goals, and AC Milan’s Franck Kessieleading Ivory Coast’s resurgence. It is unsure who would lead Super Eagles of Nigeria’s title charge in the absence of Victor Osimhen, Emmanuel Dennis and Odion Ighalo.
Fans have, however, been limited in their bid witness these spectacular football stars and continental rivalry on display, with 60% stadium capacity limits imposed by CAF due to COVID-19. It means the brand new 60,000-seat Omnisport Paul Biya stadium will only allow 36,000 fans for the opening match between Cameroon and Burkina Faso on Sunday.
While fans’ attendance is limited, referees have been well equipped coming to Cameroon with CAF announcing use of video assistant technology in all 52 matches. A 63-man officiating team is set to ensure fair play in Cameroon, with Nigeria solely represented by assistant referee Samuel Pwadutakam. However, seven of eight video assistant referees for AFCON are from North Africa, with a Mexican completing the list of VAR officials.
The 2021 AFCON holds in Cameroon from January 9 to February 6.
- Group A: Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde & Ethiopia
- Group B: Senegal, Guinea, Zimbabwe, Malawi
- Group C: Morocco, Ghana, Gabon, Comoros
- Group D: Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, Guinea-Bissau
- Group E: Algeria, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea
- Group F: Tunisia, Mali, Gambia, Mauratania