AFCON 2022: Tournament not without issues but deserves full respect as continent’s giants face off in Cameroon

·4-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

When it comes to African football, we European observers are all too prone to taking individual games, teams or tournaments as a measure for the state of the game across an entire continent. Goal for South Africa? Goal for all Africa.

It is no surprise then, that this month’s Cup of Nations is all set to begin under unfair scrutiny, burdened with having to justify its rightful priority over the arrogance of the European club game, after a build-up too much obsessed with what it will take away: namely, key players from wealthy teams during an intense part of the domestic season.

Ian Wright believes the debate has been “tinged with racism” and it is difficult to argue, it being unthinkable that European players would be probed in similar fashion over the value of representing their nations.

Yet scratch beneath the surface of a tiresome, patronising club-versus-country row, and you will find a tournament of much intrigue, packed with quality teams and the planet’s finest players, surrounded by questions far more worthy of intense discussion.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) are not, for their part, blameless, having decided it would be better for all parties to play their flagship tournament during June and July only to have to renege after just one edition because of the rainy season in host nation Cameroon.

They are not the first major football authority to consider climate an afterthought in the bidding process, but weather should really have been the least of CAF’s concerns in persisting with Cameroon as a viable host.

Since 2017, English-speaking separatists in the country have been violently opposing marginalisation under French majority rule in a civil war that has brought with it the mass murder of civilians, including children, the destruction of homes and the closure of schools, amid a humanitarian crisis.

AFCON brings a platform for protest, peaceful or otherwise, and there are particular security concerns over the matches to be played in the city of Limbe, in the Anglophone region, where there have been warnings of an attack if government troops are not withdrawn. Painful memories of the Togo bus ambush in Angola in 2010 make that threat a very real one.

Covid has, predictably, been bandied about as a more convenient reason to call the whole thing off, Omicron supposedly the factor to take player welfare concerns beyond the tipping point, in comparison to the Premier League. Thankfully, it is not one that has stuck.

Still, the pandemic looms large. Capacity at Cameroon’s matches, starting with the opener against Burkina Faso on Sunday, will be capped at 80 per cent, with all other fixtures down at 60.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Given the country’s low vaccination rates, however, the requirement for fans to be either double-jabbed or have a negative PCR test could see attendances for most games fall well below that. That would be a desperate shame for what looks a quality and typically open renewal.

Senegal, with Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy as their spine, are the bookmakers’ favourites, while Egypt, seeking an eighth title, are led by the best player on the planet right now in Mo Salah.

The Ivory Coast’s golden generation has passed, but their squad remains littered with talent and cannot be discounted, nor can fellow west African powerhouses Nigeria and Ghana, though both sides are inferior to their iconic predecessors, while Maghreb rivals Morocco and Tunisia are considered capable dark horses.

The ones they all have to beat, however, are defending champions Algeria, who have Italy’s world-record unbeaten streak in their sights, having gone 34 games without defeat.

The depth of quality bodes well, with the World Cup 10 months away.

There will still be time for the usual sort of on-brand quirk and silliness that only AFCON throws up.

Guinea’s president has reportedly told their team they must win the tournament or pay back the money invested in their preparation; Zambia say they are on standby to play in case Zimbabwe are banned at the 11th-hour over government interference; and ex-England international Steven Caulker has cropped up out of nowhere to take the field for Sierra Leone.

But the depth of quality bodes well, both for this tournament and beyond, with the World Cup less than 11 months away, though CAF do not even know who their representatives in Qatar will be yet, with play-offs to come in March.

For now, all that matters is the next month and the chance to rule the continent in Cameroon.

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