As the Africa Cup of Nations heads into the quarterfinals on Saturday – with hosts Cameroon the favourites – FRANCE 24 went to one of the “fan zones” set up for local supporters unable to see the matches in the stadiums in the capital, Yaoundé.
The fan zones allow local fans to enjoy the atmosphere of the football fiesta vibrant without having to go to the stadiums. The African Football Confederation set up six official zones across the country, with fans adding a multitude of small, unofficial zones for those who want to come together to watch the action.
FRANCE 24 went to one of the official fan zones opposite the Yaoundé city hall, centred around a plinth commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are giant screens showing the matches, food stands and merchandise stands honouring the 24 national teams who took part in the tournament.
“Today it’s Gabon and Burkina Faso playing; it’s pretty calm so people can move around easily,” said Malet Mal Njam, who runs this particular fan zone. “But if you come when Cameroon are playing … There were 11,000 people here for their first match!”
‘We’ve been waiting 8 years’
Christine Essomba, 30, a Cameroon fan wearing her team’s shirt, said she discovered the zone during a drink with friends: “I didn’t know about this place before but now I’ll be coming back every day. It’s a nice atmosphere, there are plenty of people and a lot of emotion.”
“We’ve been waiting eight years for the competition to take place in Cameroon," she said. "I’m not a particularly big football fan, but it’s the Africa Cup of Nations and it’s taking place in my country. I want to make the most of it – we’ve been waiting eight years.”
Although Cameroon weren’t playing, she still took a side, supporting Burkina Faso against Gabon.
Elvis Ondo Nkooulouest was sitting with his brothers a few tables away. The 41-year-old travelled all the way from the Gabonese capital Libreville to support his national team. The small group were all wearing Gabon shirts and were enjoying the second round action while drinking Cameroonian beers.
After watching Gabon’s group stage in Yaoundé, they resorted to the fan zone for the next round because Gabon’s contest against Burkina Faso took part in Limbé on the Atlantic coast.
“It’s a well-organised fan zone, with food and drink; it’s very nice,” said Ondo Nkooulouest. “Cameroon is a football country so I knew it’d be a friendly atmosphere.”
“Fans come here to be together,” Mal Njam added. “A lot of foreigners come to watch the football. On the weekends, people come to spend some family time with their children. The rest of the time, it’s often quite well-to-do people aged about 25 to 30 who come to relax after work. Younger people don’t come as much; they prefer places with fewer rules. Everyone enjoys the football in their own way.”
‘A fantastic idea’
The fan zone also provides a strong business opportunity for the merchants running the stalls. About a third of the area is occupied by food stalls cooking meat and fish on huge barbecues. People can sit in the stands to follow the match on smaller screens or be served at one of the hundreds of tables set up between the grandstand and the big screen.
“Business is good during the tournament, especially when Cameroon are playing,” said Marie Josiane, 38, who works in one of the stands. “But when they’re not playing we have to fight a bit for customers.
“Personally I’m not hugely into football but I watch because it’s taking place in my country. And I support everyone! Cameroon, Morocco, Gabon …”
The Africa Football Confederation was keen to use this Yaoundé fan zone to honour arts and crafts from all 24 countries participating in the tournament. Mariam was running the stall for Algeria, even though she was born in Cameroon. She was selling fabrics from the Maghreb nation with her 13-year-old daughter Amina. “The fan zone was a fantastic idea because it uses football to bring people together. It’s an opportunity for me to sell my merchandise. I had to go and ask for permission at the Algerian Embassy to have a stand with the national colours.”
With dual Algerian and Cameroonian nationality, Mariam hoped to see Algeria play in Yaoundé in the quarterfinals. But it wasn’t to be: The defending champions crashed out in the last 16, thrashed by Ivory Coast.
“I was in the fan zone supporting Algeria against Ivory Coast, in a sea of Cameroon supporters backing our opponents,” Mariam said. “I felt a bit sad but sport is like that.”
“I’d be happy if Cameroon wins the Cup, but that would never match the joy of seeing Algeria win,” Mariam concluded.
This Yaoundé fan zone owes a lot of its success to the relatively light Covid measures in place: “The Covid pandemic was a monster that affected the Africa Cup of Nations badly,” Mal Njam said. Indeed, any spectators had to have a negative test and at least one jab to be able to go to a stadium and watch the football. Tests were available at the entrance to the fan zone, but “we operate on a basis of trust”, Mal Njam said.
“We try to make people understand that public health measures aren’t just there for the sake of it,” Mal Njam added. “We try to educate people instead of just laying down rules.”
Cameroon will play outside the capital for the first time when they take on Gambia in Douala on January 29, and there is no doubt that they will have enthusiastic support from fans flocking to the Yaoundé fan zone.
This article was translated from the original in French.