YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon — African Cup organizers insist the tournament will begin as planned in Cameroon early next month despite the fast-spreading omicron variant adding to an extensive list of concerns for the continent’s top soccer event.
Amid rumors that the already-delayed 2021 African Cup of Nations might be postponed for a second time because of the coronavirus pandemic, or even moved to a country outside Africa, the Confederation of African Football said in a statement Wednesday that it will still open on Jan. 9 at the Olembe Stadium in Yaoundé.
CAF president Patrice Motsepe even said this week he expected this African Cup, with all its uncertainty, to be “an exceptional tournament.”
“I will be in Cameroon on 7 January with my wife and kids to witness this incredible competition,” said Motsepe, who became head of African soccer this year. “All over the world there are competitions with challenges but we have to be more optimistic.”
Still, the first African Cup in the pandemic era will put Motsepe’s promise to improve the quality and marketability of African tournaments to the test.
Despite his optimism, it’s likely that African soccer will settle for a tournament that goes off without any serious problems. There was a battle even before the virus to get the Central African nation ready to stage its first major sporting event since 1972.
Cameroon was initially due to host the 2019 African Cup but was stripped of that tournament because of problems with its preparations and given a second chance in 2021. Then, the event was put back a year because of the pandemic.
Now the virus has forced a stretched host country still struggling with the basics of getting stadiums ready to take on the additional challenge of ensuring Africa’s most popular sports event doesn’t become a virus super-spreader.
To satisfy Cameroon authorities, CAF has agreed that only fully vaccinated fans who also have proof of negative COVID-19 tests will be allowed to attend games.
Philippines-based pharmaceutical company UNILAB has been employed to oversee the testing of players to mitigate against virus outbreaks among the 24 teams. There will be screening at every stadium, training ground and tournament venue, CAF said.
Yet the plans have been viewed as insufficient by European clubs, who say they fear for the wellbeing of their African players and are reluctant to allow them to go to Cameroon.
While the African Cup might survive with no fans, the absence of superstars like Liverpool forwards Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez, Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and others would be a calamity for the tournament.
The restrictions for fans was a deal-breaker for the Cameroon government but it’s set to leave many — maybe all — of the 52 games over a month to go ahead in near-empty stadiums.
Less than 3% of Cameroon’s 26 million people are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, meaning only a miniscule number will be allowed to witness first-hand their country’s biggest sporting moment since first hosting the African Cup of Nations half-a-century ago.
The soccer-mad West and Central African countries around Cameroon also have vaccination rates of well below 10%, so many other fans won’t be traveling.
The problems stretch beyond the virus and fans in stadiums, with Cameroon cutting it fine to have stadiums ready at all.
The main Olembe Stadium, which will host the opening game between Cameroon and Burkina Faso and the final on Feb. 6, is undergoing a $370 million revamp but hasn’t yet been officially opened. It was so far behind schedule last month that CAF threatened to move the opening game.
“It would be unfortunate for the organizing committee, for CAF and for Cameroon,” CAF secretary general Véron Mosengo-Omba wrote in a letter to Cameroon’s organizing committee.
Cameroon has missed deadlines on other stadiums, too.
The country also has a violent insurgency in its southwestern region, where militias have fought for years to form a breakaway state near Limbe, one of the tournament’s five host cities. Last month, an explosion at a university campus injured 13 students about a mile from an official African Cup training ground.