Anticipation is growing among local football fans as the continental football showpiece rolls onto our screens from the pitches of Cameroon on Sunday.
Fifty-two games are lined up for the 24 teams that qualified for the African Cup of Nations (Afcon) 2021, with the final set for 6 February.
Taking place under the slogan “The road to Cameroon is clear”, the 33rd edition of the male football competition will kick off
under a cloud of Covid-19 threats, with several footballers already out of their
squads with Covid-positive tests.
Among the teams affected are Senegal, Cape Verde, Tunisia, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Malawi, and Nigeria.
Organised by the Confederation of African Football, the event was originally scheduled to be played in June and July 2021 but due to unfavourable climatic conditions during this period, the tournament was rescheduled to 9 January - 6 February 2021.
However, the outbreak and ongoing effects of Covid-19 around the globe forced organisers to again shift the tournament to January 2022.
In addition to vaccination and a negative test already mandatory for players, staff and fans, this constant threat to Covid exposure further resulted in capping the capacity of spectators at stadiums at 80% for the host’s matches. Other fixtures will only be played in front of 60% of the ground’s capacity.
In spite of the pandemic, the games will go on and several countries have thus far been touted as favourites, including defending champions Algeria, who won it in 2019 as well as in 1990; as well as Senegal, who would be hoping to better their two runners-up tags in 2002 and 2019.
Egypt stands a great chance again as the most successful country in Afcon history, having won the title seven times in 1957, 1959, 1986, 1998, 2006, 2008 and 2010.
Hosts Cameroon, who won the trophy two consecutive times (2000 and 2002), can also spring another surprise by winning the coveted trophy.
Sunday’s opening match between Cameroon and Burkina Faso will be played at the 60 000-seater Olembe stadium in Yaoundé.
The TotalEnergies-sponsored competition will see the winners of each of the six groups and runners-up, as well as the best four third-placed teams through the round of 16, scheduled to commence on 23 January.
The quarterfinal is set to kick off on 29 January and the semis are slated for 2 February. The third-place play-off plus the finale are set for 6 February.
New Era Sport spoke to a few football supporters about what they expect from teams and who they predict will do well, and this is what they had to say:
Brave Warriors and United Africa Tigers attacker, Absolom Limbodi anticipates all countries to go out in full force.
“They all want to win the cup, with the pressure being on the host country, which is Cameroon,” he said.
Limbondi further expects the tournament to be better than 2019, and to see “quality football of a different calibre and on another level, because Africa has tremendous talent”.
With standout players such as Sadio Mané, Sebastien Haller and Edouard Mendy, Limbondi predicts Senegal to be the 2021 champions.
Namibia Football Association (NFA) women’s desk coordinator, Jacky Gertze said this is going to be one of the closely-contested tournaments, with high-quality performances expected due to the high number of players playing professionally.
“We will also witness a fair number of local/African coaches attached to teams, and this is a good indication that African football is evolving,” she noted, citing the tradition of teams rebuilding with new generations of young players coming through.
“My personal expectation is for Africa to become more clinical in front of goal. I expect a tactical, disciplined performance from teams working as a unit both in
defence and attack; organised play.”
Gertze did not rule out the influence of individual talented brilliance for the home countries, such as the crop of players playing in England for Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, as well as France.
“We should not underestimate the defending champions Algeria, as well as hosts Cameroon and Senegal.”