It was two and a half years later than deliberate, however few in Yaoundé can be bothered by that. The hosts Cameroon suffered an early setback, however thanks to 2 penalties from their captain Vincent Aboubakar they preserved an unbeaten house file in aggressive video games that stretches again to 1973 and started their Cup of Nations marketing campaign with a win.
It wasn’t simply the end result that ought to encourage Cameroon’s Portuguese coach Toni Conceição. Aboubakar, who volleyed the winner in the ultimate 5 years in the past when Cameroon gained their fifth Cup of Nations, appeared full of life all through. André-Frank Zambo Anguissa managed the tempo from the again of midfield. And, maybe most significantly, aside from the misjudgement that price the aim, André Onana impressed in aim in solely his fifth recreation since returning after a medicine ban (in which he appears to have been deeply unlucky, mistaking a diuretic that had been prescribed to his wife for paracetamol), making an excellent reflex block early in the second half.
If there was relief about Cameroon’s comeback, there was relief also that the game was taking place at all, and that it was able to do so in front of relatively well-populated stands. A repeated issue in recent Cups of Nations has been almost empty stadiums for games not involving the hosts. There are numerous reasons for that, from high ticket prices to inaccessible stadiums, but the most significant tends to be the lack of a match-going culture.
Football, for many, is a sport consumed on television and experience suggests that fans who are used to watching the Premier League or the Champions League at home or in a local bar tend not to change their habits just because Ethiopia are playing Cape Verde a couple of miles down the road.
But Cameroon has a match culture, and the crowds there were excellent for both the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations in 2016 and the African Nations Championship, the tournament for national players, in 2020. The restrictions of Covid means capacity is limited to 80% capacity for matches with Cameroon and 60% for all other matches, but the mood for Sunday’s opening was vibrant.
There is a clear sense of pride that Cameroon is finally hosting the Nations Cup again. It has been 50 years since Cameroon hosted the tournament, when Congo, after beating the hosts in the semi-finals, beat Mali in the final. This is a very different competition: it only included eight teams and only six players were in European clubs (five in France plus Julien Kialunda from Zaire to Anderlecht). There are now 24 finalists and 404 players based at European clubs as well as others in the United States, China, South Korea, India, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Africa has become a major exporter of talent, which brings both advantages, as many play at the highest level and even those who are not know a range of styles and environments, and challenges, especially when trying to schedule the tournament. . And despite all the complaints from European clubs about their players going to Cameroon, it should be borne in mind that the vast majority are coming, which was not always the case.
The extended group stage may seem bloated with six groups of four filtering down to the bottom 16, but, like the Euro, it’s more a question of format than quality. There can be frustration that no African team has yet made it past the World Cup quarter-finals (in 1972 only two African nations had competed in a World Cup, and that would be in 1978 before only one wins a game), but while development may have stalled at the high end, where there has been progress is in the middle class.
Bright young squad
That includes the likes of Burkina Faso, runners-up in the 2013 Cup of Nations. They were a little unfortunate to miss out on March’s qualifying play-offs for the World Cup, finishing their group unbeaten but two points behind Algeria, the reigning African champions, but this is a bright young squad that has every chance of reaching the 2026 World Cup, the expansion of which means there will be nine African qualifiers.
Here, despite fanciful talk of Kamou Malo’s bold 2-4-3-1 system (ie, 4-2-3-1 with spasmodically attacking full-backs), Burkina Faso largely sat deep, looked to absorb pressure and strike on the break. They had probably been the more dangerous side when Gustavo Sangaré capitalised on an Onana misjudgment to put them ahead with an airborne volley. But two wild challenges in the box, the first by Aston Villa’s Bertrand Traoré, the second by Issoufo Dayo, gifted Cameroon a pair of penalties before half-time, both of which were converted by Aboubakar.
That eased home nerves and Cameroon can already begin looking forward to the last 16. Burkina Faso, meanwhile, showed enough to suggest that they should also progress to the knockout stages.