from ROSY SADOU in Yaoundé, Cameroon
YAOUNDE – EXCEPT for the matches featuring the host nation, swaths of empty seats have been a regular feature at the 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations underway in Cameroon.
They are an eyesore.
The stadia constructed for the continent’s biggest football spectacle are an architectural masterpieces but low spectator turnout has somehow taken the glitter of the four-week tournament.
Tickets ranging from FCFA 3 000 (US$5,22 or R80,26 ) to FCFA 20 000 depending on the stage of the competition have not been snapped up.
This setback attributed to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which has not spared the Central African country, while Cameroon is also on the throes of civil strife and terror attacks.
Separatists are demanding a breakaway state of English-speakers in the nation dominated by French, and the insurgency by Islamist groups operating from neighbouring Nigeria to the west perpetrate the latter two.
However, of these issues, the COVID-19 is the biggest hindrance to fans attending the 24-team biennial tournament that began on January 9.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the local organizing committee of the AFCON have adopted stringent sanitary protocol in line with the government efforts to limit the spread of the pandemic amid a fourth wave.
To gain entrance to the six match venues across five cities, spectators have to show proof of vaccination and present a negative COVID-19 test result.
Nonetheless, amid vaccine hesitancy that is bedeviling Cameroon and other African countries, attaining full attendance at stadia was always going to be tricky.
According to data by the health ministry, slightly more than 2 percent of the Cameroon’s total population of over 27,5 million is vaccinated.
Also, tournament organisers have restricted attendances to between 60 percent and 80 percent of the stadium’s capacity.
The largest stadium – Olembe- has a capacity of 60 000 seats while the Kouekong and Limbe Stadiums each carry 20 000 fans, which is the smallest capacity of all venues.
Cameroon’s COVID-19 caseload is the 18th worst in Africa.
Since it was first reported in the country on March 6, 2020, Cameroon has documented 109 666 cases, including 1 853 deaths as of the beginning of this week.
While travelling among African countries has always been a strenuous exercise, the travel restrictions imposed by the government of President Paul Biya may also have hindered fans from visiting teams from following their national sides to Cameroon.
According to the Centre for the Coordination of Public Health Emergency Operations, travelers, whether arriving or departing from Cameroonian territory, are subject to the requirements for presenting results or screening for COVID-19.
The results are presented at the various entry points in one of the official languages of French or English.
All incoming travellers, aged five and over, are systematically tested at the Border Health Posts.
This past weekend, the government intensified its COVID-19 testing programme, anticipation high among authorities this would enhance attendances at stadia.
But the programe has met mixed responses.
“People are not interested in getting vaccinated or get the tests. They have decided to watch the games on TV,” said a health officer.
While attendances have been low at stadia, which are located in the cities of Bafossaum, the commercial capital Douala, Garoua, Limbe and the capital Yaounde, the atmosphere at some fan parks has been carnival.
This is especially so when the national team-the Indomitable Lions- are in action.
Coach António Conceição da Silva Oliveira’s team has not disappointed and lived up to expectations as favourites.
They won against Burkina Faso (2-1) and Ethiopia (4-1) but played a draw (1-1) against Cape Verde in the last match, having already guaranteed qualification to the knockout stages.
This has enlivened the atmosphere at the several viewing sites and fan parks, the thousands jumping in unison, mostly clad in the national team colours of green each tie a goal is celebrated.
A goal by the opposing team or a touch by an opponent’s star player is jeered.
“We are winning this tournament. We are easily the best team so far,” said fan, Jules Ngong.
He was speaking at a fan park in Yaounde after the Cameroon match against Cape Verde.
There was ambience despite the draw that meant Cameroon would not progress with a 100-percent record.
They topped the group nonetheless and in striker and captain, Vincent Aboubakar, they have the best player of the tournament thus far.
He must remain in top form if the team has to win the competition they last won in 2017.
At the fan parks there are no regulations that apply at the stadia.
Fans only have to wear a mask.
Nothing though beats the experience at the stadium, said another fan, Sylvie Mvondo.
“I am proud, I’m among a few with the privilege of watching the games live. We must all vaccinate to save the nation and to support our team to success,” she said.
A local sports analyst, Luc Adoum, believes it is crucial that Cameroon progress to the final, which will be played on February 6 at the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde.
The stadium also hosted the opening match.
Biya graced the event that had 100 refugees from the Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast and Togo, courtesy of the United Nations Refugee Agency and Confederation of African Football (CAF).
“So far so good,” Adoum said.
“Cameroon has to maintain these standards. Failure to reach the final will be disastrous. A final without the hosts would mean the match is played in front on empty seats, as if behind closed doors.”
Contrary to the ambience in the capital, there is some apprehension in the southwestern Limbem where the stadium of the same name is hosting Group F of the tournament.
The area is an epicentre of the cycles of violence between government forces and armed separatist groups seeking independence from the country.
Some separatist leaders and activists have publicly threatened to disrupt AFCON if the authorities did not withdraw troops deployed to quell the crisis.
They threatened to attack the teams based there.
These are Gambia, Mali, Mauritania and Tunisia.
One of the separatist groups, which criticised the holding of the tournament in the region, claimed responsibility for a December bomb explosion that injured several people.
It was the fourth such explosion documented since November 2020, three years since the civil war began and has left an estimated 4 000 civilians dead and 700 000 internally displaced.
“Fans here are not taking chances. Most prefer watching from their homes than expose themselves to attacks,” said a community leader.
No incidents were recorded during tournament at the time of of going to press.
“Cameroonian authorities have a responsibility to protect participating teams, officials, and fans from harm and to take measures to prevent attacks ahead of and during the AFCON tournament,” Ilaria Allegrozzi, Senior Central Africa Researcher for Human Rights Watch earlier said.
Key questions lingered about the government’s ability to guarantee security.
“The history of Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis shows that government response has often failed to protect bystanders from being attacked,” Allegrozzi said.
Biya’s government, which is accused by the militants of marginalizing the region and rigging elections, deployed more troops to the region. A marked increase in patrols has been noted in recent days.
Troops also have to be on high alert for possible attacks by the Boko Haram from neighbouring Nigeria.
While it has weakened in recent months and beset by infighting within its ranks, the Islamist sect based in Nigeria, has spilled into Cameroon since it began its insurgency in 2009.
– CAJ News