It was two and a half years later than planned but few in Yaoundé would be bothered by that. The hosts, Cameroon, suffered an early setback but, thanks to two penalties from their captain, Vincent Aboubakar, they preserved an unbeaten home record in competitive games that stretches back to 1973 and began their Cup of Nations campaign with a win, 2-1 against Burkina Faso.
It was not just the result that should encourage Cameroon’s Portuguese coach, Toni Conceição. Aboubakar, who volleyed the winner in the final five years ago when Cameroon won their fifth title, looked lively throughout. André-Frank Zambo Anguissa controlled the tempo from the back of midfield. And, other than the misjudgment that cost the goal, André Onana impressed in goal in only his fifth game since returning after a drugs ban (in which he seems to have been unfortunate, mistaking a diuretic that had been prescribed to his wife for paracetamol), making a superb 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 does have a match-going culture, and crowds there were excellent both for the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations in 2016 and the African Nations Championship, the tournament for domestically based players, in 2020. Covid restrictions mean that capacity is restricted to 80% for games featuring Cameroon and 60% for all other matches, but the atmosphere for Sunday’s opener was vibrant.
There is a clear sense of pride that Cameroon is at last hosting the Cup of Nations again. It is 50 years since it last staged the tournament, when Congo, having beaten the hosts in the semi-final, overcame Mali in the final. This is a very different competition: then it comprised just eight teams and only six players were at European clubs (five in France plus Zaire’s Julien Kialunda at Anderlecht). Now there are 24 finalists and 404 players based at European clubs plus others in the US, China, South Korea, India, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Africa has become a great exporter of talent, which brings both benefits, in that many are playing at the highest level and even those who are not are experiencing a range of styles and environments, and challenges, not least in trying to schedule the tournament. And for all the grumbling from European clubs about their players heading to Cameroon, it is worth bearing in mind that the vast majority do come, which has not always been the case.
The expanded group stage may feel bloated with six groups of four filtering to a last 16, but, as with the Euros, that is more a question of format than of quality. There may be frustration that still no African side has got beyond the quarter-finals of the World Cup (in 1972, only two African nations had competed at a World Cup, and it would be 1978 before one won a game) but, while development may have stalled at the top end, there has been progress in the middle class.
That includes 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 misjudgement 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 Issoufou 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.