In the end, all those questions — and more — have brought the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) under probably the most intense spotlight in its 65-year history. Not much of the attention has been flattering, but is there really any surprise in that?
The AFCON isn’t an especially beloved topic in European club football circles. It influences — more than any other major international tournament, and not in the most positive sense — the transfer decisions of clubs. It is why many managers would rather avoid signing African footballers; if they do bring in any, they’d rather march those players into Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace than watch them head to the AFCON when an edition is due.
It’s a debate that has been had every other year, with the only exceptions being 2012 and 2013 when AFCON editions in successive years meant the tournament was more of a nuisance than ever, and — more recently — in 2019 when the AFCON was moved from its traditional start-of-year slot to mid-year and was, thus, less of a nuisance than ever.
It didn’t stay that way for long, however, with the tournament returning to January/February for this year’s competition; sticking to the template that worked for Egypt 2019 won’t be such a success in sub-Saharan Africa, where high-octane action in June/July isn’t exactly a humane demand.
Cameroon 2021, though, has been portrayed as a particularly loathsome thing, only matched in its repulsiveness, perhaps, by the 2015 edition that took place at a time when an outbreak of the Ebola virus was ravaging West Africa. This time, there is another public health risk on the prowl — causing damage, in fact, on a far wider scale — and it wasn’t so long ago that this dire situation cast serious doubts about whether the tournament would even take place at all.
Other alarmists, in a bid to add to the list of reasons why this AFCON should be scrapped altogether, would even point to the fact that Cameroon is currently also in the throes of internal conflict.
But the Central African nation — and the continent itself — has brushed off all those ‘concerns’, insisting on pushing forward with the existing hosting plans, regardless of what the rest of the world — mainly a bunch of ridiculous journalists and grumpy Premier League managers already having to deal with squads decimated by COVID-19 infections and injuries — thinks of it.
Across Africa, and even beyond, there has been an explosion of outrage over such disrespectful remarks, with France-born Ivorian international Sebastien Haller, as well as Black former professionals Patrick Vieira and Ian Wright, openly expressing their annoyance at such unduly critical talk.
But words could only do so much in dismissing prejudices about the AFCON. The perfect, sharpest riposte could be sent the way of these critics by delivering a spotless, sparkling showpiece, and that charge should be borne by the AFCON’s key actors.
Hosts Cameroon and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) need to walk the talk, if their stubbornness isn’t to prove, in hindsight, a spectacular case of foolhardiness. To that end, organisation — all aspects of it — must be devoid of potentially embarrassing, glaring blunders.
There certainly is recent history — however rare — of the AFCON being marred by unsavoury incidents, reducing the competition to a subject of worldwide mockery. Anything as bad — or even remotely approaching that — won’t be good for the AFCON’s image.
Every detail, down to the standard of refereeing, must be nailed, just to avoid any needless controversies; when all eyes are on Africa, after all, things could seem so much worse than they actually are.
And then there is the part that everybody else, the two dozen participating teams, have to play. The various high-profile individual performers, those likeliest to hog the headlines, need to take the challenge especially seriously and grace the stage in all their glory.
If the absence of the Mohamed Salahs, Riyad Mahrezes and Thomas Parteys is going to be felt by the Premier League, their presence must be felt just as much at the AFCON. They are the ones expected to light up the competition — they’re called stars for a reason — and would, without exception, have to live up to their reputations.
Should all these pieces coalesce, a supposed AFCON to forget — as detractors would hope it turns out — could, instead, prove one worth remembering, the ugly duckling nobody saw coming.