Just like its younger European brother, the African continent’s most prestigious national team competition has arrived a year later than scheduled.
Thirteen cities across Europe were primed in 2020 to host the 60th anniversary of the European championships. But the coronavirus pandemic decimated those notions of grandeur.
Nothing quite so elaborate was planned for the Cup of Nations when it celebrated its 60th birthday in 2017 in Gabon.
Half a decade on from that tournament’s final in Libreville and extravagance has been pushed to the sidelines.
The initial thrust of the coronavirus put paid to Cameroon’s staging of the competition in January 2021.
A year later, the pandemic still rages across the globe but the Confederation of African Football (CAF) – which organises the Cup of Nations – has decided to plough on with the competition.
From 9 January, 24 teams will vie for CAF’s most prestigious national team title.
Hosts Cameroon roared on by the partisans will launch the ball of football with the opening match against Burkina Faso at the 60,000 seat Paul Biya Stadium in Yaoundé.
The man after whom the glitzy arena is named will be in the crowd along with a dazzling array of presidential counterparts. Football administrators, celebrities, lackeys and fans will complete the cheering throng.
Samuel Eto’o, the new boss of the Cameroon football federation – Fecafoot – will lend a dapper glow to the VIP enclosure.
The 40-year-old – who can cut a snazzy figure in his lavishly designed suits – was elected last month on a pledge to promote the women’s game and root out corruption.
If anyone possesses the clout and indeed the clothes to fulfil those vows, it is the former Cameroon international who scored 56 goals in 118 appearances for his country.
He was part of the side that claimed consecutive Cup of Nations titles in 2000 and 2002. In Europe he racked up trophies playing for Barcelona and Inter Milan.
After wining the poll to become the country’s top football administrator, he said it was the proudest day of his life.
And less than a fortnight after winning the vote, he was out defending Fecafoot colours following burgeoning speculation that the tournament could be cancelled due to health concerns about the players.
“The Euro was played during the pandemic with full stadiums,” said Eto’o.
“They played in many cities in Europe. So why shouldn’t we play in Cameroon? If some think we should postpone the tournament, they need to give a good reason.”
Eto’o suggested that racism seeped into the reservations. “Why would the Africa Cup of Nations not be played? Give me only one valid reason,” he chafed.
“Or, we are being treated, as we have always been treated? As if we are less than nothing and we must always suffer.”
For all the indignation, there will be scrutiny over the next month as the 52 matches unfold in Garoua, Limbé, Bafoussam, Douala and Yaoundé.
Judgment nor credulity will be suspended as in previous editions of the Cup of Nations where organisation and administration have often been lacking or lamentable.
If the movers and shakers in Cameroon can show the Cup of Nations has peeled off the carapace of incompetence and shaken away the attendant shoddiness, then Eto’o and co will be able boast of a great leap forward especially in such testing times.
And yet the seeds of turmoil are salient.
Warm-up matches for the tournament have been affected. Fixtures and players have been hit everywhere.
Paris Saint-Germain star Lionel Messi contracted Covid in Argentina forcing him to miss PSG’s last-32 Coupe de France tie at Vannes on 3 January. Lille lost half a dozen players for their cup match against northern rivals Lens the following day.
The matches were played: Eto’o was within his rights to fulminate – cancelling the event would indeed have been bizarre.
But as the pandemic embeds itself into the daily routine, the flurry of questions will inevitably turn to who will succeed Algeria as champions of Africa.
Senegal, the 2019 beaten finalists, appear strong. Aliou Cissé’s men enter the tournament 20th in the Fifa world rankings – Africa’s highest placed team.
Sadio Mané is expected to produce the goods in attack and the Champions League-winning Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy ought to enhance his growing esteem by offering composure and assurance at the other end.
Mané’s Liverpool teammate, Mohamed Salah, is due to shine too for Egypt after the disappointment of the Pharaohs’ last-16 elimination in 2019 in Cairo.
Nigeria, who play Egypt in their opening game in Group D on 11 January in Garoua, appear to have shot themselves in the foot with the dismissal of long-time coach Gernot Rohr in the middle of December.
The 68-year-old German, who had been at the helm since August 2016, was replaced by the former Nigeria international Augustine Eguavoen.
His new charges should have enough savvy to reach the last-16 from a group also containing Sudan and Guinea-Bissau.
Should his team not reach the last-16 knockout stages, the furore in Nigeria is likely to make the pandemic look like a folk dance.
Expectations are also high in Morocco. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic, who took over from Hervé Renard in 2019, displayed his renowned iron-fist with the exclusion of the Chelsea star Hakim Ziyech.
The two fell out last autumn over the player’s attitude and despite claims and counter claims in the media, the damage has not been repaired.
“The notion of a group is something very easy,” said Halilhodzic when announcing the squad. “We worked well with this group for two years and I won’t allow anyone to come and spoil it. The national team is sacred.”
Morocco have not lifted the crown since 1976. Back then in Ethiopia, the Cup of Nations was an eight-team event with the winner emerging from a second phase round robin format.
Nearly five decades later, the Cup of Nations is three times as big and much more unwieldy. But the fervour for glory remains undiminished.