It’s time again for players to show themselves while entertaining the world
As the 33rd Africa Cup of Nations (AfCON) kicks off today in Cameroon with 24 countries featuring at the biggest football show piece on the continent, the tournament highlights how football remains a powerful and unifying force. Held biannually since inception in 1957, AfCON has been used to celebrate the continent while offering a purely African content to what is universally recognised as the ‘beautiful game’. We therefore hope that this tournament, like the previous ones, will offer quality entertainment and that at the end, the best side will win.
However, this tournament is coming amid disruptions by COVID-19 which has led to loss of jobs across all sectors and forced many nations into lockdown mode since the spike in the pandemic in December 2019. But authorities on the continent have also shown resilience by insisting on going ahead with the event in the face of postponement, uncertainties and worries about cancellation arising from backlash from European clubs hesitant to release players out of concern for injuries and COVID-19.
Players from 16 of the 20 Premier League team are involved at the tournament, with only Leeds United, Newcastle United, Norwich City and Spurs not represented. And there has been a controversy about the release of these players, especially from England. With African players being asked whether they would like to represent their countries, former Arsenal striker, Ian Wright and Crystal Palace manager, Patrick Vieira have called on footballing authorities in Europe to show more respect for the continent and the tournament. “If it was the Euros or any other tournament, I don’t think there would be any kind of conversation like this,” said Nigerian international, William Troost-Ekong, who plays for the English premiership club, Watford, echoing the position of Ian Wright. “That would be ludicrous.”
It is remarkable that the tournament is holding at last. Originally, it was due to be staged in 2019 but was moved to Egypt because Cameroon was deemed not ready with the necessary infrastructure. Then, it was scheduled to start in June 2021 but subsequently brought forward to January to avoid Cameroon’s rainy season. The tournament was then delayed to 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The special place of AfCON in the international football calendar is quite unique. The tournament predates the Euro-Championship and is reputed for yielding the stage to some of the best players that ply their trade all over the world to exhibit their talent. It is expected that today’s opening fixture between the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon and the Stallions of Burkina Faso at the Olembe Stadium, Yaounde will produce the sparks and give football fans across the world an insight of what to expect in the next four weeks.
Nigeria is one of the six nations tipped to win the tournament. The Super Eagles will clash with the Mo Sallah-led Pharaohs of Egypt in the battle of the heavyweights on Tuesday in Garoua in their first match in Group D. This tournament also marks the 19th time Nigeria will be making appearance since the 1963 debut in Ghana. Nigeria also boasts of impressive record in the tournament having emerged champions on three different occasions: 1980, 1994 and 2013. The Super Eagles of Nigeria also finished second in 1984, 1988, 1990 and 2000 while they have finished third on eight different times, an accomplishment that remains a tournament benchmark.
While we implore the Super Eagles to make our country proud at the tournament, it is noteworthy that of all affiliated members of international football association that participate in all FIFA and CAF organised tournaments, our country is always the object of ridicule before, during and after most tournaments because of the way the NFF and Sports Ministry conduct their affairs. In the management of travels, accommodation and match bonus, everything must be done to avert another emblem of shame this time. For the players, the greatest honour is to defend their national flag on behalf of millions of compatriots.
We wish the Super Eagles of Nigeria all the best in Cameroon.