African Cup opens in Cameroon under shadow of COVID-19

The African Cup of Nations soccer tournament opened Sunday in Cameroon with a burst of colour but also under the shadow of a coronavirus pandemic that is surging again because of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
Dancers wearing red, green, yellow, white and blue costumes gyrated in the middle of the field during the opening ceremony at the newly rebuilt Olembe Stadium in the capital, Yaounde. Some of the performers wore masks in matching colours.

The computer-generated image of a giant lion walked across the top of the stadium roof as the ceremony began, then leaped down to the stadium floor and prowled the outer rim of the field. It was a nod to Cameroon’s national soccer team, which is known as the “Indomitable Lions.”

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The ceremony ended with red, green and yellow smoke — the colours of Cameroon’s flag — bursting from a giant replica of the African Cup of Nations trophy in the middle of the stadium.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino attended, as did 88-year-old Cameroon President Paul Biya, who has led the Central African country since 1982. He didn’t wear a mask.

The 60,000-seat stadium was nearly full, even after organizers introduced a last-minute restriction because of Omicron that only fully vaccinated fans with proof of recent negative virus tests will be allowed into the stadiums for any of the 52 games spread out over five host cities. The attendances are also capped at 80 per cent of stadium capacity for games involving home team Cameroon, and 60 per cent for other games.

Cameroon’s African Cup will take place three years later than planned after the country was stripped as host of the initial tournament awarded to it in 2019 because it was so far behind in its preparations. It was given another chance in 2021, only for the event to be then postponed for a year because of the pandemic.

Organizers pressed ahead with it this time even with the virus on the rise again, and the month-long tournament featuring 24 teams will be hard-pressed to avoid being regularly disrupted by infections and outbreaks given that so many teams have had virus cases in the buildup.

“Today, by all of us being here, it shows that we believe in ourselves, that we believe in the people of Cameroon and we believe in the people of Africa,” Confederation of African Football President Patrice Motsepe said at the ceremony. He said it would be the best African Cup ever.

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