The 2021 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) finals kick off tonight in Cameroon having shaken off all the pressure to have the tournament called off.
The 33rd edition of the continental showpiece kicks off against the backdrop of controversy over the tournament’s timing, the COVID-19 risk, player call-ups and the readiness of Cameroon, the hosts.
A total of 24 teams qualified for the biennial event are divided into six groups, whose top two finishers will automatically qualify for the knockout phase with four of the third-best finishers also advancing.
The COVID-19 threat has given room for Africa’s football governing body CAF to allow for the expansion of national team squads from 23 to 28.
The championship has twice been rescheduled by Africa’s football governing body CAF, first from the original dates of June-July 2021 owing to “unfavourable climatic conditions” then from January-February 2021 due to the claws of the COVID-19 pandemic.
All the participants, however, will be hoping to avoid a COVID-19 scare in their squads, and Morocco is one of the teams on the hoping risk, carrying their own cooks, food and hotel staff with direct contact with the players.
Holders Algeria, 2019 finalists Senegal, hosts Cameroon, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria; Ghana et al are among the top contenders to lift the continental crown owing to their quality.
Five-time winners and hosts Cameroon lift the lid off the showpiece with a game against 2013 finalists Burkina Faso at the Paul Biya Stadium in Limbe at 1900 hours before paving way for Ethiopia and Cape Verde at 2200 hours in the second group A game and the final game of the opening day.
The polarized 2021 AFCON edition will be held in six venues in five different Cameroonian cities (Douala, Yaounde, Garoua, Bafoussam and Limbe) and a total of 52 matches played until the final date of February 6.