The African Cup of Nations soccer tournament opened Sunday in Cameroon with a burst of color but also under the shadow of a coronavirus pandemic that is surging again because of the rapid spread of the omicron variant just as the continent’s biggest sports show begins.
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 colors.
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.”
The ceremony ended with red, green, and yellow smoke — the colors 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% of stadium capacity for games involving home team Cameroon, and 60% 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 gave 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.
Motsepe will oversee his first African Cup after the South African mining billionaire surprisingly rose to the position of head of African soccer last year because of the backing of Infantino. In his speech, Motsepe acknowledged the support of “my brother” Infantino.
This African Cup has been the target of more skepticism than most after organizers insisted they would go ahead with a soccer showpiece amid the omicron-driven surge. There had been rumors that it was going to be postponed again, while European clubs have expressed concerns that the health protocols put in place by organizers CAF and local Cameroon authorities won’t be sufficient to protect their African players.
CAF has rejected the criticism.
“The people of Cameroon are showing the rest of Africa, the rest of the world, that we can host a successful...” Motsepe said before the cheers of the crowd prevented him from finishing his sentence.
Cameroon will play Burkina Faso in the first game straight after the opening ceremony. The first installment of soccer is set to be affected by the virus after Burkina Faso had five players ruled out after testing positive.
Many of the teams have had virus outbreaks in their squads in the buildup, including Senegal, one of the title favorites. Senegal announced Saturday that Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and Captain Kalidou Koulibaly were among three players to test positive, likely ruling them out of Senegal’s opening game on Monday.
In another high-profile case, Gabon and Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang tested positive on his arrival in Cameroon this week.
Teams face mandatory and regular testing throughout the tournament.