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Covid not only problem facing Africa Cup

Organisers of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) have insisted the tournament will go ahead in Cameroon next month despite the fast-spreading omicron variant of coronavirus adding to concerns.

Amid rumours that the continent’s main soccer event might be postponed for a second time because of the pandemic, or even moved outside Africa, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) said this week it will open as planned on January 9 at the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde.

CAF president Patrice Motsepe even said he expected it to be “an exceptional tournament.”

“I will be in Cameroon on 7 January with my wife and kids to witness this incredible competition,” said Motsepe, who became head of African soccer this year. “All over the world there are competitions with challenges but we have to be more optimistic.”

It is likely African soccer will settle for a tournament that goes off without serious problems. There was a battle even before the virus to get the Central African nation ready to stage its biggest sporting event since hosting the first AFCON in 1972.

Cameroon successfully staged the eight-team Women’s AFCON in 2016 but this has twice as many teams playing in six stadia in five cities rather than two.

Cameroon was initially due to host the 2019 event but was stripped of that tournament because of problems with its preparations and given a second chance in 2021. Then, the finals were put back a year because of the pandemic.

Now the virus has forced a host country still struggling with getting stadiums ready for the finals to take on the additional challenge of ensuring Africa’s most popular sports event doesn’t become a virus super-spreader.

To satisfy Cameroon authorities, CAF has agreed that only fully vaccinated fans who also have proof of negative COVID-19 tests will be allowed to attend games.

This is set to leave most of the 52 games to go ahead in near-empty stadiums as fewer than three per cent of Cameroon’s 26 million population are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The soccer-mad West and Central African countries around Cameroon also have vaccination rates of well below 10 per cent, so many other fans won’t be travelling.

As for the players, there will be screening at every stadium, training ground and tournament venue.

Yet these plans have been viewed as insufficient by European clubs, who say they fear for the wellbeing of their African players and are reluctant to allow them to go to Cameroon.

The absence of superstars like Liverpool forwards Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez, Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and others would be a serious blow.

There are other issues.

Cameroon is cutting it fine to have stadiums ready.

The main Olembe Stadium, which will host the opening game between Cameroon and Burkina Faso, and the final on February 6, is undergoing a $US370 million ($A512 million) revamp but hasn’t yet been officially opened. It was so far behind schedule last month that CAF threatened to move the opening game.

Cameroon has missed deadlines on other stadiums, too.

The country also has a violent insurgency in its south-western region, where militias have fought for years to form a breakaway state near Limbe, one of the tournament’s five host cities. Last month, an explosion at a university campus injured 13 students about a mile from an official African Cup training ground.

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