The exceptional atmosphere of the opening match of the African Cup of Nations has died down and the host country is struggling to fill its stands. Several obstacles have dampened the enthusiasm of the fans.
Brand new stadiums, decent pitches, attractive fixtures… The first few days of the 2021 AFCON have been filled with excitement and anticipation, but the stadiums are still empty. After the exceptional crowd of the opening match of 9 January because of the national team of Cameroon – the host country – the temperature has dropped following the lack of public supporters in the various stadiums.
An hour after the match between the Indomitable Lions and the Stallions of Burkina Faso, the stands of the Olembe stadium had already emptied when the Ethiopian and Cape Verdean players entered the scene.
In Bafoussam stadium, where the matches of one of the favourites, Senegal, are played; in Mfandena, where Morocco is housed; in Douala Japoma stadium, in which Algeria played its first match on 11 January… None of them could bring in enough people.
The only exception, so far: the duel between Nigeria and Egypt, which was played at the Roumde Adja stadium in Garoua, filled for the occasion up to the 60% authorised by the African Football Confederation (CAF).
Overly strict health protocol?
There are several reasons why fans are shunning the stadiums. The main one is undoubtedly the heavy sanitary protocol adopted by CAF and the organising committee to limit the spread of Covid-19.
The rules are particularly strict, and many clubs – particularly European ones – have demanded that their players be allowed to participate in the competition only with the rules in place. Only those who have been duly vaccinated, and who have tested negative for the virus within the last 48 hours, can attend the matches.
In a country where less than 2.5% of the population had received their doses a week before the CAF kicked off, the vaccination requirement excludes a large proportion of potential fans. “CAF needs to reconsider certain provisions. We can maintain the anti-covid tests and masks, but do without the vaccination obligation,” says Landry, a supporter from Yaounde.
The quality of the show depends on it.
The schedules of some of the matches scheduled during this first phase of the competition – as early as 2pm for some – and the price of tickets, are also at issue. Depending on the category, tickets range from 3,000 to 8,000 CFA francs (about 4.5 to 12 euros).
And the prices go up as the competition progresses: in the quarter-finals, you have to pay at least 5,000 CFA francs – and up to 15,000 CFA francs.
For the final, the precious tickets will cost between 7,000 and 20,000 CFA francs. “Selling tickets at these prices in a country where the monthly salary is less than 60 euros is discouraging for many,” said a sports journalist from a Cameroonian television station. On Twitter, Cameroonian journalist Annie Payep also believes that “prices should be lowered” and that “conditions of access to stadiums should be eased”.
While some called for the removal of health barriers, others put forward the idea of a boycott of the competition for political reasons. Several activists have threatened to desert the stadiums, like the Jesuit priest Ludovic Lado, who wanted to denounce the “arbitrary arrests of opponents” and draw attention to the security crisis in the country’s English-speaking regions.
However, this project was thwarted by the opposition leader, Maurice Kamto, who urged Cameroonians to “welcome all foreigners with dignity and African hospitality, while carrying the Indomitable Lions to victory.
In an effort to fill the stadiums, the government has sent multiple messages to the population. In a statement released on 11 January, the Minister of Communication, Rene Emmanuel Sadi, called for “a mobilisation of all to fill the stands of stadiums throughout the competition and in all sites hosting the games. It is not certain that the call will be heard if CAF does not agree to relax the sanitary rules and if ticket prices remain at their current level.