After a relatively long three-year wait, the 33rd Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals is at last here. The continent’s flagship soccer showpiece kicks off north of the Cameroonian capital Yaounde with the hosts taking on Burkina Faso in the Group A opener at the Olembe Stadium tonight.
These 90 minutes of action will come off as a big relief for the game’s stakeholders across the continent who not only had to brave delays brought by the coronavirus pandemic. But also, Caf president Patrice Motsepe needed to raise his voice to affirm staging of the championship after the last-minute despite external forces vying for its postponement.
It is the second year in a row that lights are turning to Cameroon for a top continental soccer meeting after the Chan finals last January.
Whereas the home-based players managed to finish fourth under Martin Ndtoungou, this time the Indomitable Lions want to roar louder in their own den. After all, record Afcon top-scorer Samuel Eto’o recently became the president of Cameroon’s FA.
Caf has passed that matches involving the hosts will have 80 percent capacity attendance but it drops to 60 percent for other matches.
Champions at the 2017 edition in Gabon, Cameroon stopped by Nigeria at the last 16 stages in Egypt two years ago and Portuguese coach Antonio Conceicao took over.
Under Conceicao, the Indomitable Lions hunt differently by engineering a high-intensity game with the wing-backs proving pivotal both in defence and attack.
Skipper Vincent Aboubakar, who struck the winning goal during the final against Egypt in Libreville four years ago, brings a wealth of experience to the side.
He will be key in helping star players like Napoli’s Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa as well as forwards Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Karl Toko Ekambi to perform against a new-look Burkinabe.
The Stallions from Ouagadougou are slowly transitioning from their unit which succumbed to Sunday Mba’s winner against Nigeria in 2013 final.
To attain a 12th Afcon appearance, Burkinabe relied on a younger generation of players like Bertrand Traore, Edmond Tapsoba, goalkeeper Herve Koffi, Gustavo Sangare, and Issa Kabore.
However, it is Aston Villa forward Traore and Standard Liege striker Abdoul Tapsoba who will be the key men for Kamou Malo’s side.
Whereas Cameroon appears favourites on paper, only one Afcon tournament host since 2013 - Egypt two years ago - has opened up a tourney with a win.
Meanwhile, one of Cecafa region’s representatives Ethiopia is competing for the first time in nine years and opened their account against Cape Verde, a side that seems to have mastered the art of dining with the continent’s bigwigs.
However, the Blue Sharks, have been affected by Covid-19, with six players including two custodians, isolating before this encounter.