When we tell our stories: Musings from AFCON 2021

The Total Energies 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN Total Energies 2021) took the continent by storm for good 29 days, with the recently concluded 33rd edition acclaimed as the most widely followed in the history of the competition. Prowess, spectacle, patriotism, and frenzy, #AFCON2021 engendered a surplus of feisty content, laden with agenda-setting and feverish crescendo. With mainstream and social media across and beyond the continent awash with technical analyses of the sport, it would be remiss to overlook the subtexts of audience reception. 


Growing pains – The hosting conundrum

Cameroon initially won the bid to host the 2019 edition. However, the Confederation of African Football, in 2018, withdrew the country’s right to host the tournament, citing infrastructural delays and safety concerns due to the Anglophone crisis and Boko Haram insurgency. There were equally some concerns about its capacity to host an expanded 24-team tournament since the country was initially co-opted to organise an AFCON with 16 participants. Nevertheless, the homeland of Roger Milla was awarded hosting rights for 2021, eventually slated for January/February 2022, due to COVID-related delays and unfavourable weather conditions associated with June/July.

But uncertainty lingered still. With the Fédération Internationale de Football Association boss, Gianni Infantino, in favour of postponement due to the Club World Cup, and European clubs reluctant to release their players, citing COVID-related health risks, the prelude to the AFCON raised serious questions around the global football calendar, but more importantly, the relegation of Africa, as pointed out by Samuel Eto’o – four-time African Player of the Year winner, former Barcelona, Inter Milan and Real Madrid star, and President of the Cameroonian Football Federation since December 11 2021. However, CAF President Dr Patrice Motsepe, cleared doubts following a successful meeting with the President of the Republic of Cameroon, Paul Biya.


Momentous highlights

Starring Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cabo Verde, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tunisia and Zimbabwe, the biennial tournament opened with pomp and ceremony at the Olembe Stadium.

A picturesque mise-en-scène of Cameroonian culture, diversity and landscapes staged by a sea of dancers, featuring the AFCON 2021 Anthem performed by Africa Smile, and a performance by Congolese artiste, Fally Ipupa, the opening ceremony evoked sentiments of pride, belonging and African excellence.

“The people of Cameroon are showing Africa, showing the world, that we can host a successful AFCON. Today, we are here to show the best of football from Cameroon and the best of football from Africa,” boomed Motsepe, amid thunderous applause from the 60,000-capacity stadium.

And thus began a tale of 24 countries, sparring through 52 matches and giving us a Senegal-Egypt finale with the Teranga Lions emerging as first-time champions! With Cameroon gleaning third place after a spectacular remontada against Burkina Faso, Senegal’s Sadio Mané and Edouard Mendy winning best player and goalkeeper, respectively, Cameroon’s Vincent Aboubakar finishing as top goalscorer with eight goals, with Karl Toko Ekambi (five) in tow, Cameroon’s ‘CAN sucrée’ thrilled spectators to the very end.


Trials and naysayers

Alas, there was the heart-wrenching Olembe stampede that claimed the lives of eight supporters, injuring 38 others, who showed up in droves for the January 24 Cameroon-Comoros fixture.

“The CAF family is deeply hurt. We would like to convey our deepest condolences to the families, friends and relatives of the people who lost their lives yesterday,” Motsepe declared.

However, the darkest moment of the tournament would sadly become a footnote in the chain of events, eclipsed by disappointing, misguided controversy. 

The murmuring ranged from debatable concerns about the refereeing and CAF COVID-19 regulations, to improbable claims about accommodation. But it wasn’t long before it morphed into a berserk attack on the host country. The triggering factor? Cameroon versus Comoros. The Coelacanths, who selected left back Chaker Alhadhuras as their goalkeeper, after Ali Ahamada was ruled out due to CAF COVID rules, played most of the match with a 10-man squad when Nadjim Abdou earned a red card for a dangerous foul on Moumi Ngamaleu. 

If Comoros “won our hearts” for their brave performance, Cameroon became the target of conspiracy theories. Accused of “giving” COVID-positive tests to Comoros; not having COVID cases; jubilating after scoring their goals; not pleading with CAF to relax the rules; blamed for the red card; etc. And thus, the tournament was dubbed “CAN of shame”. The troubling discourse that ensued unveiled profound levels of benightedness of the naysayers, who could not seem to distinguish between the organiser and the host country (Cameroon). Acutely clueless about the inner workings of the institutions, CAF, Cameroon, FECAFOOT and Eto’o were treated like synonyms. Fair play left the building, and an alternate universe came into existence, where it seemed impossible that the five-time AFCON champions, 2000 Summer Olympics gold medalists, seven-time World Cup contenders could have won the match against Comoros without collusion.


The bigger picture

The show did go on, culminating in a majestic star-studded closing ceremony with South African Nomcebo and Cameroonian James BKS, Salatiel, Daphne, and Stanley Enow serving talent and entertainment galore. The Teranga Lions seized the day, fired up and emotional all at once, a gentle reminder that if it’s just a game, the stakes are too high. 

In addition to rekindling old rivalries, which add to the fervour of sporting competitions, AFCON 2021 revealed deeper insights into how we see us. The celebration is emblematic of collective pride, constructive criticism indicative of standards and the willingness to raise the bar, and competitiveness, a healthy expression of our ardent desire to do and be better.

But what to make of the self-annihilation for sport? We challenge misrepresentations of Africa, preaching the power of telling our own stories; yet, we kill our protagonists before the climax and then wonder at the absurdity of our self-sabotaged plots when we can make neither head nor tail of the denouement. 

As we gear up for the 34th episode of euphoria and many others to come, we must cultivate objectivity in how we speak of ourselves, woes, wins and all. If there were any doubts, AFCON 2021 demonstrated that Africa’s youth can and will mobilise for a cause they find worthy. Now that the competition has come and gone, let’s scrutinise our priorities, face our realities squarely, leverage this momentum beyond the football pitch, and support pacesetters with vision to reify the collective consciousness indispensable to sustainable change.

*Dr Butake, a communications and programme management professional, works in the international development sector. 

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