Football: Ready or not, here we come

The circular-shaped Paul Biya Stadium is visible the moment you drive into the moderately populated Olembe neighbourhood in Yaoundé via the Yaoundé-Obala highway. Though the lone road leading to the site was recently tarred, it is often dusty or sometimes covered in mud from the hundreds of trucks ferrying equipment and materials to and fro the construction site.

The stadium looms over a block of newly erected low-cost houses. Their inhabitants live with the noise of the heavy machinery that toils day and night to complete the arena for the opening and final games of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). With less than eight months to the competition there are real concerns that Cameroon will not be able to pull it off.

It is not entirely the failing of the Central African nation though. Three years into its preparations, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) decided, in a meeting in Morocco, to adopt the resolutions of the first-ever African Football Symposium and increase the number of participating teams at the AFCON from 16 to 24.

While these changes are not necessarily misguided, the time frame provided little wiggle room for the hosts, who had to commit, on the fly, to two more stadiums – not to mention more hotels – with less than two years’ notice.

Being required to produce more bricks with the same amount of straw has raised the existential question of what the point of it all is. Hosting major tournaments has always been a double-edged sword; the tourism potential seems a very miniscule gain compared to the huge losses incurred, especially in terms of finance and infrastructural development.

Very few African nations have a year-round demand for multiple stadiums. Neighbouring nations Equatorial Guinea and Gabon have, between them, hosted three of the past four tournaments, building six new stadiums in the process, two of which have since been completely abandoned. In the context of the economic and socio-political issues currently afflicting the Central African nation, can the similar waste of millions of dollars really be justified?

In the past year Cameroon has been gripped by violence after civilian protests in the country’s Anglophone minority region were met with military retaliation. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), between 160,000 and 200,000 people have fled their homes in the volatile South-west and North-west regions to other parts of the country since late last year, in addition to at least 21,000 who have fled into Nigeria. The unrest encompasses Buea and Limbe, two cities that will host teams and games for the continental tournament, and that has created its own concerns.

“We are under fire and siege, yet the rest of the world keeps ignoring us,” says school teacher *Patrick Puleru who lives in Muea, a neighbourhood in Buea. “Gunshots everywhere and you’re talking about a meaningless football event. No one here is interested. You can never put football before lives in the Anglophone area.”

The general sense of danger and apathy is compounded by the fact that, with months to kick off, there are major worries in Cameroon about the facilities, especially the 60,000-seater Paul Biya Stadium. The readiness of the 50,000-seater Japoma stadium in Douala and the Stade Roumdé Adjia in Garoua is also up in the air.

Determined to host

In spite of this, and the slow pace of work, the leadership of the CAF has – outwardly, at least – remained steadfast in its insistence on Cameroon, as has the tournament’s organising committee.

“The debate on the withdrawal or not of this competition does not concern the local organising committee,” says Jean Baptiste Biaye, a member of the committee. “Cameroon is determined to host the tournament in its new format and to fully comply with the terms of reference of CAF.”

Critics suggest that this determination is reinforced by the desire of Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, to launder his battered image. It would not be the first time: Equatorial Guinea’s leader Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasoga did the same in 2015, stepping in to host the AFCON after Morocco demanded postponement because of the Ebola virus in West Africa. Then, in 2017, Gabon stepped in to replace war-torn Libya as host.

“He [President Biya] is a dictator who wants to extend his 36-year rule but cannot provide safety, education, hospitals and jobs for his people,” says Puleru.

There have been sanctions in the past for prospective hosts pulling out at the last moment – most recently Morocco in 2015 – which would cause a disastrous blow to national pride as the Indomitable Lions are in line to defend their AFCON crown, following their triumph in 2017. However, all is not as rosy on the footballing side of things as that victory 18 months ago might suggest.

The Cameroon Football Federation (FECAFOOT) is presently being overseen by a FIFA Normalisation Committee, the second such intervention in a four-year span, after the Court of Arbitration for Sport annulled the 2015 election of Tombi Sidiki as president of FECAFOOT. This sense of crisis and mayhem is reflected somewhat in the decision to appoint Clarence Seedorf as coach of the national side without recourse to an interview.

For *Ambers Gregory, a football fan in Mbingo in the North-west region, the political situation gives hosting the AFCON a bitter taste. He predicts it will grant the country’s president Paul Biya the international PR he craves: “He’s ordering our silence and oppressing us on a daily basis,” said Gregory. “The government wants to play football with our lives; staying alive is not a game.”

*Real names have not been used.

This article first appeared in the November 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine