Algerian-Canadian football journalist Maher Mezahi, who is in Cameroon to cover the Africa Cup of Nations, reflects on how the recent deaths of fans at a stadium has left him with mixed feelings about the tournament.
When I was first asked to do a piece about my impressions about the tournament in Cameroon, I had wanted to compile a list of the things that make it so special and sets it apart from other major football competitions.
I was planning to celebrate African football.
After all, Afcon is a special tournament, adored by everyone on the continent and intrinsically linked to pan-African values.
The first two in 1957 and 1959, for example, were used in part as a statement against apartheid in South Africa.
Players, fans and journalists have all spoken about how it is closer to the true spirit of football, rather than the more sanitised and corporate tournaments elsewhere.
There is also the warm and friendly atmosphere as well as the pride that Afcon creates in all countries across the continent.
Amongst the positive things are the medical protocols to deal with Covid-19, including pulmonary scans.
These are among the strictest in world football and intended to prevent any medical emergencies.
On the terraces, everyone lauds the carnival-like atmosphere that African football supporters manage to generate.
Recognisable super fans are present at every biennial championship.
Take Tunisia’s “Reda The Elephant”, who covers his belly in body paint has the best goal reactions, or Ivory Coast’s “Petit Bamba”, who orchestrates the National Elephants’ Supporters Committee dance moves.
“The atmosphere is so pure,” says Alex Cizmic, an Italian freelance journalist, who has often been amazed at the relaxed atmosphere around the teams.
“In 2019 in Egypt, I was fortunate enough to attend one of the Uganda Cranes’ training sessions. When it was over, I had a chat with star striker Farouk Miya, who I had never met before,” he recalls in a surprised tone.
“Then I arranged a quick call with his former coach Milutin Sredojevic, who I was in contact with. It all felt very familial.”
And smaller nations have shone.
The Gambia and Comoros were debutants in this edition of the tournament, and they have done their nations proud.
Before The Gambia played their first match against Mauritania, I asked a Gambian friend to write down what he felt as the anthem was playing.
“I felt a real sense of pride, love for country, and honour hearing the Gambian national team anthem for the first time,” he said.
“When the first goal went in, I couldn’t do anything. Deep inside of me I was just proud, knowing what the goal means. It really united our country.”
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