Amid coups and Covid, Africa is focusing on what matters most: football

YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – She had been watching some matches in secret, the volume turned down so no one would notice her. She had seen the t...

YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – She had been watching some matches in secret, the volume turned down so no one would notice her. She had seen the threats and knew she could be kidnapped or killed for watching the African football tournament hosted by her country, Cameroon.

But she was tired of containing her excitement every time Cameroon scored, so on Wednesday Ruth, who lives in a war-torn region where secessionist rebels have banned watching games, secretly traveled to the capital, Yaoundé , to support his team in person. .

“I would love to shout, if possible,” she said on Thursday, after safely reaching Yaoundé while preparing for the big game. “I decided to take the risk.”

African football is coming to the end of a month that everyone agrees has been magnificent. The 52 games of this year’s much-delayed Africa Cup of Nations tournament have brought some respite to countries crossing major political upheaval or war, and those resisting the disruptions and hardships caused by Covid.

For a while it was the year of the underdogs. Small nations like Comoros and Gambia defeated normally strong sides like Ghana and Tunisia, and a goalkeeper named Jesus became an instant hero in Equatorial Guinea when he saved twice in a penalty shootout against much larger Mali.

Then it became a fight between bigger dogs – the last four countries were Egypt, Cameroon, Senegal and Burkina Faso. But even as nations gave up, fans switched allegiances to other countries, citing a culture of brotherhood that transcends borders.

Across the continent, in crowded bars, airports and village glades and on city sidewalks, every game there are groups of spectators opening beers and pouring glasses of strong, sweet tea. , pull out plastic chairs and rough wooden benches, and settle in for 90 minutes of nail-biting fun.

When their team won the day after the coup last week in Burkina Faso, Burkinabe soldiers returning home danced with joy. When Senegal went on to beat Burkina Faso in the semi-finals on Wednesday night, the streets of Dakar were filled with car horns honking and flags waving. Online, after every game, thousands of people flock to Twitter Spaces to unpack together what happened.

Deeply divided countries have come together, however briefly, and the solidarity – person to person, group to group, region to region – is palpable. Even in Cameroon, where a deadly conflict has been raging since the end of 2016, football brings people together.

The crisis there began when teachers and lawyers in an English-speaking region in the west went on strike to protest the use of French in courts and classrooms. The repressive, predominantly French-speaking government responded with harsh repression. Abuse of human rights by the military helped fuel a full-fledged armed struggle led by English-speaking fighters known as Amba boys, after Ambazonia, the name they gave to their future state.

The separatists have warned people there not to watch Afcon, as the football tournament is known, and certainly not to support Cameroon. But many English speakers like Ruth – a government employee who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her from retaliation – defied the risk and traveled to predominantly French-speaking towns to watch matches.

“We may not be a very united nation, but I think that one thing brings us together,” Ruth said, adding that it was common knowledge that even though they threatened, kidnapped and tortured other spectators , Amba fighters watched the tournament in their camps.

CAN is special. Players relatively unknown outside their country’s borders are playing alongside multi-millionaire stars from the world’s most prestigious teams who are taking time off to represent their country, right in the middle of the European season.

It’s worth it, Egypt’s star player Mohamed Salah told a press conference last week before his side were tied with Ivory Coast.

“This trophy, for me, would be completely different from others I’ve won,” said Mr Salah, a player who has won both the Premier League and Champions League with his other team, Liverpool Football Club. . “That would be closest to my heart.”

Burkina Faso is a country that has managed to focus on football despite a major crisis at home. As the Burkinabé players and supporters prepared to set off for the quarter-finals, the soldiers overthrew their government.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Sambo Diallo, a fan standing with his arms raised in a Yaoundé hotel packed with Burkina Faso fans, as a friend painted his head, face and chest with the flag from his country. “We weren’t happy, but we had to be brave.”

Despite the concern caused by their families at home, the Burkina Faso players won this quarter-final. Still in great shape, a green bus full of enthusiastic Burkina Faso fans who had followed their team across the country arrived in Yaoundé on Wednesday afternoon. Their team was set to meet Senegal in the semi-finals.

Football had visibly brought the Senegalese team together, with the jewel in its crown being one of the continent’s biggest stars, Sadio Mane, who also plays for Liverpool.

But it also brought together another team of seven young men, one who traveled with the players wherever they went. At each game, each member paints their chest with a letter which, when they all stand side by side, spells SENEGAL.

They are men of fortune very different from that of the gamblers: in their lives at home, they are builders, clerks and traveling salesmen who earn little but give up everything whenever their country needs them to resume their body paint coat.

And they support each other. While in Cameroon, one of them, the first E, missed the birth of his son, the day Senegal beat Cape Verde. But the others pitched in to pay for the baptism party at their home in Dakar, which took place on the day of the Senegal-Burkina Faso match. And a few years ago, the A lost his wife, and sometimes he goes off to cry a little on his own. But the others are on the case – they’re all trying to find him a new girlfriend to cheer him up.

In matching red, yellow and green caps and pants, the seven letters warmed up the crowd on Wednesday with call-and-response chants of “Senegal – Rek!” — “Only Senegal” in Wolof.

“Two zero! shouted Babacar Sylla, who has been the N since 2004. It was the score he wanted. Hopes were high on both sides.

“If we win, I will bring the cup back to Burkina Faso myself,” shouted Aminatou Nougtara, who is Burkinabe but lives in Cameroon, and came with her daughter Soukaina to support the team.

“With the coup and terrorism and everything, it’s going to bring some relief to people,” Burkina Faso fan Abdou Moumini said at halftime as the score was 0-0. But in the end, Senegal won 3-1 and will face Egypt in the final on Sunday.

Over a beer At Tonton Andre, a bar located at a busy crossroads in Yaoundé, Ghejung Awunti, regional commissioner for the English-speaking northwest region, chatted with two of his colleagues. They had come to risk their lives in Yaoundé to watch Cameroon play – the vice-president of the regional assembly for which they worked had been kidnapped in December.

But, he said, “football is about more than politics.”

Ruth managed to secure tickets to see Cameroon take on Egypt in Thursday’s semi-final at the new multi-colored Olembe Stadium built for the tournament, and where on January 24 eight people died in a stampede. But she got stuck in heavy traffic on her way and couldn’t make it in time for kick-off. So she slipped into a bar and watched the game there.

Cameroon lost 3-1 on penalties. “It was worth it because I could watch with excited fans,” she said.

And she was screaming and screaming a lot.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Amid coups and Covid, Africa is focusing on what matters most: football
Amid coups and Covid, Africa is focusing on what matters most: football
Newsrust - US Top News
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