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Is Cameroon ready to host Africa Cup of Nations?

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Friday Oct. 1 marked 100 days until kick-off in the 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, the biennial tournament to crown the continent's champions, in Cameroon.

The tournament's return to the Central African powerhouse has been a long and winding road, its destiny tossed about amid the changing political landscape of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and a global pandemic.

Initially penned in as host for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Cameroon was stripped of that privilege in late 2018 -- partly a consequence of CAF's decision to expand the tournament from 16 teams to 24, which would have tested the country's infrastructure beyond its limits at the time.

There were also concerns about the security situation in Cameroon -- simultaneously experiencing low-level terrorism from Boko Haram in the north, and sporadic violence from separatists in the west -- while CAF's preference for a June-July tournament in 2019, rather than the traditional January-February timescale, was incompatible with the country's summer climate.

Egypt ultimately staged the 2019 tournament, with Cameroon to host the 2021 edition, initially planned for January this year.

That, of course, proved impossible in light of the coronavirus pandemic, with qualifiers postponed and then rescheduled due to restrictions, travel bans and safety measures within Africa.

A new launch date of January 2022 was announced in June 2020, with qualifiers concluding in March 2021.

So, two-and-a-half years after the country was initially due to host the tournament, Cameroon will finally welcome the continent to her shores for the first time since 1972.

However, is the country ready to put on the AFCON, or will concerns about stadiums, infrastructure, COVID and secessionist violence impact the tournament's success?

"I can say that Cameroon is ready to welcome Africa," Jules Onana, former international and current FECAFOOT presidential hopeful, told ESPN.

"We hosted Africa during the Women's Nations Cup, during the African Nations Championship (CHAN) less than a year ago, and now we're ready to welcome Africa for the Nations Cup.

"There's been a net improvement in infrastructure; we have added the sites of Garoua and Limbe, Japoma [Stadium in Douala] is already functional, and previous ones have been maintained.

"Bafoussam is also ready, while the training pitches and playing pitches have come a long way. I'm sure we'll be ready to welcome all of Africa in January."

Certainly, CAF president Dr Patrice Motsepe was complimentary about the progress of Olembe Stadium -- site of the opening and closing ceremonies -- upon a recent inspection, although the continent's governing body was unimpressed with Cameroon's decision to host Malawi for a World Cup qualifier in September despite the venue not having been completed to international standards.

"The main stadium in Olembe isn't yet finished, and this was the major talking point during the last qualifiers," former RFI pundit Edith Giscard noted at the time.

"There was a desire from [tournament organising committee] COCAN to dismiss the suggestion that the stadium work was late, but it was clear with your own eyes.

"It appears unlikely to be completely ready before the [Africa Cup of Nations], but it wouldn't be the first time; remember the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where complexes weren't entirely ready."

If the 60,000-seater Olembe Stadium isn't completed in time, Stade Omnisport de Bepanda in Douala could be a viable and realistic alternative.

Improved infrastructure is always one of the major benefits anticipated in countries that host the Nations Cup -- both sporting and more broadly - but Cisse Bamanga, a Cameroonian consultant for Hausa Television, is yet to be convinced for this tournament.

"In terms of the infrastructure -- the hotels, the roads -- there is still much to do as we're only at 60%," Bamanga told ESPN.

"We'll see how the things develop from here over the coming 100 days.

"This tournament is a big challenge, not only for Cameroon but also for the whole of African football as we've now expanded to 24 teams.

"Stars will be here -- Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah -- so the infrastructure which isn't yet finished, or that which is lacking, isn't particularly encouraging."

Juliana Tadda, assistant general secretary of the Sports Journalists Association in Cameroon, remains optimistic, however, that the country will have no problems welcoming spectators for the tournament.

"The hotels are ready," she told ESPN.

"Some are quality, maybe not as many in Bafoussam or Garoua, but in the major cities there are enough to welcome the teams."

"We can't say 100% that the roads are good, and welcoming 24 teams up from 16 is a challenge, but we'll make sure it's possible."

Connectivity remains a issue for the majority of Cameroonians -- only 33.5% of the population had internet access in 2019, the World Bank reported -- but Abel Mbengue, president of communication for the organisation committee, is confident that visiting journalists will have no problems.

"The media are always a key concern at major sporting events as they represent an added bonus due to the impact they can have," he told ESPN.

"This tradition will be respected, and the [organising committee is] aware of our responsibility to satisfy the media accredited by CAF.

"This is not an assurance but a certainty."

Tadda, who was part of Cameroon's communication team at the CHAN earlier this year, believes the visiting media will be impressed by facilities.

"At each site which hosts the competition, there are media centres to welcome the journalists, and they're big enough to welcome media from around the world," she said. "There are press conferences and a media stand, so in terms of infrastructure, there's connection, and there's new-age technology and there will be no reason to complain when it comes to having the tools to work.

"The state, as well, will put anything at the disposition of journalists -- if they ask for it."

Certainly, the trial runs of both the CHAN and the Women's AFCON tournaments have given Onana optimism that everything is in place for a smooth tournament.

"The small criticisms that were raised after January's CHAN regarding the Japoma Stadium have been rectified, so people can relax," he assured. "We took [the criticism] into account, and there'll be adequate conditions in which to work."

Onana, who won 42 caps for Cameroon, is also confident the host nation can handle the threats posed by Boko Haram or separatist groups, even though a separatist group was responsible for setting fire to vehicles at the Limbe Stadium complex on the eve of the CHAN in January.

"We take threats of terrorism into account, even though we are in a situation of peace," Onana said.

"There's always a risk that must be anticipated and managed; the security commission are specifically assigned to this role.

"Many people said there would be problems with the CHAN, which was in the South West region, but this went well.

"We cannot allow Cameroonian citizens to be in danger, and there's no way that Cameroon's image can be impacted; the protection of others will be our greatest preoccupation."

Head of Channels at Douala-based Radio Sport Info Yvan Ango believes the venues chosen for the tournament will ensure that visitors do not come into contact with the ongoing troubles.

"This is a hospitable country, and even though in the north, there are movements of war, the state is putting the best measures in place to ensure security," he told ESPN.

"The stadiums and the venues were chosen so that nothing could harm the event."

Bamanga is more circumspect, however.

"The socio-political situation in Cameroon today makes everyone afraid 60 years since independence," he said.

"This isn't a problem unique to Cameroon; in other places there are people who aren't happy, who are separatists, who establish their own attitudes.

"Cameroon belongs to everyone, and the politics has no connection to the football here, even if politics in general can be involved with football.

"Whether we're talking about Boko Haram in the north, or separatists in the English-speaking region, it's a local problem, and in no case would it impact the party of African football"

The final word goes to Mbengue, who appears more preoccupied with the ongoing pandemic than the prospect of liaising with security, government and CAF to ensure the smooth running of the other elements of the tournament.

"The AFCON will be secure, and this isn't simply a slogan," he said.

"All we need to do now is simply to manage -- methodically -- and with attention the countdown up to the opening ceremony.

"Day by day, we must brave certain inevitable challenges, particularly in relation to the rigorous sanitary precautions around the COVID-19 pandemic."