Strict Covid-19 protocols and exorbitant ticket prices have resulted in many Cameroonians watching the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in fan parks or at home, rather than inside the stadiums where matches are being held.
After a 50-year wait to host the Afcon again, the expectation was that residents of the football-obsessed country would fill stadiums and display their passion for the continent and the world to see. That hasn’t happened, partly because Cameroon’s vaccination policy is a deterrent for many fans. Only vaccinated spectators are allowed inside the stadiums and they have to produce a negative polymerase chain reaction test to get access.
“I have two main reasons for watching matches from fan zones,” said football supporter Jean Claude Armel. “The first is because I was discouraged by the medical pass … There is also the time factor.” Armel had intended to watch games in the stadium from the round of 16, which started on 23 January, “but as long as the medical protocol is maintained I won’t go anyway”.
Armel’s sentiment is shared by many, including Njiya Jores, a company owner who lives in Etoudi, a neighbourhood in Yaoundé that is barely a stone’s throw from the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium.
“You don’t oblige people to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and still expect to see the stadiums filled. Personally, I have no intentions to get myself vaccinated now. So, since I can’t watch from the stadium, I prefer to watch at home or in fan zones. The ambiance is the same.”
The Covid-19 protocol has had some positive impact on getting people vaccinated, however. Prior to the start of the tournament on 9 January, hundreds of fans queued for long hours to get the jab. Statistics of how many Cameroonians are vaccinated are hard to find, and attempts to get them from the department of health were unsuccessful. Reports claim that less than 3% of the country’s estimated just over 26 million population is vaccinated.
Out of reach
The vaccination requirement has not been the only hindrance to filling the stadiums. Supporters have complained about the price of tickets and the complexity of buying them online, which is the Confederation of African Football’s preferred method and something many fans aren’t used to doing.
Tickets range from 3 000 Central African francs (about R79) to CFA20 000. For domestic football, tickets normally cost between CFA500 and CFA1 000. The high prices of Afcon tickets have excluded many football fans who don’t have the financial means to buy tickets to the stadiums. There are also those who are taking advantage by buying tickets and selling them at an even higher price on the black market.
“It is difficult to obtain a ticket, especially when Cameroon is playing,” said a Cameroonian who declined to be named. “When I think of all the stress I have to go through, I rather prefer to watch from home. If you buy a ticket for double the initial price, how do you feed and provide for your family?”
In Limbe, in western Cameroon, the location of the stadium outside the town is a problem for many fans. Erwin Ayota, a journalist from the area, said the “turnout has been timid for obvious reasons”.
“The stadium is located at Ngueme, an area where access is not easy,” he said. “Getting to the field for the population of Limbe is difficult. People have to trek for long distances because of the absence of bikes and taxis. People feel discouraged to go to the stadium.”
He adds that the Covid-19 protocols “created an atmosphere of unwillingness to go to the stadium. Now the government has tried to counteract this by making buses available to ease transportation, and things are slowly improving.”
Boosting the numbers
To boost attendance, President Paul Biya issued instructions to reduce work and school hours in Cameroon. Classes are now held from 7.30am to 1pm and work hours are from 7.30am to 2pm. This exceptional measure, which is more effective in the public sector, came into effect on 17 January.
Some government officials and prominent personalities have also made a huge number of tickets available to fans to enable them to watch matches. Other institutions have made attending the tournament mandatory, supplying their staff with tickets.
These measures have boosted attendance somewhat. “More and more people are [now] coming to watch games in the stadiums. In the coming games, notably in the round of 16, there will be more people in the stadiums,” said Ekombe Pascaline, director of the Limbe Omnisport Stadium.
“I feel elated that the stands are full,” he continued, exaggerating to make his point as the opposite is true. “You organise a tournament of this magnitude and the stands are empty, it doesn’t speak well. So we are happy that the population of Limbe and other regions are coming to watch matches of the Afcon.
“We had very heavy participation, especially during match day two. Even on the first day of play, our attendance compared with other sites was not bad. We want to encourage many more people to come and watch matches in Limbe.”