The Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is one of international football’s major continental tournaments and the latest edition of the 24-team event is due to get under way in January 2022 in Cameroon. Algeria is set to defend the title it won in 2019.
However, fresh doubts have been raised over whether the latest edition of AFCON will go ahead given the rise of COVID cases around the world due to the Omicron variant.
So will AFCON 2021 be cancelled and why is the competition in danger of delay? Here is everything we know so far.
Could AFCON be cancelled?
It has been reported that AFCON is in danger of being called off due to the rise in Omicron COVID-19 variant cases.
The tournament was already pushed back from its original summer start date due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has been suggested that another postponement — or even cancellation — is now imminent. Around 40 players from the Premier League are slated to appear in the African competition, and discussion has already begun over how much of an impact there will be on the club season, if they take part in the tournament.
Clubs clearly have time to make preparations on how to replace players, but at some level there is no replacing talent such as Mohamed Salah, N’Golo Kante, and the many others who could make the trip away. With clubs already dealing with squad squeezes due to COVID-19, thinning the player pool even further could cause clubs serious difficulties.
In addition, the travel to Africa and back to Europe could require additional quarantine measures as squads look to stay as bubbled up as possible to prevent the introduction of COVID-19 into their camps.
Cases of COVID-19 are surging in the African continent at a rate nearly double that of the height of the Delta variant. In addition, vaccine equity across the continent varies significantly, with only 20 of 54 African countries registering over a 10 percent vaccination rate, and only six reaching 40 percent. Estimates have the vaccination rate in Cameroon at around 2 percent.
African Football Confederation responds
There has not yet been any formal announcement regarding the possible cancellation of the tournament. However, AFCON organizers reportedly could be forced into altering their plans due to safety and logistical concerns.
RMC Sport reports that there is “uncertainty” surrounding the tournament and that the CAF (Confederation of African Football) could cancel the event.
Talk of a cancellation has been dismissed by CAF’s director of communications Alex Siewe, who told the BBC: “We can’t keep spending time dealing with rumors.”
The European Club Association (ECA) also recently threatened not to release players for the tournament. The ECA stated it is seeking assurances regarding “three fundamental concerns for clubs when it comes to the release of players to national teams.”
Those concerns are “every player’s wellbeing is protected”, “that clubs are not forced to be without players for club competition matches” and that players should be able to return to their clubs “in a timely fashion, as per the applicable rules” following the tournament’s conclusion.
“At present, these three principles are at risk of not being respected in connection with the upcoming January releases,” the ECA stated in their release.
When is AFCON 2021 due to take place?
The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations will officially begin on January 9 in Cameroon.
The host nation will take on Burkina Faso in the opening game in Yaounde, with the action then scheduled to run all the way through to the final in the capital city on February 6.
However, there have previously been fears that Cameroon would be stripped of hosting duties after problems with preparations. Former technical director of the Confederation of African Football, Abdel Moneim Shatta, even suggested at the start if December that the event could be moved to Qatar.
CAF general secretary Veron Mosengo-Omba has since joined the team in Cameroon to ensure that everything is in place for January 9, but the latest surge in Omicron cases could once again lead to a rethink.
There is recent precedent for changing hosts close to the tournament’s scheduled start. In 2019, Cameroon was also slated to host the event, but the decision was made to make Egypt the new host with just six months to go before the tournament. The change was made due to delays in the delivery of required infrastructure.
When could AFCON 2021 be rescheduled for?
It is not yet known when AFCON could be rescheduled for, if it is postponed again.
With the 2022 World Cup not taking place until November in Qatar, there is potentially a gap for AFCON in the summer of 2022, but the possibility of player burnout would also have to be taken into consideration after the conclusion of the club season in May.