YAOUNDE, Cameroon (AP) — Cameroon captain Vincent Aboubakar scored two penalties in quick succession as the host country came from behind to beat Burkina Faso 2-1 in the African Cup of Nations’ opening game Sunday, lifting the mood of a tournament burdened throughout the buildup by the coronavirus pandemic.
Aboubakar slotted the first penalty to the right side of the goal in the 40th minute and the second to the left side in the third minute of first-half injury time.
It left a large crowd at Olembe Stadium in Yaounde sighing with relief after they’d waited out two delays lasting three years before the African Cup finally came to their Central African country. Cameroon’s long-serving 88-year-old President Paul Biya smiled broadly at the end.
Cameroon was stripped of the 2019 tournament because of problems with its preparations and saw its 2021 hosting delayed a year because of the virus.
It seemed the wait wouldn’t be worth it when Gustavo Sangaré volleyed Burkina Faso into the lead in the 24th minute. He ran off pounding his chest in celebration. Cameroon fans had their heads in their hands.
But Burkina Faso lost the lead with two reckless pieces of defending in the closing minutes of the first half.
Burkina Faso captain Bertrand Traoré barged into André-Frank Zambo Anguissa to give Cameroon its first penalty, which was only awarded after referee Mustapha Ghorbal consulted VAR.
VAR is being used in all games at the African Cup for the first time. It was used from the quarterfinals onward at the last one.
Soon after, Issoufou Dayo mistimed a sliding tackle to foul Nouhou Tolo and Aboubakar kept his cool for a second time.
VAR was also pivotal in the second Group A game on the opening day, where Cape Verde beat Ethiopia 1-0, also at Olembe. Referee Hélder Martins Rodrigues de Carvalho gave Ethiopia defender Yared Bayeh a yellow card for a foul on striker Júlio Tavares but changed that to red in the 12th minute after consulting VAR. Tavares headed in Cape Verde’s goal right on halftime.
The tournament officially opened a few hours earlier at the newly rebuilt Olembe Stadium with a burst of color as dancers wearing red, green, yellow, white and blue costumes performed in the middle of the field during a short opening ceremony. Some of them wore masks in matching colors, a reminder that Africa’s monthlong soccer showpiece is going ahead amid a global surge in virus cases driven by the omicron variant.
A computer-generated image of a giant lion walked across the top of the stadium roof as the ceremony began, a nod to Cameroon’s team, known as the “Indomitable Lions.” Red, green and yellow smoke — the colors of Cameroon’s flag — burst from a huge replica of the trophy to end the celebrations marking Cameroon’s biggest sporting moment since last hosting the African Cup 50 years ago.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino attended, as did Biya, who has been president of Cameroon since 1982. Biya didn’t wear a mask and neither did many of the soccer supporters.
The 60,000-seat stadium was nearly full for the Cameroon game, even after organizers introduced a last-minute restriction that only fully vaccinated fans with proof of recent negative virus tests will be allowed into stadiums for any of the 52 games. Attendances are also capped at 80% of stadium capacity for games involving the home team, and 60% for other games.
The tournament will still be hard-pressed to avoid being regularly disrupted by infections and outbreaks given that so many of the 24 teams have had virus cases in the buildup.
“Today, by all of us being here, it shows that we believe in ourselves, that we believe in the people of Cameroon and we believe in the people of Africa,” Confederation of African Football President Patrice Motsepe said at the ceremony. He said it would be the best African Cup ever.
Yet this African Cup has been the target of more skepticism than most. There were rumors that it was going to be postponed again, while European clubs have expressed concerns that the health protocols won’t be sufficient to protect their African players. CAF rejected the criticism and pressed ahead.
“The people of Cameroon are showing the rest of Africa, the rest of the world, that we can host a successful…” Motsepe said, before the cheers of the crowd prevented him finishing his sentence.