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Last Sunday, the delayed AFCON 2021 kicked off with Cameroon vs. Burkina Faso in the Olembé stadium in Yaounde. Football sadly is not exempt from the litany of events mitigated by Covid, but perhaps the frustration of having to wait is what buoyed the crowd on to create a carnival like atmosphere across the opening fixtures. The hate-it-or-love-it sound of the vuvuzela (introduced to the world in South Africa 2020) punctuated the rhythmic drumming that pulsed through the stadium from kick off to the final whistle. Such rhythm was present in Cameroon’s opening play, as our midfield dominated the opening stages. Only for Aston Villa’s Bertrand Traore to tee up Gustavo Sangare to take the lead with an acrobatic volley, wholly underserved on the run of play. Not that I’m a bitter Cameroon fan or anything. Clearly as troubled as I was by the sense of injustice, Burkina Faso’s defence restored the balance by giving away not one but TWO clumsy penalties before the stroke of half time. Cooly dispatched by the indomitable lions talismanic number 10 Vincent Aboubakar. A defensively resolute performance in the second half ensured the home nation were firmly in business with an opening day win.

Match day 1’s second fixture saw Covid depleted Cape Verde snatch a win over Ethiopia. The East African outfit spent most of the game battling with 10 men as Yared Bayeh saw his yellow card upgraded to a red following a VAR review (seems there’ll be plenty of those). Goals would prove sparse in the following round of games as group B’s Senegal and Guinea secured 1-0 victories against Zimbabwe and Malawi respectively. Whilst Morocco and Gabon beat Ghana’s Black stars and Comoros respectively.

Africa is the world’s youngest continent and so it is perhaps fitting than in a tournament blessed with a glittering away of established talent, it was Leicester City’s affectionately nicknamed Seniorman Kelz who provided one of the tournament’s real moment of quality so far. Nigeria faced an Egypt side who’s crown jewel Mo Salah was kept quiet for much of the game. The difference was made by Kelechi Iheanacho’s thunderous volley crashing the pharaohs net in another 1-0 win. Sudan vs. Guinea-Bissau finished goalless as did the day’s other fixture, in one of the more enthralling 0-0’s in recent memory.

Algeria vs. Sierra Leone. AFCON champions Algeria began their defence of the title against the little fancied Sierra Leone. Many expected Mahrez and co to subject the 108th ranked team in the world to a drumming but 22 year old goalkeeper had Mohamed Kamara had other ideas. Countless saves saw him exercise contempt for physics itself as Sierra Leone returned to the AFCON for the first time since 1996 with a statement performance.

Tournament romance was replaced with resolute grit in Ivory Coast’s 1-0 win over Equatorial Guinea and Gambia’s 1-0 win over Mauritania. Maybe the lack of goal mouth action is what inspired the referee is of Tunisia vs. Mali to prematurely try and end the match twice in a 1-0 win for Mali. He’d be satisfied by Cameroon’s comprehensive 4-1 dismantling of Ethiopia the following day who will now struggle to progress, whilst Burkina Faso remedied their Day 1 loss with a 1-0 win over Cape Verde. The high point of the remaining fixtures was surely Mohamed Salah’s sumptuous volley against Guinea-Bissau seeing the Egyptians to their first win. Many say he’s the world’s best, but week 1 shows that there’s plenty of competition on the continent.

Written by Martyn Ewoma. @_martynewoma

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