by Arison Tamfu
YAOUNDE, Jan. 16 (Xinhua) -- Less than 24 hours ahead of the kick-off of the African Nations Championship (CHAN), Cameroonians are feverish with anticipation and optimistic about an ecstatic football jamboree despite the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
CHAN, a football competition open to players in local leagues, will be Africa's major football event since the outbreak of the pandemic.
For passionate supporters of the Cameroon side like 32-year-old Ernestine Nduma, the game has come to the right place at the right time. Like many fans, the glamorous supporter has already made arrangements to drape herself in her nation's colors and paint the flag on her face.
"Football is like a religion in Cameroon, it is part of us. COVID-19 cannot stop us from enjoying the game," Nduma told Xinhua.
She was part of football-loving Cameroonians who were in a socially-distanced queue in the commercial hub of Douala waiting to obtain a ticket to watch the tournament.
"This CHAN... means a lot to us," said Joseph Mbah who had traveled from the troubled Anglophone region of Northwest where a prolonged armed separatist conflict is taking its toll on the lives of the people, to follow the game in Douala.
"With all the security and health crisis, the competition is not just a game but a symbol of hope for our country," he added while struggling to join the queue.
The official song of the tournament plays in popular spots of Douala and football gadgets and flags are in high demand ahead of the game.
When the championship officially kicks off on Saturday with an opener pitting host Cameroon against The Warriors of Zimbabwe, Nduma and hundreds of other fans will have to follow strict anti-COVID-19 measures to be able to watch the game.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) and Cameroonian authorities have stressed that only 25 percent of spectators will be admitted into each stadium and the number will be increased to 50 percent of each stadium's capacity beginning with the quarter-finals level. Wearing of face masks will be mandatory and social distancing will be strictly applied.
"All players, staff and population getting into the stadiums will be tested," said Cameroon's Minister of Public Health, Manaouda Malachie who, on Thursday updated Cameroon's Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute on the preventive measures taken to stop the spread of the virus during the tournament.
Those who failed to respect COVID-19 guidelines will be expunged from the stadium, authorities have warned.
Obviously, the Central African nation wants a COVID-19-free competition but above all, wants to win the game, but the country's Indomitable Lions' performance in pre-CHAN preparatory matches has failed to convince the fans.
"The team came last in the pre-CHAN tournament played here in Cameroon, that is why, the mood among fans is cautiously optimistic. I don't think anyone is very reassured by how the boys have been playing lately," 37-year-old Vivian Numfo, a sports analyst, told Xinhua.
"We will work hard and never give up. We're eternally optimistic about the prospects of our team. Come rain, come sun we will win the trophy," Nduma said.
Do not panic, everything will be okay, said Martin Ndtoungou Mpile, Cameroon's head coach while calling on the fans to come to the stadiums "to support and cheer up" the team.
"We have learned from our mistakes and will correct ourselves during the competition. We are promising Cameroonians a good game," Mpile said on the eve of the championship.
Sports officials, who had openly expressed concerns over the team's performance, have been inviting the country's football legends to share their experiences with the players in a bid to inspire them.
"You have to play each match as if it's the final game, put in your best. Believe in yourself," football legend Samuel Eto'o Fils, four-time winner of African player of the year told the players during a training session.
"Shoot and score from afar. You can score from anywhere. Be confident," added Roger Milla, CAF Best African Player of the last 50 years.
Such words of encouragement are the magic to lift the spirits of the boys, said Narcisse Mouelle Kombi, Cameroon's Minister of Sports and Physical Education who had stressed that, for Cameroon, CHAN is the beginning of a long journey.
"This competition will show the world our capacity to organize major sporting events now and in future," Kombi told reporters in the capital, Yaounde.
With stadiums that feature cutting-edge equipment and first-class infrastructure, Cameroon looks forward to staging the competition as a warm-up for the continent's biggest football event, Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) which the country will host next year.
CHAN matches will be played in the capital, Yaounde, coastal town of Douala, and the Anglophone southwestern seaside resort town of Limbe where armed separatists have threatened to disrupt the game.
Authorities have said "special and firm" security measures have been taken to secure the tournament.
Cameroon will play in Group A with, Burkina Faso, Mali and Zimbabwe, while Group B includes Niger, Libya, DR Congo and Congo. Group C comprises Rwanda, Morocco, Uganda and Togo, while Group D has Zambia, Guinea, Namibia and Tanzania.
CHAN will run from Jan. 16 to Feb. 7.