Hosts Cameroon on Thursday became the first team to qualify for the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations, as captain Vincent Aboubakar and Karl Toko-Ekambi both scored twice in a 4-1 demolition of Ethiopia in Yaounde.
It was a game that brought the tournament to life after a goal-shy first round of group matches that saw a meager total of just 12 goals scored in 12 encounters, four of which were penalties.
Cameroon had been the only team out of 24 at the tournament to score more than a single goal in their first match when a brace of Aboubakar spot-kicks saw them beat Burkina Faso 2-1 on Sunday.
Back at the same Stade d’Olembe in the capital they ran riot, although only after Dawa Hotessa gave Ethiopia a shock lead.
Olympique Lyonnais forward Toko-Ekambi quickly headed in the equalizer and then Aboubakar added a brace early in the second half, before Toko-Ekambi completed the victory.
“We played well going forward, but we still need to improve defensively. Things are only going to get tougher,” Cameroon’s Portuguese coach Toni Conceicao said.
Toko-Ekambi, Collins Fai and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa all also hit the woodwork for the Indomitable Lions, and the five-time African champions are now well-placed to finish top of Group A.
They are three points clear of both Burkina Faso and Cape Verde, who met in Thursday’s late game in Yaounde, with the Stallions of Burkina Faso winning 1-0 thanks to a first-half goal by Hassane Bande, who plays for Ajax.
Ethiopia, the 1962 champions, are left still looking for their first point and their first win at any Cup of Nations since 1976. It is their third appearance at the finals since then, but they have now gone 10 matches without a win at the tournament.
Cameroon’s fine victory was played in front of vast swathes of empty seats at the 60,000-capacity Stade d’Olembe, with supporters in the soccer-mad nation choosing to stay away from venues in large numbers.
“We hope there will be more people there for the third match,” Toko-Ekambi said.
Organizers have restricted crowds to 60 percent of capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic, although for games involving Cameroon the limit is raised to 80 percent.
Nevertheless, fans must also be vaccinated against COVID-19 and provide proof of a negative test, enough to put off many in a nation with a very low rate of inoculation.
Despite that Cameroonians are very much behind their team, while the nation deals with separatist violence in the west.
Troops and armed men exchanged fire on Wednesday in the town of Buea, leaving several injured.
Buea is a short drive from Limbe, which is hosting eight Cup of Nations matches.
Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and the Gambia are using Buea as their training base.
Wednesday’s match in Limbe between Mali and Tunisia was marred by controversy.
The tournament’s organizing committee met late on Thursday to ratify Mali’s 1-0 win the previous day after Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe’s errors sparked confusion.
While the game restarted after Sikazwe prematurely ended it after 85 minutes, he then blew fulltime for good when the game reached 89 minutes, 47 seconds.
Tunisia lodged an official protest over Sikazwe’s actions.
“After examining the protest of Tunisia and all the match officials report, the organizing committee decided ... to dismiss the protest lodged by the Tunisian team [and] to homologate the match result as 1-0 in favor of Mali,” the Confederation of African Football said in a statement.
Additional reporting by AP
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