Yaounde, Cameroon – Tamula Ernest, a father-of-three, gave up his job as a bricklayer to follow the Cameroon national football team, “the indomitable lions”, at the the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
He is ecstatic not only by the fact that Cameroon finally managed to host the tournament, which was in doubt due to the coronavirus pandemic, but also that the home side managed to reach the knockouts.
“I am overjoyed that this tournament is finally here,” Ernest told Al Jazeera, sitting on his motorcycle which is painted in Cameroonian flag colours, outside the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo.
“I follow the lions whenever they go for training and matches at the Olembe Stadium.
“It is my passion. I went to Equatorial Guinea on my motorcycle [for the 2015 AFCON]. I did the same thing in Gabon  and finally in Cameroon. I am living the dream.”
But not everyone is in a joyous mood like Ernest.
Mamadou Sall, a man in his late 20s, is among hundreds of Guinean fans massing outside the stadium in Yaounde to see his country’s last group match against Zimbabwe.
But his entry is delayed because he must pass through the COVID-19 protocol.
“It’s a shame that the game has already started and I am still here,” Sall said. “I travelled all the way from Douala [233km, 145 miles] just for this game, and now I’m being delayed due to COVID [protocol].”
COVID-related protocol and tests also meant that Zimbabwe supporter Prosper Kadewere, who managed to enter the stadium, had to cheer on the side without his family.
“I wanted to come here with my family but the conditions [COVID rules] were really tight. So I had to come alone,” said Kadewere. “This is a health crisis that is affecting everyone, so we need to accept it.”
On that day, January 18, the 40,000-capacity stadium saw just 13,000 fans in presence.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) had announced before the tournament that attendance of games involving hosts will not exceed 80 percent while that of other teams would be at 60 percent, with fans needing to show a vaccination pass as well as a negative PCR test result to enter the stadium.
Meanwhile, outside the stadiums, the fan zones are booming.
Jean Paul, 36, prefers watching the games there instead of at home on the outskirts of Yaounde.
“Here, you just need some cash for drinks, and you sit and enjoy the match,” said Paul while watching Cameroon’s game against Cape Verde. “To go to the stadium, you need a match ticket [prices range from $5 to $34], a vaccination card and a negative PCR test. That’s too much for me.”
For Odette Abega, who turned up at the fan zone with her three children, the vibes and atmosphere were similar to that inside the stadium.
“There’s a large screen here. I laugh and enjoy the games here without anybody asking for a COVID test or vaccination card. We Cameroonians love football, and we have devised a means to watch the games outside the stadium.”
Just two percent of Cameroon’s population is believed to be fully vaccinated, according to estimates and reports.
But Dr Eric Tandi, of the Yaounde Public Health Emergency Operations Centre, told Al Jazeera that “since the government launched the latest inoculation campaign in December, there’s been a slight increase in the number of persons coming in for the vaccines”.
In a push to boost stadium attendance, the government announced on January 15 that schools and work in the public sector would close at 2pm on match days.
There were also reports of government officials handing out free tickets and transport for fans who wanted to attend the matches at the stadiums.
Work ends in Cameroon at 2pm local time while classes and lectures will be terminated at 1pm as from Monday, Jan 17 to enable Cameroonians go to the stadiums for #AFCON2021 matches. This will run to Feb. 4 as per the instructions of the President of #Cameroon pic.twitter.com/rq5QwkgjUp
— Anchunda Benly (@anchunda_benly) January 15, 2022
While billboards and banners continue to promote the tournament in the host cities, some Cameroonians are matching the mood and excitement by selling the vuvuzelas.
“I sell more of the stuff on match days, especially when the lions are playing,” 22-year-old Pierre, who has his wares spread out in a roundabout in Yaounde, told Al Jazeera. “This place was really noisy with the vuvuzelas on the eve of the opening game [Cameroon vs Burkina Faso].”
Cameroon’s two wins and a draw in Group A also gave Thierry, a taxi driver in Yaounde, a lot of confidence.
“Who are Comoros [their opponents in the last-16] in front of Cameroon?” he asks, beating his chest. “Cameroon don’t know football [he says ironically] but we play with our hearts. That’s what you will see on Monday.”
Thierry’s view resonates with Cameroonian football writer Giovanni Wanneh, who believes that the Central Africans are unique in the tournament.
“In all three games, Cameroon have shown that they can score goals even when they are trailing,” Wanneh told Al Jazeera. “We haven’t seen a side like Nigeria come from a goal down in this tournament. I think the lions have the mental strength and depth to win this tournament.”
On the football field, defending champions Algeria and four-time winners Ghana were eliminated in a series of shocks.
Algeria finished winless and bottom of the group after coming into the tournament on the back of 34 games unbeaten.
Ghana, who last won the tournament in 1982, were eliminated by debutants Comoros.
“The AFCON 2021 has reminded us that African football has no respect for pedigree whatsoever,” African football expert Usher Komugisha told Al Jazeera. “It is a tournament where players who ply their trade in the lower leagues in France outplay a team with Premier League stars.”