The Africa Cup of Nations has been followed passionately all over the continent, with fans gathering around televisions and in bars to watch the drama unfold.

Africa Cup of Nations, Egypt 2019
Algeria’s forward Riyad Mahrez and his teammates celebrate with the trophy after winning the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) Final football match between Senegal and Algeria at the Cairo International Stadium in Cairo on July 19, 2019. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

Algeria’s semi-final win over Nigeria prompted riotous celebrations both in the country itself and in France while there were street parties in Dakar after Senegal reached the final.

There were similar scenes in Cotonou after Benin reached the quarter-finals for the first time and Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina chartered a plane to take himself and several hundred fans to Egypt to watch his side on their debut in the finals.

Yet, apart from the games involving host nation Egypt, the tournament itself has been played in near-empty stadiums.

“I think this match deserved a full house — such a good match, going from one end to the other, five goals,” Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr told Reuters after his side’s 3-2 win over Cameroon at the picturesque Alexandria stadium.

It has been a similar story at recent AFCON tournaments in Ghana, Angola, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

Some matches, especially those involving Senegal, Mali, Benin, Nigeria and Ivory Coast, have been brightened up by organised supporters’ groups, usually including a band which has played throughout the game.

“The Senegal band is beautiful,” former Zambia captain Kalusha Bwalya told Reuters.

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Those groups, usually between 500 and 1,000 strong, are generally bankrolled by the respective federations, governments or sponsors but, for ordinary Africans, travelling to a Nations Cup tournament at their own expense is not viable.

Distances are huge and flights — the only practical way of crossing the continent — are prohibitively expensive.

“It is difficult to travel,” Bwalya said.

In Angola in 2010, some fans and media could not even get visas to travel to the tournament with consulates saying they were unaware it was taking place.

The situation in Egypt was compounded by an attempt to imitate the ticketing system used by FIFA at the World Cup in Russia last year, with individual fan IDs and tickets issued after online registration.

But many fans complained that the system frequently crashed, that there were problems at distribution points and it excluded traditional fans, including hardline “ultras” from domestic supporters’ clubs who have a history of political dissent.

CAF slowly appears to be waking up to the problem and its president Ahmad Ahmad said on Friday that, although security was more important than having fans in the stadiums, he recognised that the fan ID had kept people away.

“We think it stopped the people from coming to the stadium so an effort was undertaken to change the fans ID,” he said. “I hope it will not be the same at AFCON in 2021.”

Bwalya agreed that something needed to be done.

“It is true, it is a cause for concern,” he said.

“I’ve been to many AFCON tournaments and this is probably the best in terms of facilities but, unfortunately, if you look at Suez or Ismailia, we were crying out for more supporters.”

He said the fan ID system needed more testing and should also provide a visa for fans. But he also praised Egypt for the number of families who watched their games.

“That was lovely to see because you see aunties, you see kids, young girls and young boys and that is a culture we have to develop,” he said.

Surprisingly, coaches and players remained indifferent.

“The Algerian fans who have come here have been fantastic and that is what matters to me,” said Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi.

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