DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Senegal’s national soccer team was forced to delay its flight to the African Cup of Nations in Cameroon after three more players and six members of the backroom staff tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Senegalese soccer federation named the players on Wednesday as Pape Sarr, Nampalys Mendy and Mame Thiam. They and six members of the management team tested positive on Tuesday when the squad was scheduled to fly to Cameroon, the federation said.
Federation spokesperson Kara Thioune said the squad was now due to leave Wednesday afternoon and the three players and six officials would remain behind in Dakar until they return negative tests.
The African Cup starts on Sunday and Senegal has little time before its first game of the tournament against Zimbabwe on Monday. Senegal, with stars like Liverpool forward Sadio Mane and Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, is one of the favorites after losing in the final at the last African Cup.
The news of more virus cases underlines fears that the pandemic and the recent emergence of the more contagious omicron variant will cause chaos in the buildup and at the African Cup in Cameroon, where less than 3% of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to a tracker kept by Johns Hopkins University.
Top European clubs have made clear their concerns over sending their African players and have questioned if Cameroon and African soccer confederation organizers will be able to prevent major outbreaks at the monthlong event.
In response, organizers announced that only fully vaccinated fans with proof of negative tests will be able to attend games, meaning games are likely to be played in empty or near-empty stadiums because of Africa’s very low vaccination levels. The Confederation of African Football employed pharmaceuticals company UNILAB to oversee the regular testing of all players and officials from the 24 teams.
But a growing number of teams have been affected by virus cases even before Africa’s biggest soccer tournament has kicked off.
Host Cameroon announced last month that it had positive cases in its squad. Burkina Faso, which plays Cameroon in the first game of the African Cup on Sunday, has had to leave players behind in Abu Dhabi because of the virus and may not be able to field its strongest team in the tournament opener in Yaoundé.
Like Senegal, Cape Verde and Tunisia have reported new cases in their squads, while Gambia and Ivory Coast were forced to cancel warmup games because of outbreaks in their squads. Malawi left three players behind in Saudi Arabia, where the team had a training camp, because they tested positive. Nigeria left striker Victor Osimhen of Italian club Napoli out if its African Cup squad because of his positive virus test.
Defending champion Algeria has also reported infections.
Senegal already had the complication of Cheikhou Kouyaté and Alfred Gomis testing positive and staying behind with their European clubs to see out isolation periods.
The African Cup should have taken place in 2021 but was delayed a year because of the pandemic. It faced calls in recent months that it should be postponed again because of the emergence of omicron.
Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa. Associated Press writer Peter Kanjere in Blantyre, Malawi, contributed to this story.