African football chiefs on Sunday told sides competing at the Cup of Nations that they will not be able to use mass coronavirus infections in the squad as an excuse and will have to play their fixtures as long as 11 players are fit.
The continent’s most prestigious national football team tournament starts on Sunday afternoon with hosts Cameroon taking on Burkina Faso in Group A at the Olembé Stadium in Yaoundé.
The match is followed by the second clash in the pool between Ethiopia and Cape Verde.
But the coronavirus pandemic - which forced a year-long delay of the tournament - continues to overshadow the showpiece event with a raft of players testing positive for the virus either just before leaving their training camps or as soon as they have arrived in Cameroon.
The Confederation of African Football (Caf) - which organises the biennial football fest - said an outfield player would have to play in goal if all the goalkeepers were struck down with the disease.
"A team that does not have a minimum of 11 players available will be considered to have lost the match 0-2," Caf added in a statement.
"In exceptional cases, the organising committee of the Africa Cup of Nations will take the appropriate decision."
The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has forced the postponement of scores of sporting fixtures since the autumn.
Cup of Nations organisers have authorised squads of 28 players - rather than the traditional roster of 23 - in an effort to compensate for illnesses. Teams will be able to make five substitutions per match and another one if a game goes into 30 minutes of extra-time.
On Thursday, Gabon captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and teammate Mario Lemina returned positive tests just after landing at Yaoundé airport. They are unlikely to feature in their country’s opening game against Comoros on Monday at the Ahmadou-Ahidjo Stadium in Yaoundé.
The Senegal defender Kalidou Koulibaly tested positive for the illness on Saturday and will miss the opening game in Group B against Zimbabwe in Bafoussam.
“Koulibaly, who is vaccinated and asymptomatic, is in self-isolation as per protocol," his club Napoli said in a statement.
Goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and striker Famara Diedhiou also joined the sick list on Sunday.
Saliou Ciss, Bamba Dieng, Mame Baba Thiam, Pape Matar Sarr, Nampalys Mendy and second choice goalkeeper Alfred Gomis all remained in Dakar on Wednesday after testing positive as the team were to depart for the finals.
"It's a difficult and complicated situation," said coach Aliou Cissé on Sunday. "But we are going to be competitive and those there are going to play for those who are absent.
Senegal, who lost in the 2019 final to Algeria, enter the tournament as Africa’s top team in the Fifa rankings and are among the favourites for the crown. They start their quest for their first title on Monday in Baffousam against Zimbabwe.
"We are still going into the game full of confidence," said Cissé.
The competition - due to culminate on 6 February - risks losing its credibility if squads are decimated by the coronavirus and teams take to the field shorn of their top stars many of whom have travelled from Europe for the games.