DESPITE poor attendances, the atmosphere has been electric at almost every one of the eight matches in the opening phase of soccer’s African Nations Cup.

Low crowds are not unusual in opening-round games in Africa’s elite competition, and gauging how many fans attend games is difficult, as the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the local organising committee rarely issue exact official attendance figures.

Rows of empty seats in stadiums do not reflect well on the tournament’s image in television pictures flashed around the world, even though the fans who have attended have created vibrant, dynamic atmospheres, despite reacquainting the world with the drone of the vuvuzela.

Hicham El Amrani, CAF’s general secretary, said the tournament was growing in terms of corporate interest and global television audience awareness, but other problems remained. On the eve of the tournament, he accepted that many tickets were still unsold, including some for the final.

"Not many African fans have the budgets or spending power to fly here and it is not always easy to get the right connections in Africa," El Amrani said.

"Our viewing figures around the world have improved in recent years by about 225% and we hope to keep the momentum going."

Ticket sales are vital to producing a profit at the end of the tournament, with the proceeds handed back by CAF to the national associations and the local organising committee.

El Amrani said CAF and the local organisers wanted to see as many fans as possible in the stadiums, but so far only the opening game between South Africa and Cape Verde Islands at Soccer City on Saturday had been a sell-out.

About 87,000 fans saw the opening game on a cold, dank and wet afternoon while the stadium was noticeably less full when Angola played Morocco in the second game of the opening day double-header.

"We had a target of 500,000 overall ticket sales and we reached that, that was the first step," El Amrani said. "We hope to be selling a lot more as the tournament progresses, which usually happens in this competition."

The Nations Cup is the second major soccer tournament staged in South Africa in the past two-and-half years, following the World Cup finals in 2010, but no real comparisons can be made between the two events.

The World Cup, organised locally but closely overseen by Fifa, the world soccer governing body, comprises 32 teams from around the world and is the biggest single sports event on the planet. As such, it attracts huge global television audiences, with vast numbers of fans travelling to matches from all over the world.

In comparison, the African Nations Cup comprises 16 teams, including from some of the poorest African nations and fans do not travel as readily as they would for the premier event.

Apart from the empty seats, the one disappointing aspect of the opening eight games has been the lack of goals, — only 13, an average of 1.63 a game.

This is the lowest number since there were five goals in the opening eight games in 2002, with an average of 0.63 goals a game. The highest recent figure was the 26 goals scored in the opening eight games of the 2008 competition in Ghana.

Reuters