AFCON Diary: Chaos makes way for Equatoguinean feast

Nick Ames 15:43 21/01/2015
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As always, the African Cup of nations has delivered a festival of colour off the pitch.

It is easy to get caught up in the moment during a football match, but the view has remained unanimous ever since. The noise inside Estadio de Bata when Emilio Nsue put host nation Equatorial Guinea ahead 16 minutes into the African Cup of Nations was, by the consent of those covering the game, the loudest they had ever heard inside a football stadium.

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Equatorial Guinea did not win that game, a late goal from former West Bromwich Albion man Thievy Bifouma pegging them back, but the tone had already been set and the impression had been implanted that perhaps, despite the understandably negative publicity, this competition might just be a success after all.

There have been teething problems, of course. The Congolese and their group rivals, Burkina Faso, were both unhappy with the hotel arrangements made for them in Bata – Congo coach Claude LeRoy said that conditions had been “terrible” since their arrival – and Tunisia found themselves without basic provisions during their early hours in remote Ebibeyin.

Journalists have had an eye-opener or two, as well – a section of the ‘mixed zone’ in which players are interviewed had to be evacuated after that first game between Equatorial Guinea and Congo after fans of Gabon, who were playing next, surged to enter the stadium, while supporters have overflowed into press areas in both Ebibeyin and Malabo. There have been isolated reports of police heavy-handedness, too.

But the overall feeling, which manifested itself from the moment that the entire country – so it seemed – donned red national team shirts last Thursday morning, has been distinctly positive. Few have a good word to say about this country away from the football field, and those are valid points for another article. But if the nation’s public are among the earth’s most downtrodden then the situation has, at worst, been managed well.

The heat of the atmosphere in Bata seemed to radiate to Ebibeyin and Mongomo, surely two of the most obscure places to host games at international football tournaments in recent years.

The stadia there are small but they have so far been full – and possessing backdrops and character that are discernibly African. Barely-populated Mongomo, with its vast building projects in the jungle, is a slightly eerie monument to ambition and, most pertinently, the Equatoguinean president Obiang Nguema, who was born there, but on Monday put on a footballing show that stood up to the test.

The football itself has hinted at the fact that this might be the closest AFCON to call in years. Five of the first eight games finished 1-1, but that is not to suggest that teams have simply been happy to match up to one another. And if they have, there has been an early goal to help things along: Ghana, managed by Avram Grant, and Senegal both began with a back-three and sturdy-looking midfield shields in their Group C opener in Mongomo but, after Andre Ayew scored a penalty for Ghana, the game turned into one of the tournament’s best. Senegal battled back, peppering that Ghanaian penalty area with crosses, and eventually equalised before winning the game through Moussa Sow’s cool last-gasp finish.

That match was followed by an hour of dizzying counter-attacking from South Africa against favourites Algeria. The South Africans, a whirl of industry and movement, took the lead but subsequently missed a penalty – AFC Bournemouth’s Tokelo Rantie hitting the bar – and were picked off three times by more practiced opponents as they tired. And this has not been all; Cameroon and Mali fought out a thrilling end-to-end draw in Malabo on Tuesday night, Ivory Coast had to battle back against neutrals’ favourites Guinea with 10 men, while DR Congo, backed by vociferous travelling fans, rallied superbly after conceding an early goal to Zambia in Ebibeyin and tied the game with a fine finish from Crystal Palace winger Yannick Bolasie.

There have been some accusations of police heavy-handedness but most matches in Equatorial Guinea have been problem free.

Senegal have probably been the most impressive side so far but they have been run close by Gabon. They beat Burkina Faso, surprise runners-up in the 2013 tournament, 2-0 in a remarkably open match on Saturday night and another good result against Congo this evening would further the impression that Champions League winner Jorge Costa’s athletic, attack-minded team is a decent bet for the semi-finals. If Equatorial Guinea can beat Burkina Faso this afternoon – and supporters are already filing towards the stadium six hours before the kick-off – and keep their own interest well and truly alive, then Gabon’s cause will be helped further.

That we are able to focus on the football above all seems to be evidence that this tournament, cobbled together at the very last minute in an unloved country, is not turning out to be the disaster that many thought it might be. If the home fans have cause to let rip another roar of the volume they produced four days ago, then the fun may step up yet another notch.

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