Nations Cup 2015: Welcome to a most unlikely venue Equatorial Guinea


By Jonathan Wilson
Dusk was just falling as we came over the brow of the hill and saw Mongomo before us. Even in the half-light, it was a strikingly odd place.

On a ridge to the left stretched the great illuminated mass of the basilica built in 2009, on the other side of the road, mint-green in the floodlights, was a five-star hotel complete with pool and wood-panelled bar. Aside from the strange Italianate clock-tower in the market square, the rest of the town is more typical of Equatorial Guinea, shacks of wood and corrugated iron, a few concrete blocks, low-ceilinged bars fronted by brightly dressed women grilling chicken and plantain.

Mongomo is the home town of the president, Obiang Nguema, and the place where his uncle, Macias Nguema, staged his last stand against the coup that toppled him in 1979. It was three years ago that I passed through, spending a night in the hotel – there were only seven other guests, all of whom seemed to be Chinese construction managers – before crossing the border into Gabon the next morning as I made for the African Cup of Nations final.

Children playing football in the rain.
Back then, it was hard to imagine any circumstances under which I’d return, but now I’m on my way back because Equatorial Guinea, co-hosts three years ago, will be hosting the 2015 tournament at short notice after Morocco pulled out because of fears about the Ebola epidemic or perhaps, more accurately, the fear of what the perceived threat of Ebola could do to their tourist industry. The request to postpone the tournament, and then their withdrawal, is sure to bring severe sanctions and a hefty compensation claim from CAF. The actual danger seems very limited.

Of the three countries afflicted by the virus, only one has qualified for the Cup of Nations: Guinea. If they bring fans it will a couple of dozen at most, who surely could have been screened. After all, Morocco has made fairly clear it isn’t worried by Guinea’s players, management or officials: after Ebola made it impossible for Guinea to stage home qualifiers in Conakry, they played them instead in Casablanca, which is also where they’ve staged their pre-tournament training camp.

There’s also a more fundamental point, which is that the tournament wasn’t Morocco’s to postpone – they wanted to push it back to 2016. CAF is a body that can at times be hard to respect, but in this instance their fears about the impact on sponsors and the agreements with clubs about releasing players were real enough. They are also rightly proud that in the 58 years since it launched, no Cup of Nations has been cancelled.

Equatorial Guinea will kick off the tournament on Saturday against Congo in Bata. The country is the most unlikely venue for a major tournament in three decades. When it emerged in November as the only viable host for the Cup of Nations, it was clear that Malabo, the capital, and Bata, the largest city, both of which staged games in 2012, would be selected as venues. Malabo has a compact modern stadium with a capacity of 15,000 and a wealth of hotels – mainly catering to the oil industry. Bata, where the opening game and final will be played, holds 35,000, but the city lacks hotels.

The issue was where the other two groups would be based. Mongomo, population 7,250, and Ebebiyin, population 36,500, both border towns, are probably logical choices, but only because there are no other choices. There is a new airport just outside Mongomo and government reports suggest the road through the jungle from Bata has been improved, cutting a five-hour journey in half, but the stadium holds fewer than 10,000 and the pitch was relaid last month.

Typically, the draw sited the most attractive group in Mongomo, meaning Ghana, Algeria, Senegal and South Africa will rub alongside one another in the mint-green hotel. Quite where anybody else is going to stay remains a mystery.

Infrastructure in Ebebiyin, 90 minutes north of Mongomo on a road that wobbles through the forest in and out of Gabon, is even more rudimentary. Although the stadium hosted the 2014 Equatoguinean Cup final in which Leones Vegetarianos beat Deportivo Mongomo in a penalty shoot-out, it holds only 5,000, while hotel accommodation is again extremely limited.

That said, stadium capacity is to an extent irrelevant. Three years ago, although games involving the hosts in Bata were well-attended, other games drew virtually no fans. Even the quarter-final in Malabo, in which Equatorial Guinea lost 3-0 to Ivory Coast, drew at most 10,000 fans.

The Confederation of African Football have in the past made grandiose claims about the size of the travelling support at Cups of Nations – laughably, they claimed Ghana could expect 400,000 fans in 2008 – but as they tried to persuade Morocco to host the tournament after all, they admitted they estimated fewer than 1,000 would travel for games.

This is an ongoing issue for the Cup of Nations: for reasons of logistics and economics, few African fans can travel to matches, while outside certain major football centres – Kumasi in Ghana for instance – there seems little interest from local fans in watching games at the stadium, the result perhaps of a culture which is used to consuming European football on television. Which, of course, makes Morocco’s decision to withdraw from hosting the tournament all the harder to explain, particularly given the fact that CAF apparently offered to ban away fans.

If this is a mess, it is of Morocco’s making, with CAF to blame – it they are to blame at all – for not having anticipated the situation. The solution isn’t ideal, and the tournament may end up being frustrating and chaotic, but given the situation two months ago, its feels vaguely miraculous that it is going ahead at all.

And this one, unlike the World Cup in Brazil and countless other sporting showpieces, won’t be blighted by the legacy of white elephant stadiums that are too big and too costly.

TEAM-BY-TEAM GUIDE
Group A
Equatorial Guinea
Fifa ranking: 120
African Cup of Nations best: Quarter-finals 2012
Players from British leagues: Emilio Nsue (Middlesbrough)

Star name: Juvenal
Manager: Esteban Becker
Odds by William Hill: 28-1
Burkina Faso
Fifa ranking: 63
ACN best:
Runners-up 2013
Players from British leagues: None
Star name: Charles Kabore
Manager: Paul Put
Odds: 16-1
Gabon
Fifa ranking: 65
ACN best: Quarterfinals 1996, 2012
Players from British leagues: Bruno Ecuele Manga (Swansea), Frederic Bulot (Charlton)

Star name: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Manager: Jorge Costa
Odds: 20-1
Congo
Fifa ranking: 61
ACN best: Winners 1972
Players from British leagues: Dominique Malonga (Hibernian)

Star name: Delvin N’Dinga
Manager: Claude Le Roy
Odds: 40-1
Group B
Zambia
Fifa ranking: 46
ACN best: Winners 2012
Players from British leagues: Emmanuel Mayuka (Southampton)

Star name: Mayuka
Manager: Honour Janza
Odds: 25-1
Tunisia
Fifa ranking: 22
ACN best: Winners 2012
Players from British leagues: None
Star name: Jamel Saihi
Manager: Georges Leekens
Odds: 9-1
Cape Verde
Fifa ranking: 40
ACN best: Quarterfinals 2013
Players from British leagues: None
Star name: Ryan Mendes
Manager: Rui Aguas
Odds: 25-1
Group C
DR Congo
Fifa ranking: 56
ACN best: Winners 1968, 1974
Players from British leagues: Youssouf Mulumbu (West Brom), Yannick Bolasie (Crystal Palace), Gabriel Zakuani (Peterborough)

Star name: Bolasie
Manager: Florent Ibenge
Odds: 33-1
Ghana
Fifa ranking: 37
ACN best: Winners 1963, ’65, ’78, ’82
Players from British leagues: Jeff Schlupp (Leicester), Christian Atsu (Everton), Wakaso Mubarak (Celtic), Kwesi Appiah (Cambridge)

Star name: Asamoah Gyan
Manager: Avram Grant
Odds: 8-1
Algeria
Fifa ranking: 18
ACN best: Winners 1990
Players from British leagues: Nabil Bentaleb (Tottenham), Riyad Mahrez (Leicester)

Star name: Madjid Bougherra
Manager: Christian Gourcuff
Odds: 9-2
South Africa
Fifa ranking: 52
ACN best: Winners 1996
Players from British leagues: Dean Furman (Doncaster), Tokelo Rantie (Bournemouth)

Star name: Bernard Parker
Manager: Ephraim Mashab
Odds: 18-1
Senegal
Fifa ranking: 35
ACN best: RU 2002
Players from British leagues: Cheikhou Kouyate, Diafra Sakho (West Ham), Papiss Cissé (Newcastle), Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke), Sadio Mane (Soton)

Star name: Mane
Manager: Hervé Renard
Odds: 7-2
Group D
Ivory Coast
Fifa ranking: 28
ACN best: Winners 2012
Players from British leagues: Kolo Touré (Liverpool), Yaya Touré (Man City), Cheick Tioté (Newcastle), Wilfried Bony (Swansea).

Star name: Yaya Touré
Manager: Hervé Renard
Odds: 7-2
Mali
Fifa ranking: 50
ACN best: Runnersup 1972
Players from British leagues: Bakary Sako (Wolves)
Star name: Seydou Keita
Manager: Henryk Kasperczak
Odds: 22-1
Cameroon
Fifa ranking: 42
ACN best: Winners 1984, ’88, 2000, 2002
Players from British leagues: None
Star name: Stephane Mbia
Manager: Volker Finke
Odds: 10-1
Guinea
Fifa ranking: 39
ACN best: Runnersup 1976
Players from British leagues: Kamil Zayatte (Sheffield Wed)

Star name: Kevin Constant
Manager: Michel Dussuyer
Odds: 40-1
Statistics by Tom Pyman
Source: Independent

For more Ghana football news visit www.ghanasoccernet.com

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