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'Obliged attendance' and full houses cover over Cup of Nations cracks

Equatorial Guinea was a late choice to host this year’s tournament.

A WEEK AFTER the start of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, fears the tournament in Equatorial Guinea would be a disaster are proving to be a little wide of the mark.

After the last-minute decision to move the competition from Morocco to the tiny central African state, there were concerns over how the threat of Ebola would be handled and how the hosts would ensure full stadiums when venues were often empty the last time the Cup of Nations came to town in 2012.

Equatorial Guinea Soccer African Cup Source: AP/Press Association Images

And not everything has gone smoothly, with stories of the Tunisia team having to eat dinner by candlelight and sleep four to a room after their hotel in Ebebiyin was flooded.

Others, including Congo Brazzaville coach Claude Le Roy, have complained of logistical problems, while fans clashed with police before the meeting between the hosts and Burkina Faso in Bata.

There have been reports of tensions flaring at entrances to venues, although that has been because of the streams of supporters turning up for games and having to wait to pass through rigorous health checks as part of the fight against Ebola.

But once inside, fans have created colourful atmospheres and most matches have been sell-outs.

Indeed, so full was the Estadio de Malabo for the Group D game between Cameroon and Mali that many fans were unable to find seats, instead being forced to crowd in stairways to watch the action.

Soccer - 2015 Africa Cup of Nations Finals - Cameroon v Mali - Malabo Stadium - Malabo Ambroise Oyongo celebrates a Cameroon goal against Mali. Source: Gavin Barker

“Like everyone who is passionate about football, I watch all the games and I’ve quite liked what I’ve seen in terms of the atmosphere,” said Ivory Coast coach Herve Renard, whose team are based in Malabo.

There, the stadium sits on the edge of town, on a hillside rising gradually towards the summit of Pico Basile, shrouded in mist 3,000 metres above sea level.

It has come alive on game day, with fans in the different colours of the competing countries creating a carnival atmosphere.

The stadium here is lovely and the atmosphere was very, very good in the first match. That is the charm of the African Cup, seeing all these supporters walking to the stadium, mixing without trouble, without insulting each other. It is the charm of Africa and it is magnificent.

Renard continued: “For the moment I think it’s a great success, especially if you look back and see how things happened to reorganise the competition.”

For the Ivory Coast and the other teams based in Malabo, on the island of Bioko, there has been little to complain about.

The accommodation provided in the capital is excellent, with teams sharing one luxury hotel in the centre opposite the town’s delightful cathedral and another along the coast in Sipopo, complete with its own private beach.

Ataste of reality

Renard admits that his team are “in magnificent surroundings”, and they are certainly a million miles away from those in which most people live in Equatorial Guinea.

However, the teams get a taste of reality when they arrive to train at the Estadio La Paz by Malabo’s bustling central market or take the long drive south through the jungle to Bioko’s only other adequate training ground by the Atlantic Ocean at Luba.

And there is a dark side to the images of full stadiums, with claims that members of the public have effectively been forced into attending matches in a nation ruled with an iron fist by President Teodoro Obiang.

“Public servants are obliged to go because those who don’t will lose their jobs,” claimed Ponciano Mbomio Nvo, a prominent Malabo-based lawyer known for his fight against the human rights situation in the country.

Equatorial Guinea Soccer African Cup The scene outside the ground in Ebibeyin, where Tunisia faced Zambia. Source: AP/Press Association Images

“Companies who don’t buy tickets for their employees will lose work contracts with the state. What justifies it? In 2012 there was none of this.”

But there has been little sign of spectators not enjoying themselves at matches, even when the football has not matched expectations.

The first 14 games delivered only 26 goals, but dramatic late wins for Tunisia, Senegal and Ghana, and matchwinning performances from superstars Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Asamoah Gyan, have helped light up the competition on the field.

- Andy Scott

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