By Pat Muo
Equatorial Guinea is agog this weekend as the best of African football comes on display courtesy of the African cup of Nations tournament which kicks off in that country.
Organized by the confederation of African football (CAF), the competition got off the ground last Saturday with hosts, Equatorial Guinea up against Congo Brazzaville at the Estadio de Bata in that country.
This Wednesday, Gabon will take her acid test in the tournament. A fully motivated Congo Brazzaville, following her splendid performance in the group stages against Nigeria in Calabar last November, will provide the litmus paper. Gabon, whose best performance in African football was a debt appearance in the FIFA world cup in 2002, will take her baptism in this edition of African nation’s cup that Wednesday against Congo Brazzaville.
The history of both countries’ football has a common feature. On occasions when each of these two countries achieved landmark break-through in African football, it had been at the expense of Nigeria!
In 2002, the year Gabon qualified for her first and only world cup appearance so far, it was at the expense of Nigeria. Since 1994 when the Super Eagles hoisted Nigeria’s flag in the FIFA world cup in the USA, the West African nation had underrated most challenges to any competition from the continent. All matches against other African countries were seen as already-won. The country and her citizens, as far as they were concerned, had no equal in football.
But they were to pay for it. And that, in very painful circumstances! Gabon, very determined to rear her head in world football, raised a dogged side against the Super Eagles. The laxity of those who guided the Eagles to that world cup campaign provided the Gabonese the coveted opportunity to wreck the Super Eagles. And true to type, at the end of the qualifiers, Gabon, and not Nigeria, went to the world cup in 2002. That has being and remains Gabon’s best football achievement ever.
The case of the Congo Brazzaville is still fresh. That Nigeria is not in Equatorial Guinea today among those vying for honours at the current edition of the African nation’s cup tournament, is because of Congo Brazzaville. Like Gabon, the under dogs from Brazzaville rose from their slumber against the Super Eagles. Their Football Association was determined not to be disgraced. The Congo’s must be in the African nations’ cup finals. Working assiduously, the Brazzaville Football Association gave a thorough assessment of Group F where Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan and their country were seeded. It was clear that since two countries would emerge from each group, Nigeria and South Africa were the most favoured. No, their country had played enough of this under-dog stance. They must go to the African cup of Nations in 2015, to break into the recognized football playing nations in Africa.
Gloriously, they achieved that feat. At the expense of Nigeria! How sweet it is to conquer an emperor! Nigeria is the current champions of the competition. But through hard work and good planning, Congo Brazzaville, has prevented her from defending that trophy. Brazzaville, with no defined professional league, copied the work plan of Gabon in 2002 and dutifully executed it.
While Gabon and Congo Brazzaville will be slugging it out, Burkina Faso and Equatorial Guinea will be preparing to honour the second match of the day at the same venue.
Estadio de Bata is a very popular stadium in Equatorial Guinea. It is one pitch which is so dear to the people that once, it was said that the country’s president asked CAF to ensure that the national team of that country played in that stadium as a condition to host the nation’s cup! His reason was that the citizens who reside in the city where the stadium was located were ardent football lovers and would be very pleased to watch and support the country’s national team. If CAF obliged, perhaps, this match is one of the indications.
Burkina Faso is sincerely a tough opposition for Equatorial Guinea. In the grand finale in South Africa two years back, Burkina Faso narrowly lost the trophy to Nigeria by a lone goal. Their playing mentality and psychological readiness against the Super Eagles in that clash spoke volumes of the kind of character that that country’s national team can exhibit at the face of challenging odds. Thus, the envisaged advantages presented to hosts in big tournaments such as the African nations’ cup may not count when the second game against hosts, Equatorial Guinea gets under way this Wednesday.
Like Congo Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea has just one point to prove. She will try very hard to write her name among the football-playing nations in the continent. They are lucky to have that opportunity. Northern brothers Morocco-presented it. As a chosen host by CAF, Morocco, not having strong faith in herself, threw the hosting ticket back at CAF a few months to the tournament. Her reason was that she was not sure if she could handle the attendant consequences associated with the outbreak of an Ebola epidemic in Morocco following the expected assemblage of sports personalities from other African countries particularly from those already stricken by the virus!
Her peoples’ sense of hygiene as well as poor medical tradition, were also cited by their Football Association as reasons for the rejection. The situation compelled CAF to immediately go shopping for a replacement. Fortunately, Equatorial Guinea presented a willing ally.
For her national team, the decision to take this responsibility from Morocco is a plus and minus situation. A plus because it will compel the government of Equatorial Guinea to give a face-lift to football facilities in that country, no matter how little. A plus because it will expose the nation’s cultural heritage to the entire world; a plus because it will raise the level of that country’s football above what it is at the moment.
A minus because Equatorial Guinea’s economy, more than ever, requires a meticulous handling to avoid pummeling into an everlasting recession. The hosting of the African cup of nations at this time therefore, may not be very pleasant step towards the stabilization of the economy.