Preview: Equatorial Guinea out to grasp second chance in AFCON

Equatorial Guinea
Equatorial Guinea's players pose for photos at the Estadio de Bata "Bata Stadium" which will host their opening soccer match of African Nations Cup against Congo on Saturday, in Bata January 16, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)
Saturday 17 Jan 2015
Equatorial Guinea taking over late as host of the African Cup of Nations may not be great for the tournament's troublesome last-minute planning, but it's pretty good for the home team.

Six months ago, Equatorial Guinea was thrown out of the African soccer championship for cheating in qualifying. On Saturday, it will play in the tournament's opening game against Republic of Congo in front of its own red and blue-clad fans.

How did that happen?

Equatorial Guinea stepped in late last year when Morocco pulled out as host because of Ebola, fearing the deadly virus might spread during the 16-team, three-week tournament. With its decision to stand in, Equatorial Guinea earned a spot for its team in place of Morocco.

''When the Equatorial Guinea team learned it would participate in the CAN (African Cup), it was very quick. Quick, quick,'' Equatorial Guinea's newly-appointed Argentine coach Esteban Becker said on Friday. ''And we have organized the team for a new coach. But the players' mentality ... for them the mentality is very happy for the African Cup.''

The national team is theoretically picked from a population of just over 700,000 people, although foreign-born players once dominated the Equatorial Guinea lineup and sometimes got the country into trouble. Equatorial Guinea's initial disqualification last year was for selecting a player from neighboring Cameroon.

At this African Cup, the team's strength will again be playing at home, as it was three years ago when it co-hosted the Cup of Nations and reached the quarterfinals, surprising Senegal on the way.

''We're not thinking about the quarterfinals, the semifinals or the final,'' captain Javier Balboa, who once played for Real Madrid's reserve team, said ahead of this campaign. ''Game by game by game.''

In 2012, Equatorial Guinea's riotous home support spurred it on. But on Friday, just a few supporters stood outside a broken-down ticket office on the outskirts of Bata Stadium, one wearing a wooly Equatorial Guinea hat and team scarf in the 30-degree heat and sweltering equatorial humidity.

It didn't look like a mad rush for tickets on the eve of the opening night, when Burkina Faso also faces Gabon in a double-header at the same stadium.

Fearing poor crowds - a problem at many African Cups - the government announced this week that ticket prices would be reduced to cater for the many poor.

They will start at 500 Central African francs, or around $1, in the remote host towns of Mongomo and Ebebiyin. The cheapest tickets will be $2 for games in the bigger cities of Bata and Malabo, the capital. And for 40,000 supporters, their tickets to a game will be free, bought for them by the country's president. Teodoro Obiang Nguema announced his gesture to the country on national television this week.

''Let those who have the means help the poor,'' Ogiang said. ''Myself, I bought 40,000 tickets.''

A charm offensive, maybe. But for this curious country halfway up the west coast of Africa, where Spanish is spoken, oil is big business and the autocratic Obiang has been firmly in charge since he took over in a coup in 1979, the tournament could be a major boost for its image if it comes off.

Still, it is a risk.

There are already problems with the organization, including no running water and dangerous electric cables at one team's hotel, no rooms at all for another squad, and a training ground located in the middle of the rainforest and a two-hour drive from its base away for a third, tournament favorite Algeria.

Coach Claude Le Roy, whose Republic of Congo plays Equatorial Guinea in the opening game, has complained bitterly about the standard of his team's hotel. Le Roy declined to answer questions on the issue on Friday, telling reporters to ''go ask'' organizers the Confederation of African Football about the running of the tournament, which he has said should have been delayed to give Equatorial Guinea more time.

As Le Roy spoke at Bata Stadium, the lights suddenly failed, temporarily plunging a media room into darkness. As they flickered weakly back on again, Le Roy started laughing.

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