Friday, February 10, 2012

Africa Cup of Nations 2012


Africa Cup of Nations 2012 in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

Keep Calm.

Most visits to West Africa are best done in a state of calm.

Even before getting to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea patience and persistence are needed to get a visa.
In the end for your correspondent a Gabon visa proved fairly straightforward as long as you were willing to pay up front for a high-end hotel.
For Equatorial Guinea, despite promises of a joint visa being available in London, it never happened.

But on arrival in Libreville, following a delayed flight via Nairobi (caused by an overloaded plane), I was fortunate to get the combined 45-day ‘tournament’ visa fairly quickly with help from one of the organisers.

Arriving a couple of days before the start of the Africa Cup of Nations I got settled in Le Meridien hotel in Libreville.
Located near the sea with good facilities (but no beach to speak of) and prices to match the hotel hosted many CAF visitors and media personnel.
It also had an ATM that was usually functional, an essential feature in countries that mostly deal in cash only.

After travelling for about 24 hours I needed an early night so after one beer I went to a nearby Chinese restaurant for a decent sweet and sour plus a small pichet of red wine.

The next morning I took a shared taxi, joined by a guy from Niger who was going to the airport, to the stadium.

Some of the Stade de Angondje looked far from finished with the surroundings and access roads being worked on plus the interior of the stadium still needed substantial finishing.
With three days to there was plenty to do.

But I guess with some strategic blocking-off of certain areas and lots of work it was just about ready for the first Gabon game.

The stadium is in a modern Chinese built style with two large sides, curved roofs and two much smaller open ends. Not my favourite style of football stadium.
It is maybe 15 minutes or so from the airport which was as much as an hour from my hotel depending on the traffic.

Libreville.

23rd January 5pm Gabon 2 Niger 0

The first game of the tournament for me and the opening game in the new stadium.
Many fans had begun walking from near the centre at around 11am, for the late afternoon kick-off.

It was hot and humid and the traffic was typically dire.

Newcomers Niger had a couple of small groups of fans behind the right hand goal but as you would expect most were supporting the Panthers.

And it was the locals who went home happy as their team scored twice, both involving star man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
He headed in the first at the far post and Nguema scored the second from close range after a Aubameyang header was parried.
Niger were limited, only having a few chances and some below standard players.

So it was a fairly easy start for the co-hosts.

8pm Morocco 1 Tunisia 2

The stadium was now about one quarter full for the 2nd game to see the Tunisians win this North African derby.
They had much less possession as Morocco attacked but failed to take their chances,Tunisia proving more clinical.

The game did have a hectic finish with Morocco getting one back and imposing late pressure.
But Tunisia held on having played a smart game in a watchable match.

Most of the traffic had dispersed & I walked up to the first roundabout, picked up a minibus to the airport and then a taxi to my hotel.

There was plenty of time for a beer before getting another taxi to the airport for the red eye, 3.50am, flight to Malabo in Equatorial Guinea.

Equatorial Guinea.

I arrived at about 5am and experienced the expected delay in getting into the country.
But with my passport stamped I got a ride into town to try to find a hotel.

‘Luckily’ I could get into the Tropicana, albeit for a price (£100 per night)

Malabo does have some pleasant colonial style buildings near to the port and a comfortable Sofitel hotel next to an attractive cathedral.
As you stroll around you can see the tropical forest in the distance.

Unusually, and uniquely for Africa, the first language is Spanish although many people also speak French and some English.

In the evening many visitors and football fans adjourned to the downtown Candy restaurant - I joined them.

Next morning another early 5am start to get the CEIBA flight from Malabo to Bata.

This time in the front seat of the taxi was a lady of the night having just finished her work.
We drove off down a bumpy, narrow track to her ‘house’ and (it did cross my mind about the possible danger) thankfully back again towards the airport.

This being Equatorial Guinea we had to go through visa checks, picture taking and fingerprinting even though we’re not leaving the country. For many, even the locals, moving around the country can be difficult.

Bata is the major mainland city and it certainly had many more police around as you pass from the airport through to the centre.

Having tried some hotel options along the way I settled for the ´Mister Bed´lookalike Federacione Hotel next to the stadium, paying the usual c.£100 a night.

At least Bata and Malabo were cooler than humid Libreville.

Bata.

My pre-game meal was an expensive salad followed by a stroll to the stadium.

I was inside when a torrential tropical downpour meant we had over an hour delay as they attempted to remove the water from the pitch.
For a while it seemed that a cancellation was possible.

25th January 6.15pm Libya 2 Zambia 2

Considering the difficult conditions - there were large patches of standing water - this was a very entertaining game.

Libya scored early in each half and each time the Zambians replied.
The North Africans, with less possession, did well to convert their fewer chances and showed spirit to get their first point.

9.15pm Equatorial Guinea 2 Senegal 1

By now the pitch though not really great, had got back to a decent state.

And what a night we had as the crowd rushed in (free entry for many I think) to pack the stands in what is a better, symmetric and atmospheric football stadium.

This was quite an upset as the lowly ranked co-hosts beat one of the favourites with a very late winner rifled in by defender Kily Alvarez.

Before that the Nzalang Nacional had generally restricted the much vaunted Senegal forward line.
Ba missed a very good chance but the unusual conditions did make it a more even contest.

Equatorial Guinea took the lead when Randy headed in a cross but Moussa Sow forced in a late equaliser and it looked like a still very creditable draw was on the cards.

Until the fourth minute of added time when Kily struck to send the crowd into raptures.
There were a few friendly incursions on the pitch but nothing serious.

Amazingly Senegal were out and Equatorial Guinea were assured of a place in the quarter finals.

No doubt all of the country was celebrating a great, unexpected victory.

I sampled too many beers with friends as the fans walked away, down the only exit from the stadium, many dancing as they went.

What started as a possible postponement finished with a exceptional night to remember in Bata.

Malabo.

Another fairly early morning CEIBA flight from Bata over to Bioko Island and a return to Malabo.
This time the experience was more chaotic due to the poor organisation (we were not given any boarding passes) and a crowded plane.
In the end I think everyone made it.

Back in the Tropicana Hotel I rested, had a sandwich for lunch and had a chat with an ex-pat. oil worker.

26th January 5pm Sudan 2 Angola 2

The Malabo stadium is by far the smallest of the venues and only a few thousand witnessed this entertaining encounter between the favoured Angolans and a decent Sudanese team.

Ex-Manchester Utd forward Manucho scored twice, the second a penalty, but each time Mohamed Bashir equalised for a side that comprised only locally based players.

It was a good effort by Sudan and the result would help their unexpected progress to the quarter finals.

8pm Ivory Coast 2 Burkina Faso 0

The crowd had built to around 5,000 to see the Nations Cup favourites, Ivory Coast, beat the Burkinabe with a strike from Salomon Kalou and an own goal.

The Elephants, with Didier Drogba winning headers, did enough and they moved efficiently into the last eight.
I managed to sample the hospitality which included chicken and, a first for me, antelope.

The Ivorians had a reasonable number of fans and I strolled back with them towards the centre.
As usual it was hot but downhill to the hotel - a small bottle of red meant a better night’s sleep.

Gabon.

A less chaotic flight back to Libreville this time and a return to my hotel in the Glass quarter of the city, near to the Le Meridien but a lot less pricey.

27th January 5pm Niger 1 Tunisia 2

A low key start to a magical night in Libreville.

The Tunisian goalie gifted the lowly rated Niger team an equaliser after Msakni had waltzed through for the opener.
But the Carthage Eagles secured the victory with a late goal.

8pm Gabon 3 Morocco 2

By kick-off the crowd had grown to near capacity for the second Gabon match.

Nobody who was there will forget the drama that was to follow.

Gabon started fairly cautiously going behind when Hossine Kharja was given too much space.

Then we had a long period of relative calm before the last fifteen minutes when the mayhem unfolded.
Firstly star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang headed in at the far post then a couple of minutes later the experienced Daniel Cousin turned and shot in for 2-1.
The noise went from loud to deafening.

The announcer pleaded with the fans to 'keep calm'.

Some fans ran onto the pitch.

But as if a switch had been turned silence ensued when Morocco were given and scored a penalty in added time.
Even then the Gabonese were not to be denied when, in the seventh minute of injury time, Bruno Zito Mbanangoye of Dinamo Minsk executed a Beckham-like free-kick to send everyone back into ecstasy.

I left soon after and joined the large numbers of locals, shouting and celebrating as they went, in the chaos outside.
Amongst the many minibuses I managed to share a seat for an uncomfortable but thrilling ride back to the centre of town.
Along the way the locals, including the many police, came out to enjoy a special victory.

Back at my hotel I calmed down with some wine while trying to converse in schoolboy french, outside the noise continued.

Franceville.

Fortunately my flight was not until 12.30 so I could enjoy a good nights sleep, helped by the earplugs.
This was a charter trip organised by COCAN with Lithuanian staff.
And everything went to schedule.

I had made a reservation for the Mbaya hotel and after some tribulations got there, via the stadium, in good time.
The hotel was a new complex (including a training pitch) designed originally for one of the teams and although not everything worked 100% it was quiet and comfortable.

28th January 5pm Guinea 6 Botswana 1

The stadium is a mix of central VIP and media areas with larger partly covered ends.
A large part of the local population could fit into the c. 25,000 capacity and it was never full.

This match was a bad day at the office for Botswana playing in their first Cup of Nations finals.

It didn’t help that they had a man sent off just before half time.
But by then they were already well beaten with just a twice taken penalty as compensation.

Two late goals sealed their fate.
Guinea had a lively group of fans with the requisite drums behind one of the goals.

8pm Ghana 2 Mali 0

The crowd did increase, to around 7,000, to see the well established Ghana team score two fine goals.
Asamoah Gyan from a free-kick and Andre Ayew with a dribble and left foot shot did the business for the Black Stars.

The next day I arranged a driver and English speaking help to see some of the tourist sites in the nearby area.
We visited the rope bridge and the, inevitably, Chinese hydro project at Poubara.
Plus we saw some of the traditional pygmy houses along the way.

The countryside was undulating and somewhat like Europe except for the dwellings and the people.
I did notice that some of the pygmy are getting bigger especially the one who chased us when I took a picture when I shouldn’t have done.

We were also able to visit Bongoville and the Bongoville Hotel, the base for the Gabon players.
We had a tour around the impressive but well guarded facilities.

On the way back we stopped at the train station where the car gave out giving me time to check the Franceville - Libreville timetable.
I’d been given various, differing information as to the schedule and was none the wiser as the only timetable posted was from 2011. I would have taken a day train, to see more of the country, but had to conclude that they had only night trains.

Eventually the car relented and we made it back to the hotel

Franceville is certainly well spread out with a centre comprising the usual market and a statue of ex-president Bongo.
As with most of Gabon it is the scenery and wildlife that entices the visitor, apart from the odd football tournament of course.

That and the friendliness of the locals, one of whom gave me lift in his 4 x 4 as I was going into town.
He asked if we could stop as he wanted to greet his uncle. No problem and after a short interval I was invited in to share some lunch with his uncle, his wife and other cousins.

Home grown food from his farm, wine and brandy - some hospitality from someone who turned out to be a local notable.

31st January 7pm Gabon 1 Tunisia 0

The biggest ever night for football in Franceville with the president attending as he had done for all the Gabon fixtures.
And as always it was a holiday whenever Gabon played.

Franceville is an even poorer region than Libreville so many would struggle to afford the 5,000 cfa or 10,000 cfa (£6 - £12) prices for tickets.

So I thought the 22,000 who attended on a cool night was a decent effort. The noise was nothing like that in Libreville but they did enjoy themselves.

Again it was the Cousin and Aubameyang combination that decided the result.
Tunisia, with many players rested, battled away near the end but Gabon held on to take first place in the group.

I took the minibus, in convoy, to the airport for the charter flight back to Libreville.
Some others where seeing off the Gabon players for their flight to the capital.

There was a typical scramble to get on the plane but again I think everyone managed to do so.

Fortunately they had kept my room available in my Libreville hotel so I could relax and chat to some Algerian reporters until about 1am.

Libreville.

1st February 7pm Mali 2 Botswana 1

After a stormy night of wind and rain the day dawned hot and humid for my final game.

At least there was a good few thousand Mali fans to give the match a decent atmosphere.

Those fans would eventually celebrate qualification for the next phase despite going a goal down when a Botswana counter attack saw Ngele convert a cross.

Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita scored the classy winner with about fifteen minutes remaining.

I was back near the hotel in time for a final Chinese meal and some wine.

The next day my trip home was again via Nairobi this time accompanied by the Botswana players as they belatedly joined the flight.
Their fans, many female, were also on the flight and you could imagine many of them in the Botswana No.1 Detective Agency.

We arrived late into Nairobi (far from the most comfortable airport terminal) not that it mattered as I had about a four hour transit before the flight to London.
Eventually arriving into Heathrow at 7am I had adjust to a 30 degree difference in temperature.

Postscript.

Gabon and Equatorial Guinea are countries few people visit unless you are in the oil business and so the opportunity to go there, albeit at a price, to see some football was a rare experience.

Both countries can offer exceptional scenery and wildlife that I saw only briefly.

But to be present at two particularly dramatic matches involving the host countries in Bata and Libreville made this tournament special.
As usual there were mistakes and some wild shooting but every game had at least one goal and nearly all were closely fought.

The logistics were a mix of some chaos and serenity but there were always a plethora of volunteers, many able to speak English, to help you along the way.

And as ever at these tournaments you meet people from all over Africa, all passionate about football.

So to conclude not many people stayed calm in Bata and Libreville on those special nights and not many will ever forget the joy they experienced.

more pictures can be viewed at http://www.photobox.co.uk/album/1125916419

1 comment:

Mahesh Pandey said...
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