Tournament has opened up more secretive regions of country
20 January ~ The draw for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) pitched the strongest group – Ghana, Senegal, Algeria and South Africa – in the strangest of locations. At midday on Monday two Russian helicopter gunships came into view across the humid sky, circling the edge of Mongomo in eastern Equatorial Guinea, with hundreds of miles of jungle in all directions. Their reconnaissance of this remote area meant only one thing: President Obiang, Africa's longest serving dictator, was soon to arrive as match-day three brought the tournament into his home town.
Despite only 50,000 thousand people living here, billions of petro-dollars have been lavished upon it, the country's oil wealth used to build a bizarre architectural theme park for the regime's self-image, including a vast illuminated basilica and an unused 18-hole golf course. At least the luxury hotels, which had lain utterly empty for years, have found a use as the teams arrived.
There is also now a 10,000-seat football stadium, rushed into final construction in December when it was confirmed Morocco had withdrawn as AFCON 2015 hosts because of fears over Ebola. For all the doubts that the tournament could (or should) be held in a country such as Equatorial Guinea – secretive, repressive and, frankly, weird – the opening days have seen great football and eager fans (some with official encouragement) take precedence.
While the president looked on stony-faced in Mongomo Stadium – he's reportedly not even a football fan – Senegal came from behind to beat Avram Grant's Ghana 2-1 in a thrilling match; Stoke striker Mame Biram Diouf scored one and set up the winner ten seconds from time. Favourites Algeria beat South Africa 3-1 in the evening game, leaving the group finely poised.
When Equatorial Guinea co-hosted AFCON in 2012, only the capital Malabo and the port city of Bata were used as venues. Taking on the whole event has forced the government to bring games to places usually well out of bounds to journalists and tourists.
Another team to make a positive start in the country's difficult interior are Democratic Republic of Congo in Group B. When Yannick Bolasie equalised against Zambia in Ebebiyín on Sunday night, the player's genuine joy, coupled with the uproarious reaction of a block of 500 Congolese fans who had travelled from all over the region to support the Leopards, again suggested that events on the pitch will define this tournament rather than politics.
“It’s my mum and dad’s homeland so it’s an honour,” Bolasie told me after the game. “I’m glad the fans felt that connection [with us]. There's 60 million Congolese at home and expectations are high.” The journey of the Crystal Palace winger, born in France to Congolese parents before coming to the UK, has mirrored that of so many Africans, dispersed by the search for stability and economic opportunity. Cheering Bolasie from the stands was Daniel, a 26-year-old mechanic, forced to leave DRC ten years ago and attending his first Leopards game. “I crossed the border this morning. It was a seven hour drive from Yaounde [in Cameroon] but being here is like being at home.” Taimour Lay @TaimourLay