Equatorial Guinea had two months to prepare to host the African Cup of Nations, making the colorful and sometimes chaotic continental soccer tournament even more unpredictable than usual this year.
Along with the regular questions ahead of an African Cup — Will Ivory Coast’s star-studded squad finally break its title drought? — comes a bunch of others this time: What will the small stadiums in the eastern border towns of Mongomo and Ebebiyin be like? And will the new highway carved through the jungle to those remote towns be OK in time for kickoff this weekend?
Equatorial Guinea took over as host at very short notice from Morocco, which didn’t want to stage the championship because of fears over the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and fans traveling from that region.
The replacement host is a small, curious oil-rich nation in Central Africa.
Equatorial Guinea has stadiums in the Malabo, the capital, and Bata, the biggest city, left over from when it co-hosted the 2012 African Cup. But the two other venues out near the Gabonese border are unknown and untested in top-level football.
Organisers had little time to bring those grounds, used to hosting a few hundred people in Equatorial Guinea’s domestic league, up to standard. It’s unclear how far they have got.
Even without this year’s hurried preparations, few tournaments bring soccer stars back down to earth like the African Cup, where every two years some of the world’s best players leave their highly-paid day jobs in the luxurious English, Spanish and Italian leagues for three weeks of adventure back in Africa.
And few tournaments are as difficult to predict.
Burkina Faso, with no previous impressive history at the tournament, made the final and nearly won in 2013. Zambia did win in 2012, beating Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba, Gervinho and Ivory Coast’s other big names in the final.
In 2015, Algeria, the top-ranked team in Africa and its best performer at last year’s World Cup, is the favourite. But that isn’t really helpful at the African Cup, as Ivory Coast and Ghana know too well.
For a long time Africa’s two most talented teams, Ivory Coast hasn’t won the title in more than 20 years and Ghana’s misery stretches to more than 30 years.
“We can’t make predictions in this kind of competition,” said Algeria coach Christian Gourcuff, a Frenchman.
“Certainly many have named us the favourites but we must invest a great deal. There is quality (in the team), but there are also conditions that we must get used to. We disregard the judgments of others.”
Algeria is in the toughest group, with Ghana, Senegal and South Africa.
They’ll all be based in Mongomo for the group stage, where they’ll likely come across each other often off the field in one of the town’s two or three recognised hotels.
Facing the unknown, Tunisia, probably like many teams, will be bringing its own cooks to prepare meals for the players in Ebebiyin, way up in the north-eastern corner of Equatorial Guinea.
The Tunisians are also flying in all their food from home “just in case,” coach Georges Leekens said.
Ivory Coast and Cameroon lead a list of contenders from West Africa, which also includes Ghana, Mali and Senegal. South Africa also qualified among the 16 teams.
Ghana officials say they’ve resolved a dispute over player payments, another issue that often plagues teams at the African Cup and which has been rumbling on for Ghana since last year’s World Cup.
Bonuses have been cut to US$5 000 per player for each match they play in, and a possible payout of US$60 000 each if they win the title. In comparison, Spain’s players were each offered a US$980 000 incentive to win the World Cup last year.
“It is not about the money,” Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan said.
“We are just here to die for the nation because we are Ghanaians.”
It’s not the richest tournament, but one thing the African Cup does produce is passion.
For teams like Cape Verde, the tiny Atlantic Ocean island nation, and Republic of Congo, it’s the only chance they get to mix with the big stars. And for some fans, it’s the only chance they get to see their team have a chance at international glory.
In Guinea, young supporters marched in the capital Conakry and erected barricades on the streets in protest after one of their favourite players, midfielder Sadio Diallo, was left out of the squad. Riot police were called in.
The African Cup, with its haphazard organisation and humble facilities, is still a big deal for many.