Cape Town - 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.
Read: AFCON ready for new stars
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
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. Organizers 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 favorite. 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 favorites 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 recognized 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
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 £3283 per player for each match they play in, and a possible payout of £39
400 each if they win the title. In comparison, Spain's players were each
offered a £643 543 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
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 favorite
players, midfielder Sadio Diallo, was left out of the squad. Riot police were
The African Cup, with its haphazard organization and humble
facilities, is still a big deal for many.