The pattern has become familiar: a country wins the right to host a tournament and there is excitement, then come doubts about costs and readiness, but in the days before the event, the negativity falls away and excitement takes over. Not here. In 2015, Gabon stepped in to replace Libya as the hosts because of the conflict there but, as the 31st Africa Cup of Nations approaches, there is a clear sense a significant proportion of the country does not want it to happen.
In part that is an issue of expenditure, an increasingly sensitive issue in a country in which the national debt is estimated at $12.8bn (£10.56bn) against a GDP of $1.4bn. In October the government announced cuts to health and education. A leaked budget suggests $700m has been spent on the tournament, $220m of which has gone on a new stadium in Libreville that will not be ready. Instead the stadium built for the 2012 Cup of Nations, which was co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea, will stage the final – which raises the question of why a new stadium was needed in the first place.
Tensions have been heightened by August’s election which was won narrowly by the incumbent, Ali Bongo, who succeeded his father in 2009. The defeated opposition candidate, Jean Ping, disputed the result, which was eventually ratified by the supreme court, leading to days of street demonstrations in which at least eight people were killed. A media blackout followed, during which the opposition alleges there was a widespread crackdown by government forces.
With two of the venues, Oyem and Port Gentil, in Ping heartlands, the expectation is for the Cup of Nations to be used as a vehicle for protest, with various anti-government Facebook groups, many of them run by exiles in France, calling for matches to be disrupted. The former Gabon forward Guy Roger Nzamba, once of Southend and St Johnstone, called for Gabonese fans to boycott the tournament, while a demonstration against the tournament will be held in Place Rio in central Libreville at 1pm on Saturday, four hours before the kick-off in the opening match between Gabon and Guinea-Bissau.
Amid the welter of bad news for the Confederation of African Football, its president, Issa Hayatou, was referred by the Egyptian Competition Authority for investigation over a television deal. On Monday, a bus carrying schoolchildren to the inauguration of the new stadium just outside Oyem crashed. There were no reported fatalities, but there was a series of photographs of bloodied children wearing matching Cup of Nations T-shirts. There have also been strikes by public sector and oil workers in the past fortnight. This is a country ill at ease with itself, regarding its second Cup of Nations in five years with suspicion and trepidation.
Amid all the politics, there is a gloomy sense of stagnation about African football. The base of talent may have got broader but it has not got any higher over the past couple of decades. There is no team now to match the talent of the Nigeria (who have not qualified) of Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha, Taribo West and Sunday Oliseh, or the Cameroon of Samuel Eto’o, Lauren, Geremi and Rigobert Song. What that points to is an open tournament but not necessarily a high-quality one.
Ivory Coast won the 2015 tournament, ending 23 years of frustration, with a side who had just begun to move on from the golden generation who had come so close so often under the captaincy of Didier Drogba. Since then both Touré brothers, Gervinho and the goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, whose unlikely heroics won the penalty shootout in the final against Ghana two years ago, have either retired or lost their places. What is left is a young side with great potential. Eric Bailly and Wilfried Kanon, who both played key roles in Equatorial Guinea, remain in the back four, although the Villarreal defender tends to be used at left-back, while Sunderland’s Lamine Koné partners Bailly in the middle. The Nice midfielder Jean Seri has made more assists than anyone else in France this season, while Wilfried Zaha impressed on the right in his debut in a friendly against Sweden last Sunday.
Ghana remain African football’s great underachievers, without a Cup of Nations win since 1982, despite winning the Under-20 World Cup in 2009. Avram Grant remains their coach, now with a “lucky” beard. Algeria have an exciting front line of Islam Slimani, Riyad Mahrez and Yacine Brahimi, but are on their third coach in a year, while Egypt, back in the tournament after a seven-year absence, look well balanced with Mohamed Salah, Mohamed Elneny and Ramadan Sobhi as well as the eccentric 43-year-old goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, a veteran of their three successive Cup of Nations victories between 2006 and 2010.
The hosts, who played so well on home soil five years ago before a quarter-final penalty shootout defeat to Mali, have probably the best striker in the tournament in Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Five years ago, Gabon had fanatical home support. That backing may not be quite so unequivocal this time around.
The Guardian Sport