Equatorial Guinea open the African Nations Cup with a flourish
It was an incredible moment and one that would certainly have been impossible to envision just 10 weeks ago. Equatorial Guinea had started well against Republic of Congo, with their largely Spanish-educated team flicking, darting and pirouetting around tentative, lumping opponents and delighting a crowd that needed little invitation to raise the roof.
Sixteen minutes in, the style gained substance. Right-winger Kike spun free on the right, not for the first time, and cleaved into a defence that showed no inclination to press. He slipped a ball through to Emilo Nsue, the captain and Middlesbrough player who scored without fuss to announce the hosts' arrival at their own party. The noise inside the Estadio de Bata was extraordinary by any standards.
"Estamos con Nzalang" read the slogans on thousands of the red national team shirts that flooded down the wide boulevard that leads straight into the stadium -- "We're with the lightning."
The home team is known as the National Lightning, which refers in part to the shuddering thunderbolts that sometimes hit this part of the world. You do not tend to hear much noise in Equatorial Guinea and certainly not in its island capital, Malabo, but the volume had been cranking up since dawn.
Equatorial Guinea had not expected to have this chance, and there was a clear appetite -- on the streets and in government headquarters -- to take it. Tickets for the opening double-header started at $3, and they will be half that at the smaller venues farther east. The incentive outweighs any inconvenience caused by having to change plans for January.
So Equatoguineans got with the lightning. A taxi driver transporting a group of English journalists took a 20-minute detour to pick up his wife so the pair could attend together. Nobody minded; there have been many reasons, mainly relating to politics, to view the country negatively in recent decades, but the hours building up to the game were a useful reminder of the anticipation and release from extraneous issues football can harness.
The hastily arranged nature of this competition has been much-discussed, but a suitably boisterous opening ceremony was fashioned in good time. It featured performances from Mani Bella, the purple-haired Cameroonian singer, and -- to an ecstatic reception from the crowd -- the Afro-American R&B artist Akon, but perhaps more revealing was the reaction to the presence of Equatorial Guinea's president, Obiang Nguema. There was a roar when his name was read 90 minutes before kickoff and further flag-waving when he entered the pitch before kickoff to open the tournament. Obiang's reputation internationally is not a positive one, but this was strictly an occasion for national fervor, and the temperature stepped up a further notch.
Equatorial Guinea are one of few genuinely unknown quantities that remain in African football. Their manager, Esteban Becker, has only been in the job for a matter of weeks, and their starting XI contained players based in Malta, Hong Kong and a tiny domestic league. There was no telling how they would line up, but Middlesbrough wing-back Emilio Nsue -- by far the most experienced at a high level -- captained the side and started in a central attacking role.
Nsue's inclusion was a reminder (if one were needed) of Equatorial Guinea's suspect recent footballing past. They have pursued an aggressive policy of naturalising players with Equatoguinean ancestry who were raised in Spain, which colonized the country. The Mallorca-born Nsue was at the centre of a storm in the 2013 World Cup qualifiers when, after playing twice against Cape Verde and scoring a hat-trick in one of those games, he was ruled still to have not yet been eligible, and Nzalang Nacional were awarded two 3-0 defeats. It is not a one-off issue. They were originally disqualified from this tournament, of course, for fielding the ineligible Thierry Fidjeu.
Nsue's goal and outstanding all-around performance -- he could have scored twice more -- were reminders that even at this high level, things are not always as they seem. His team deserved the lead they held for the majority of the game. Their style is mobile, technical, deliberate -- in the Spanish mould, in other words. But there is a fusion with the physicality and speed that you associate with central African sides, and it is unpredictable enough to cause teams problems. Kike, the right winger, looked better than a moderate Mallorca B player. On the other flank, Iban Edu -- a 19-year-old who is on Valencia's books -- stood out in the first half, with a series of outrageous improvisations and a 45-yard attempt that almost caught out Christoffer Mafoumbi.
You do not know what you will get with Equatorial Guinea, which is something the Congo coach, Claude LeRoy, alluded to after the game. "I like the world, but you don't know where they come from," he said. "You don't know if they've been Equatoguinean for four weeks or longer. It is impossible to know where they are coming from."
Regardless of their players' provenance, Equatorial Guinea should have sealed things after halftime, when Nsue and Javier Balboa, once on the books of Real Madrid, missed one-on-ones. They were made to pay. Congo had laboured for much of the game but grew in strength in the last 10 minutes, and a sense of inevitability had already started to grow when the Hibernian player Dominique Malonga slipped in Thievy Bifouna for a carbon-copy of Nsue's goal.
There were just four minutes to play, but there was still time for Malonga to miss a sitter by shooting straight at Felipe Ovono from six yards. It would have been cruel on the hosts, who deserve to feel they are still firmly in with a chance of progression.
LeRoy felt that, given his team's buildup, a draw was satisfactory, but he took aim at CAF, the African football federation. Congo's problems with sourcing appropriate hotel accommodation in Bata -- a number of players had to do without their own rooms on the day of their arrival -- are well-documented, and they arrived late for today's game too, with traffic problems meaning they did not make it to the stadium until 55 minutes before kickoff.
"Today, they played well," he said. "Our keeper made some magnificent saves. Today, we did not deserve to win this game.
"Since we arrived [in Equatorial Guinea], it's been terrible. I had to cancel the training three days ago, our players had no food, nothing. Our pre-tournament preparation in Senegal was fantastic, and we worked very hard. It's not normal from CAF, things like this, not normal. They have to protect the players."
The teams are not the only ones to have been affected by organisation that has varied from pleasantly efficient to the polar opposite. Media hoping to talk to players and coaches in the "mixed zone" after every game were forced to beat a hasty retreat after the flimsily constructed corridor outside the ground turned out to double as an entrance for Gabon fans attending the day's second game. As hundreds of supporters -- Gabon borders Equatorial Guinea and a number of its nationals live and work here -- surged through and knocked down the barricades, there was little option but to retreat to the stands and hope this was the kind of teething problem that can be learned from quickly enough.
To give the Gabonese their due, it soon became possible to understand what they had been rushing to see. They and Burkina Faso, the 2013 runners-up, are both well-tipped to qualify from Group A and make considerable inroads into the weaker half of the draw. It felt like a home game for Gabon, who were also supported by many of the 15,000 or so Equatorial Guinea fans who had remained in situ.
In an implausibly attack-minded game that sped along nicely on a pitch that held up superbly for the day's second fixture, Gabon took the lead with a wonderful finish from Borussia Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and doubled it with 18 minutes to play through a soaring header from Malick Evouna.
In between, the Stallions had missed countless opportunities, with the Traore brothers, Alain and Bertrand, among the biggest culprits. With Gabon's speed on the counter, a score of 5-5 might not have been unrealistic; it finished 2-0, though, which counted as a minor shock and meant Equatorial Guinea should still be nicely placed if (it is a big "if") they can keep Burkina Faso at arm's length here on Wednesday.
Continued home interest will be crucial if a country that appears to have taken this opportunity so gratefully is to build on the surprisingly strong early momentum of this tournament. This competition is bound to shine a light on all facets of Equatorial Guinea, but the early signs for an exciting three weeks on the pitch itself bode well.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.