How Equatorial Guinea stepped up and saved African Cup of Nations

When Morocco pulled out of hosting the African Cup of Nations at the last minute a replacement had to be found fast

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“It’s different to when you have four years to prepare. You know exactly what needs to be done and when. We had 50 days this time.”

It’s difficult to envy Francisco Pascual Obama Asue - the Minister for Youth and Sport in Equatorial Guinea. When Morocco pulled out of hosting the Africa Cup of Nations 2015 on November 11, 2015, CAF found itself in quite a state. With just over two months until the opening match was due to kick-off, a rapid soliciting of nations to step-in as host was put in place - which included South Africa, Ghana, Angola and Egypt – resulting in Equatorial Guinea eventually stepping in as the new hosts of the tournament.

With strong relations already in place harking back to the 2012 edition - in which they co-hosted with Gabon - CAF requested that the small, oil-rich nation step in as an emergency, such was their keenness to avoid delaying their continental show piece tournament.

“It was CAF who asked us and we said yes. They did not have any other solution. We were the last resort,” said Asue.

“It would not have been good for this tournament, a celebration of African football, to be cancelled or moved outside. So for that reason the president agreed. Africa has to consume what is African.”

Morocco, whose reasoning for refusing to host was based on health issues following the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, wanted to have the tournament delayed until the summer, or even a year later in January 2016 – such were the fears they held in how the disease would affect their tourism industry.

Sympathy for Morocco from outside was limited, with the lateness of the decision and the fact they hosted all of Guinea’s home games - one of the main sites of the outbreak - thus making all their concerns over the virus spreading slightly difficult to believe. This lack of sympathy was shared by CAF, who remained staunch in their reaction.

With CAF President Issa Hayatou noting that they had not delayed it since its inception in 1957, their stubbornness led to a number of options being explored, with the consideration of moving AFCON outside of Africa to Qatar even mooted - something which Asue confirms.

“[We were asked to host] in the beginning of November. CAF asked around who could do it and, if no one could, it would have gone to Qatar,” Asue said, opening up the possibility that CAF enquired as to Equatorial Guinea’s availability prior to Morocco officially pulling out. This suggests contingency plans were made amidst the rumors of the North African country’s preference not to host.

And so the hasty preparations began.

With two cities already equipped to host matches without too much trouble - the infrastructure remained from hosting matches in 2012 in Malabo and Bata - the other host cities were the fear. The towns of Mongomo - birthplace of President Obiang Nguema - and Ebybiyin were chosen as the only ones that could host at short-notice, with a vague notion that stadia were already in place.

“Ebibeyin and Mongomo had stadiums which were already being developed. CAF regulations also require that there be at least 70km between venues.”

The Estadio de Ebybiyin and Estadio de Mongomo hosted all the group games in Group B and C respectively, after works through day and night in the build up to the tournament to prepare them for action.

The costs incurred for such preparations are high at the best of times – let alone when you have to organize it in such a time frame.

“Yes, there has been a lot of expenses. But we were already working on the two other stadiums. We have only had to accelerate that work which costs extra. The extra cost for each stadium has been 30million CFA [$500,000]. The other costs are transport for CAF and the teams. Each stadium as a whole cost around 9bn CFA [$16million] and that work on the two stadiums was already going to be done.”

As was seen in Brazil during the World Cup, such expenses can often spark public outcry and protest. Indeed, with a poor human rights record, there was inevitable tensions towards them hosting the tournament, with one opposition MP calling for a boycott of the whole affair.

“At the World Cup in Brazil there were protests, people smashed cars. There is freedom of speech and opinion in Equatorial Guinea. But here there are no protests in the street. You can see that.
The only worry about the event was Ebola.”

Ebola - which has become the buzzword of the tournament - was the only thing that caused unrest, as Bata was the scene of unrest at the Ebola screening outside the stadium. But, this has been a rare blip in what has unfolded so far as a relatively successful tournament, with great attendances and qualification of the hosts from the group creating a great atmosphere.

There was the usual problems typically associated with the Africa Cup of Nations, including complaints about the quality of hotels and training facilities by several managers, including the very experienced Claude Le Roy, who managing Congo at this tournament.

But Asue dismissed these issues, calling for patience, given the circumstances they had to prepare in.

“We ask that the imperfections be excused [given the circumstances]. Some people are more understanding than others. When the Tunisians didn’t have hot water, we fixed it within an hour. I came here myself.”

It seems that by hosting their second Nations Cup in three years, this has become part of a wider program of improving the image of the country - having also hosted the African Union Summit in 2014.

“We do not seek to be a protagonist. When we are asked, we are ready to help. There is a sense of satisfaction, of course, that the rest of Africa trusts us to do it.”

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