Africa Cup of Nations: Guinea-Bissau steal the opening day show
The 1-1 draw in the opening match of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) was met with boos by a significant section of the home support as President Ali Bongo looked on. Gabon had gone one goal up after captain, and leading star, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s close-range finish but inexplicably sat back as Guinea-Bissau charged to restore parity.
With only seconds remaining, defender Juary Soares advanced for a free-kick and glanced the ball past Didier Ovono to shock the Stade de l’Amitié Sino-Gabonaise.
The plaudits went to the Group A minnows, a team scraped together by creative recruitment from the Portuguese lower leagues – and even farther afield. Striker Mendy, born in France, currently earns his wage at Jeju United in South Korea.
“This means a lot back [in Guinea-Bissau],” said Mendy, whose second-half introduction helped to spark the Djurtus’s recovery. “We saw all the fans at the airport when we left and who watch at home. And we didn’t ‘steal’ a point here, we fully deserved it.”
Amid all the talk of Bongo and boycotts, Guinea-Bissau were planning to prepare quietly under the radar. But last week the team were threatening to strike over unpaid bonuses, a dispute only settled after a delegation personally lobbied President José Mário Va.
Qualification for the tournaments in itself was a remarkable achievement for a team that had won just for matches in Nations Cup and World Cup qualification since entering international competition two decades before.
Toni Silva and Zezinho, both at Levadiakos in Greece, provided the inspiration for a landmark campaign with the most meagre of funding, culminating in a 3-2 win over Zambia in June 2016. Few expected the heroics to continue in the country’s first Africa Cup of Nations finals. They were certainly aided by a lethargic Gabon, a goalless first-half – and lifeless atmosphere – allowing Guinea-Bissau to grow into the game.
But when Borussia Dortmund’s Aubameyang gave Gabon the lead in the 55th minute, Guinea-Bissau responded bravely, bringing on Mendy to link with former Liverpool youth player Silva. Suddenly they had a flurry of half-chances, not least for Silva from the edge of the box with 15 minutes remaining. Nanissio Mendes Soares, who plays in the Portuguese second division, also went close. Gabon couldn’t say they hadn’t been warned: in the 87th minute Mendy headed straight at the goalkeeper from three yards out.
When the equaliser came, the two dozen Guinea-Bissau fans in the stadium celebrated with stunned expressions.
In 2012, when Gabon co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea, three group-stage wins, and fervent support, put Les Panthères in the quarter-finals. The former Real Madrid and Spain manager Antonio Camacho has had only had a few weeks to impose his method, seeking to provide more support for Aubameyang. He picked Mario Lemina as a No 10 but the Lazio midfielder had a poor first-half as team laboured badly.
In the late kick-off, the large expatriate Cameroon support turned out to see the Indomitable Lions against Burkina Faso.
Lille striker Benjamin Moukandjo curled in a delightful free-kick but Cameroon were made to regret a number of missed chanced when Issoufou Dayo equalised with 10 minutes remaining to leave Group A finely poised.
Calls from Gabon’s political opposition to boycott the tournament, meanwhile, did not appear to be heeded. The stadium was perhaps 10 per cent full for the opening ceremony – including an expensive appearance from French rapper Bouba – but the gaps in the stands had more to do with traffic than politics. By the time of the anthems and kick-off, organisers were only a touch short of a 40,000 capacity crowd.
The opening day was not without dissent. Some 20km away from the stadium, at Place Rio in the centre of Libreville, four police trucks and at least 50 riot police were stationed from early morning in anticipation of a planned protest.
“We see the tournament as an opportunity”, one activist told The Africa Report the night before. “People have been afraid since September to come onto the streets but it’s different now. Africa is here, journalists are here.”
The optimism proved misplaced. Around 150 young men gathered on a scruffy roundabout dominated by the battered,ye t still strikingly modernist, Monument de la Tolerance. The police were quick to call for dispersal before using smoke bombs to re-enforce the message.
By 1:30pm, the area had returned to market trade and booming sound-systems, while the traffic increasingly crawled north to the stadium suburb of Angondje.
Attention now turns to Group B in Franceville on Sunday where Algeria face Zimbabwe before Tunisia play Senegal.