Africa Cup of Nations: Gabon faces tournament test
When President Ali Bongo pushed in 2015 for Gabon to host the next Afcon, he is unlikely to have foreseen a build-up quite like this.
Less than six months ago the National Assembly in Libreville was on fire following a disputed election in which the incumbent won by a mere 6,000 votes; supporters of rival Jean Ping were being shot in the street; social media was blocked; and foreign journalists were barred from entering the country. The Bongo family’s 50-year rule over the country appeared under critical threat. This was not a time to welcome the continent for a festival of football.
The European Union election observation mission pointed to an “obvious anomaly” in the results: in Haut-Ogooué province, Bongo officially won 95% of the vote from 99% turnout. In Gabon’s eight other provinces, turnout averaged just 48%. After the Constitutional Court upheld the result in September, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) was still concerned enough to look for alternative options – it asked Morocco to host the tournament if conditions in Gabon deteriorated.
Ghana and Algeria could be forgiven a degree of schadenfreude: both countries had presented exceptionally strong bids to host Afcon 2017 and were surprised to lose out to the Gabonese at an often farcical CAF meeting in Cairo two years ago. Algerian Football Federation President, Mohamed Raouraoua, a long-time rival to CAF President Issa Hayatou, openly questioned the validity of the decision. Hayatou was surely confident of a quiet tournament after the chaos of Libya’s 2013 withdrawal and Morocco refusing to host in 2015. Events would prove him wrong.
While the political climate in Gabon has since calmed, there is no doubt the tournament is still coming at a difficult juncture for the government.
The reported $700m cost, with two new stadiums completed in Port-Gentil and isolated Oyem, stands in stark contrast to fresh public spending cuts announced last October as oil revenue continues to fall. The leaked Local Organising Committee (LOC) budget revealed staggering commission fees of $60m and suspiciously high outlay on infrastructure which was meant to have been finished in time for the 2012 tournament. No expense has been spared. The government was forced to deny paying Lionel Messi $3.5m to attend the stone-laying ceremony at the Port-Gentil venue two years ago.
Despite hosting two major tournaments in the past five years, there is still no road between Libreville and Port-Gentil; and in the centre of Libreville, the Stade Omnisport sits unfinished on the site of the former Stade Omar Bongo. Construction began in 2010.
There have been calls for a boycott, but not yet from the official opposition with sway on the coast. Ping is expected to give a speech on the opening day of the tournament. The four stadiums are each parked over 10km outside of each host city, which organisers may hope will forestall protests or crowd trouble.
Either way, the genuine enthusiasm when Gabon co-hosted Afcon with Equatorial Guinea in 2012 is unlikely to be replicated amidst economic stress and simmering discontent. A strong run by Les Panthères, led by talismanic striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, may change that. They have a favourable draw and should make the quarter-finals at the very least. CAF doesn’t like television coverage of empty stadiums and the Gabonese are doing their best to comply, handing out free tickets to schools and encouraging businesses to buy up blocks for their employees.
What those fans will witness is hard to predict. With four different winners since 2010, this is now a competition too close to call. Gone are the days of one-country domination, most recently by Cameroon and Egypt. That reflects both a general rise in standards but also the absence of a truly great generation in any one country.
Côte d’Ivoire, who ended their long wait for another title in 2015, arrive as favourites, alongside Algeria and a promising Senegal. Ghana will be hoping to erase memories of losing on penalties in Malabo two years ago. Nigeria again missed out on qualification, as did South Africa, who had shown signs of youthful advance in 2015. But seven-time winners Egypt are back to contest their first Afcon in seven years. Other subplots include a passionate Uganda side, underdog debutants Guinea-Bissau and Zimbabwe succeeding in spite of organisational chaos at home.
Injuries and withdrawals notwithstanding, the 60th anniversary of the Africa Cup of Nations will boast some of the continent’s leading players. While empty stadiums and protests may yet become the abiding memory of a tournament on the brink of discredit, you can count on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Riyad Mahrez, Sadio Mane and Andre Ayew to provide a few vignettes of their own before the close.