Bring on the Elephants

So the dream continues. The Nzalang have navigated their way safely through the group stage thanks to euphoric victories over Senegal and Libya and a disappointing defeat to Zambia. The Elephants from the Ivory Coast, the strong favourites to win the tournament now wait for the boys in red on Saturday.

The levels of anticipation couldn’t be any higher in the capital, Malabo, where the game will be played to a packed stadium.

The last 10 festive days have whipped the country up into a near delirious state. Few could have expected such a festival of football or the delicious victories, which have planted a surreal sense of optimism in the team, especially given its lowly ranking at 151 in the world. The enthusiasm behind the team has made a mockery of the rankings and the momentum behind the Nzalang has invaded the small nation, now totally focused on the next game.

Surely they won’t be able to pull off the shock of beating the team led by Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Kolo Toure and Yaya Toure?

Together these football superstars earn more in a week at Chelsea and Manchester City than the entire Nzalang first team earns in a year.

The generous $1m bonus paid to the Nzlang for their extraordinary victory over Libya is a weekly occurrence for these four premier league superstars.

The odds are stacked against the Nzalang but who would bet against another miracle. Through application anything is possible and its the ‘can-do’ attitude that has invaded the country that has been the most incredible result in this topsy-turvy tournament.

Vamos Nzalang.

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Vamos Nzalang

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Few could have expected such a wonderful atmosphere and a fantastic response from Equatorial Guinea’s national football team – the Nzalang on the opening game of the Africa Cup of Nations in Bata.

The country is flying after its national team beat Libya 1-0 in the first game of the tournament being jointly hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

It has been a whirlwind few days in Malabo and Bata as the preparations for the tournament reached their culmination.

Teams have been arriving from all over Africa over the last few days, with Northern Sudan, Libya, and Burkina Faso based in Malabo.

With many of the traditional Goliaths of African football missing – Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa – there is a feeling that it could be the year that the smaller nations, the David’s of the continent, make a mark on the bi-annual tournament.

The opening games were no exception with the players selected by Brazilian coach, Gílson Paulo, responding accordingly.

Ranked 151st in the world, few outsiders expected Equatorial Guinea to make much of an impression in their first appearance in the tournament.

Losing their coach a month before the competition was not seen as the best way to prepare for their Cup of Nations debut but once again this country has managed to confound its critics.

The team fought like lions throughout and finally got the goal they deserved with five minutes left. Both the team and its passionate support have been walking on air ever since.

As if to underline the giant-killing atmosphere at this tournament little old Zambia, recorded a historic 2-1 victory over Senegal in the following game.

The stage was set for the team’s heroics by a glittering opening ceremony in the gloriously refurbished Nkoantoma stadium that left little doubt that this small nation was taking its responsibilities as the host nation seriously.

The 40,000 spectators lucky enough to get a ticket for the opening spectacle were treated to a cultural smorgasbord that included a two-hour concert that featured local artists Anfibio, Besoso, Poen, Sandra Star, Yuma and Pili la Peligrosa.

A generous offer of a $1m bonus for a win in the first game may have been at the back of the players’ minds, but a team put together at short notice was undoubtedly moved more by the uplifting atmosphere within the stadium and the outpouring of national pride that comes with such events.

I haven’t lived here long but there can’t have been many happier days in the country’s history than this one.

Long live the Nzalang! Bring on Senegal and Zambia.

Bata – the beating heart of Equatorial Guinea

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Malabo may be the capital but the country’s second city, Bata, in many respects is the true heart of this small country.

As the gateway to mainland Equatorial Guinea, Bata has been transformed in the last decade as power has been devolved from the island of Bioko and the president’s hometown of Mongomo.

Much of the country’s most important investments are taking place here ranging from the expansion of the national football stadium in time to host the African Cup of Nations football competition, new port infrastructure and government buildings and courts that represent the strengthening of the state throughout the country.

Further along the coast, beachfront resorts and luxury hotels are being developed as part of the country’s plans to develop its tourism industry.

Its port is also undergoing a massive upgrade to handle the large quantities of cement required to keep pace with the country’s runaway construction industry.

Bata’s importance is underlined by the decision to play the national team’s home games here during next year’s regional football tournament.

The city has also hosted important events including the investiture of president Teodoro Obiang in 2009 held at the Ngoló Palace for International Congress and Conferences.

The same complex was used to launch important reforms to the political system introduced late last month. Parliament meets here regularly showing the president’s desire to avoid the government becoming isolated on the island of Bioko.

Historically the city was populated by the Combe, the tribe that dominates the coastal region, but as it has developed Bata has become a melting pot for Fang from the east of the country, drawn towards the city’s expansion.

Internationally the city looks to receive visitors and immigrants from further a field and international airports, palaces, conference centres and social housing blocks have been built to receive foreign dignitaries, handle the flow of immigrants and host international events.

Arguably the most impressive infrastructure development is the construction of a 5 km maritime causeway, which provides the city’s residents with a modern public space for early morning exercise and social events.

At the end of the popular architectural intervention is the Tower of Liberty, a powerful symbol dedicated to the country’s leader and those that fought with him to liberate the country from the former dictator Francisco Macias.

The country’s equivalent of the Eiffel Tower was completed in October. Equipped with a restaurant the tower is more than 50 m high and has foundations as deep as 18 m.

“Equatorial Guinea enjoys its liberty today thanks to the fight of the nationalists,” president Obiang told those present at the tower’s inauguration in October. “This liberty brings us the independence that allows the government to transform the country. Today Equatorial Guinea is on the path to development and in 2020 it will be an emerging country, which is why we are working hard to develop every sector. We have to make Equatorial Guinea a country of reference. We invite everyone to enjoy this infrastructure so that it will be permanent, because it is with peace that Equatorial Guinea will become a strong, emerging nation.”

The seaside embankment is now being repeated in Malabo with the construction of a similar walkway from the port and passing in front of the presidential palace.

Africa Cup of Nations

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The countdown to the Africa Cup of Nations has begun in earnest following the draw for the competition in Sipopo yesterday. Equatorial Guinea and its neighbour Gabon will host the competition for the first time in January / February 2012.
All the facilities are almost in place to host what promises to be a fantastic football celebration that will help visitors from all over the region to experience the world’s most misunderstood country.
Both countries are well advanced in their plans to host the 16 teams that qualified for the 28th version of the tournament.
Stadiums in Malabo and Bata, Equatorial Guinea’s main cities are well ahead of schedule and while Gabon appears to be behind its neighbour it expects to have its facilities in Libreville and Franceville ready ahead of kick-off on January 21, 2012. Equatorial Guinea will play Libya in the opening game followed by Senegal and Zambia in the country’s second city of Bata.
Games will be played in the 40,000-seater stadium in Bata, the largest city on Equatorial Guinea’s mainland. The decision to hold the home country’s games on the mainland promises to create a fantastic atmosphere in a city that has been transformed in recent times.
The Ivory Coast, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Angola will play their games in the New Stadium in Malabo. Built by the French contractor, Bouygues, the 15,250-seater stadium was host to Equatorial Guinea’s first triumph at this level, the victory of the women’s team in the 2008 female equivalent of the competition.
The other two groups of four: Group C; Gabon, Niger, Morocco, Tunisia and Group D; Ghana, Botswana, Mali, Guinea will play theirgames in Libreville and Franceville respectively.

CAN Tournament Fixtures

It is a statement of Equatorial Guinea’s progress that it is now ready and willing to hold such events. It would have been unthinkable for the country to have held the competition as little as five years ago but the progress that has been made in terms of road, airport and port infrastructure as well as the construction of four world-class hotels all ensure the competition’s success.
Unfortunately for the spectacle and the organiser’s hopes of attracting the maximum number of visitors to the tournament, the list of teams present in this year’s draw lacks some of the country’s illustrious neighbours.
In particular neighbours Cameroon and Nigeria will be missed as both football nations with a track record of success in the CAN and World Cups and as a valuable source of visitors. While Samuel Eto’ and Obafemi Martins will be sorely missed on the pitch their fans will be an even bigger loss to the tournament.
At times too much can be read into football and the parallels with power and economics but the absence of the continent’s most powerful nations appears to reflect something of a seismic shift in the region.
The presence of smaller nations like Burkina-Faso, Mali, Botswana, Niger and Guinea Conakry in Equatorial Guinea and its neighbour Gabon all reflect a broadening of the continent’s power base.
You don’t have to look any further than the hosts, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, two great examples of the new wealth distribution and subsequent power blocks developing in the region.
After a successful stint as president of the Union of Africa, Equatorial Guinea is determined to build on its time in the spotlight and is using its oil wealth accordingly.
With the world’s eyes turned on one of the most emotional of football competitions, the country is determined to show off more than just its excellent infrastructure in particular it wants to demonstrate its success in delivering peace in one of the world’s most violent continents. Equatorial Guinea has been free from the security concerns that overshadowed the competition in Angola in 2010.
Two of Togo’s squad were tragically killed during the last tournament in Angola after rebels from the province of Cabinda attacked the team bus.
As a country that has no internal security issues, Equatorial Guinea is almost an anomaly in Africa. While even its neighbours suffer from piracy and terrorism, Equatorial Guinea has been at peace since president Teodoro Obiang overthrew his uncle Francisco Macias in 1979.