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.