Gabon 2017: A joyous three weeks of football or more political unrest?
The Africa Cup of Nations gets underway on Saturday with a cloud of political unrest hanging over host nation Gabon, writes Nick Ames.
As football grounds go, Stade Omar Bongo could hardly be better located. Its vast stands lie, unusually for a new stadium, plum in the centre of Libreville – an easy drive from the beachside boulevard that runs north to south along the city’s fringe and deliberately placed to represent the beating heart of the tournament that takes hold on Saturday evening.
There is just one problem: Stade Omar Bongo is nowhere near finished. Around $200m has already been spent on its construction but, although a green pitch and nets are visible through gaps in the structure, it will not host any matches at the Africa Cup of Nations it was intended to grace.
By its entrance – and yards from a ditch in which locals from a nearby neighbourhood are forced to wash themselves – stands a sign that states, you suspect optimistically, a seven-month delay to proceedings; ask a bystander why and the response is a roll of the eyes: “It’s the president.”
President of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba jokes with American-born Nigerian recording artist, Davido (L) during a visit at the Stade de l’Amitié Sino-gabonaise Stadium in Libreville on January 13, 2017 on the eve of the opening game of the 2017 Africa Cup ofAFP
Violence ensued and Libreville still bears the scars. Thousands took to the streets after the election and part of the national assembly building are still covered with the black, scorched marks inflicted when protesters set it on fire. More than 1,000 people were arrested after the incident; Gabon may feel mobilised, but football has little to do with it.
A man walks past under construction buildings by the Port-Gentil's stadium, in Port-Gentil, on January 13, 2016 ahead of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations football tournament in Gabon.AFP
It is difficult to find anybody unequivocally in favour of what is, after it co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea in 2012, Gabon’s second Cup of Nations in four years. “I hope it is a mess,” one government employee told Eurosport, which goes some way towards explaining the depth of feeling.
Construction work is undertaken during the inauguration of Stade d'Oyem in Oyem, Gabon, on January 9, 2017, ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament. While the final touches are being put on the four stadiums due to host matches in the JanuaAFP
The people of Gabon want change from what they see as the dictatorial rule of Bongo – who has named the unfinished new stadium in memory of his father, who was the world’s longest-serving leader until his death in 2009. Giving the cold shoulder to a football tournament is one way of making a point and there have been calls, in the media and on social networks, for the competition to be boycotted altogether.
“I ask the Gabonais not to go to the stadium,” Guy Roger Nzamba, a former international striker who spent time at Southend United, said in Friday’s edition of the opposition newspaper, Echo du Nord.
Many feel their time would be better spent protesting and at 1pm on Saturday afternoon, four hours before the Cup of Nations kicks off, a major demonstration is scheduled in the central square of Place Rio. Stade Omar Bongo sits within view, less than a kilometre away; with Gabon’s national debt an estimated $12.8bn against an annual GDP of $1.4bn, it is not hard to see why a white elephant like this compounds the electoral issues that have raised such fury.
A photo taken on January 9, 2017 shows an interior view of Stade d'Oyem in Oyem, Gabon, during the inauguration ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament. While the final touches are being put on the four stadiums due to host matches in the JAFP
The expectation, officially, is still for a big crowd at Stade de l’Amitie for the opener and the government says 70% of tickets for Gabon’s group games have already been sold. How crowds hold up in the three other host cities – Port-Gentil, Oyem and Franceville – remains to be seen.
All are remote and hard to reach; the area around the new stadium in northerly Oyem, where reigning champions Ivory Coast will kick off their campaign against Togo on Sunday, resembled a building site last week and attracted unwelcome attention when a busload of schoolchildren attending a practice game between Gabon and a local side was involved in a serious accident. Several were badly injured and, while a completely independent event, it added to the sense of ill-fortune around the next three weeks.
Can football serve as an adequate distraction? It might take something special although success for Gabon, spearheaded by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, should present some cause for a party. They should escape Group A, and their talisman has reason to settle a score: in 2012, he missed a crucial penalty in their quarter-final defeat to Mali, and if his team is to go far he will have to have banished those ghosts comprehensively.
Most of the usual suspects have a chance in a relatively wide field of contenders. Ivory Coast, bolstered by Wilfried Zaha but this time without the Toure brothers, have the best-balanced squad but will be pushed hard by Algeria as long as Riyad Mahrez handles his own burden of expectation well.
Ivory Coast's starting eleven (top L to R) forward Salomon Kalou, forward Jonathan Kodjia, midfielder Franck Kessie, defender Wilfried Kanon, defender Eric Bailly, forward Wilfried Zaha, defender Serge Aurier, (bottom L to R) defender Adama Traore, goalkeAFP
Senegal are full of steel, experience and strength that could see them go all the way if Sadio Mane has enough freedom to repeat his Liverpool form. Egypt, back after three successive absences, will be served well by the dynamic counterattacking style imposed by Hector Cuper and the 2015 runners-up Ghana, while lacking in star quality this time and hardly convincing under Avram Grant, should find a way to threaten at the business end.
Whoever does make it to the final will, rather than walking out at the tournament’s intended centrepiece, have to journey out to the suburbs and grace the eccentrically gaping bowl of Stade de L’Amitie. If that feels like something of a displacement, then it is fitting enough; at the outset, little about this tournament appears to sit comfortably.