MALABO — The 30th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations kicks off today, with organisers, players and fans hoping the tournament can thrive in the face of adversity.
It was only in November that Equatorial Guinea took over as hosts from Morocco, whose plea to postpone the finals over fears about the spread of Ebola was rejected by the Confederation of African Football (Caf).
With concerns over the short time for Equatorial Guinea to prepare, worries about potentially poor attendances at matches in remote parts of the country and doubts about the infrastructure and facilities, football itself has taken a back seat in the build-up to the 16-team, 17 January to 8 February event.
BBC Sport looks at the on main issues surrounding the continent’s football showpiece.
It is not the first time the small, oil-rich central African state of Equatorial Guinea, with a population of just 740,000, has hosted the tournament – they did so jointly with Gabon in 2012. However, the extra burden of going it alone, and at such late notice, is weighing heavily.
Matches will be hosted in four cities; Bata and Malabo – as they were three years ago – and in Mongomo and Ebebiyin. The new venues will be relatively basic because there has been insufficient time to build better facilities in those towns.
The stadium in Ebebiyin has a reported capacity of only 5,000. Even so, there is a real chance of it not being filled – one of the 2012 Nations Cup matches hosted by the country was attended by a tiny crowd of 200 people.
It is that kind of statistic which has moved the country’s president Teodoro Obiang Nguema to personally pay for 40,000 tickets for fans to attend matches.
“We have to buy tickets to fill stadiums,” said Nguema. “Let those who have the means help the poor.”
Additionally, the hotel capacity in the new host cities is minimal, making it a struggle for both media and fans to find accommodation and follow the tournament.
On the pitch, little is expected of the team, who were eliminated from the qualifiers when they were penalised for fielding an ineligible player – Cameroon-born Thierry Fidieu Tazemeta – in a match against Mauritania, only to be reinstated when they stepped in as hosts.
It would be the biggest shock in the history of the tournament if the “National Thunder” became the 12th hosts to lift the trophy.
Their chances of making any impact have not been helped by the fact their new coach, Argentine Esteban Becker, was appointed 11 days before the opening game of the finals.
Equatorial Guinea and Congo Brazzaville get the finals underway this evening after the opening ceremony in a Group A clash at Estadio de Bata.
The game will mark the start of a hastily arranged Africa Cup that Equatorial Guinea opted to host at the eleventh hour after Ebola fears by previous hosts Morocco.
There is an expected air of animosity heading into the match between the two sides after Congo Brazzaville coach Claude Le Roy’s criticism about the state of facilities, especially the quality of accommodation by the host nation.
“I’m not disappointed, that’s what I was expecting. I don’t want a big five-star hotel. I just want something very clean,” Le Roy said.
Le Roy, though, will be hoping that the sideshow will not distract his players from why they are really in Equatorial Guinea.
He also travels to the tournament with players who will all be making their Africa Cup debuts. Congo return to the tournament for the first time since 2000 when they made a group stage exit in Nigeria with one point.
However, the much-travelled Frenchman will be making his eighth tournament outing after leading six teams. His highlight was winning the trophy with Cameroon in 1988.
Equatorial Guinea return to the tournament for the first time since co-hosting the event in 2012 when they reached the quarterfinals.
The pressure is on Becker to emulate Brazilian-born coach Gilson Paulo who kicked off the 2012 tournament with a 1-0 win over Libya at the same venue.
However, Equatorial Guinea have never beaten Congo after losing all three previous meetings.
In the second match, Gabon will hope to start on a winning note when they face tricky Burkina Faso at the Estadio de Bata stadium.
Gabon coach Jorge Costa said earlier this week that their target is to kick start the event in Equatorial Guinea on a winning note.
“We know Burkina Faso is a tough team, but we are well prepared and ready to take them on,” said Costa.
During the 2012 Afcon event Gabon – who managed to reach the quarterfinal stage – won all their Group games beating Morocco, Tunisia and Niger.
Star player and forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who features for Germany Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund, is expected to lead the Gabon side together with Cardiff City player Bruno Ecuele Manga.
But Paul Put’s Burkina Faso team, that has qualified for the last three Africa Nations Cup finals, should not be taken lightly as they have what it takes to deny Gabon maximum points.
The Burkina Faso side beat Ghana 3-2 on penalties in the semifinals of the 2013 edition held in South Africa before losing to the Super Eagles of Nigeria in the final game.
To their advantage is that Put has been their coach for a few years now, creating a culture of stability and consistency. Moreover, he has put faith in the same squad of players which features many from the 2013 edition.
Jonathan Pitroipa is the side’s star turn and will be among the goals again this campaign. But he is ably supported by the giant striker Aristide Bance, a surprise element in their squad, as well as the classy Alain Traore.
Besides the three attacking stars, Burkina Faso will also look to the strength and consistency of players such as Charles Kabore and Bakary Kone who are also expected to play a key role for the team that is ranked two places below Gabon in the Fifa rankings at 64. —Agencies