Hosts take centre stage in Africa Cup of Nations opener
After a build-up dominated by off-field anxieties, the action finally begins on the pitch on Saturday as the 30th Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Equatorial Guinea.
Malabo: After a build-up dominated by off-field anxieties, the action finally begins on the pitch on Saturday as the 30th Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Equatorial Guinea.
The host nation face Congo Brazzaville in the tournament opener in Group A in the country`s largest city Bata at 1600 GMT, before another Group A clash between Burkina Faso and Gabon at the same venue at 1900 GMT.
Organisers will be hoping that fans turn out in large numbers for the two matches at the 35,000-capacity stadium, which will also be used for the final on February 8.
Making sure games are not played in empty stadia - as was often the case when Equatorial Guinea co-hosted the 2012 finals with Gabon -- has been just one of the many challenges facing the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the local organising committee in the run-up to the finals.
With the small central African state having barely two months to get ready for the 16-team event after replacing Morocco as hosts at the last minute -- the Moroccans having pulled out over fears of fans from abroad spreading the Ebola virus which affected primarily Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea with the latter the only ones to qualify of the trio -- organisers have faced a race against the clock to deliver adequate facilities on time.
"The four sites are ready, the ticketing system is in place and the sale of tickets began last Monday," said CAF general secretary Hicham El Amrani at a press conference in Bata on Friday.
However, more serious problems are being encountered with accomodation, with Tunisia coach Georges Leekens complaining that his side were forced to eat dinner under candlelight at their base in the remote outpost of Ebebiyin after a powercut.
Meanwhile, Congo Brazzaville`s veteran French coach Claude Le Roy, who is taking part in a record eighth Cup of Nations, has complained of a lack of space for his players and staff and poor facilities at his team`s hotel in Bata.
He has been backed up by Burkina Faso`s Belgian coach Paul Put, who said on Friday: "It is a shame that we had difficulties getting into Bata and with our accommodation."
Both Le Roy and Put will be eager to get on with the action, with the latter playing down suggestions that the Stallions can repeat their "miracle" run to the final in South Africa in 2013.
"The dream is to do better, but in 2013 it was a miracle what we did," said Put, whose team lost 1-0 to Nigeria in the final two years ago.
Nigeria are licking their wounds having failed to qualify.
Beating a Gabon side whose leading player is lightning-quick Borussia Dortmund forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be the ideal way to start, although both sides should fancy their chances of reaching the quarter-finals.
Equatorial Guinea reached the last eight as co-hosts in 2012 and a repeat of that would constitute a huge success.
However, Argentine coach Esteban Becker has had very little time to drill his side after only being appointed at the start of this month, and the team`s star man Javier Balboa said there can be no pressure on the hosts to do well on the pitch.
"This is a different team from that of three years ago. This time we have had only a month together," warned Balboa, once of Real Madrid.
Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that a win for the hosts against Congo would be good for the tournament as a whole.
Elsewhere, teams continue to arrive ahead of the competition, while others settle in, including Guinea.
The Guineans were greeted by a noisy and colourful army of Guinean immigrant fans after training at Malabo`s rundown Estadio La Paz on Friday.
Their team of few household names kick off their Cup of Nations against the stars of the Ivory Coast on Tuesday in Malabo, by which time it is hoped building work at the stadium in the country`s capital will finally be complete.