Unfinished stadiums, political unrest becloud great football at AFCON
The Malian fans roared and, just for a moment, you felt the gold-coloured roof might lift off Stade de Port-Gentil. Their team had been threatening an equaliser in the Group D fixture against Ghana for most of the second half; a late corner was a chance to increase the pressure and from behind the goal came that fevered, visceral sense of a crowd trying to will the ball into the net.
It did not happen for Mali, largely due to the excellence of the Ghana goalkeeper Razak Brimah, but for the impartial observer it had been a broadly satisfying afternoon of football. Mali's substantial expat population in Gabon had rallied around in Port-Gentil, the country's second-biggest city, and created what at last was a genuine football atmosphere. This compact, British-style 20,000-seater stadium was at least 75% full; to the naked eye, making it considerably closer to capacity than any other match at this Africa Nations Cup except perhaps the opening game.
In a tournament generally contested to near-apathy, you felt as if this was a spectacle.
One thing to make clear, two rounds into the group stage, is that the quality of football has generally exceeded expectation and certainly been better than what was served up two years ago at a largely dull AFCON in Equatorial Guinea. In Oyem, DR Congo and Ivory Coast contested a 2-2 draw worthy of a knock-out tie between big-hitters; Algeria's Group B travails have been another compelling subplot and open, expansive football has been relatively easy to come by. Togo's team goal against Morocco was one of the best of its type that this competition has seen; Piqueti's wonderful solo effort for Guinea-Bissau against Cameroon was another moment of quality that will stand the test of time. Both teams eventually lost but both, already, have made a major contribution here.
It is just a shame that factors other than football continue to make headlines. Next door to Stade de Port-Gentil, an impressive modern structure with scaled-down similarities to the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing sits a vast project of unfinished houses, originally planned to improve the lives of dislocated locals in Port-Gentil -- some were, apparently, forced to move when the ground was built -- but now resembling the haunted, concrete shells of a ghost village. The theme is the same throughout Gabon, the incomplete Stade Omar Bongo in Libreville another frustrating example of unnecessary excess.
Perhaps the most egregious structure lies in Oyem -- or rather 18km north of Oyem, a town of 60,000 in the northern jungle. The attractive stadium bearing its name is, again, newly built but sits surrounded by piles of sand and rubble. It can host a football match; it is good for nothing else, with access infrastructure and crowd flow measures nonexistent, and what purpose it will serve if ever it does attain a finished state is deeply questionable at best. "No money, it won't be finished," a security worker commented wanly to ESPN FC after the ground's first AFCON matches last Monday. Perhaps there is no point; even with Ivory Coast in town, the ground was not even a quarter full.
In Oyem, where basic sanitation is not always easy to come by, a potential white elephant like this is a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Few more remote locations can have held AFCON fixtures and, while there is always the argument for spreading the reach of football and developing sporting facilities, the feeling that the cart has outstripped the horse is inescapable in Gabon.
The tournament's organizers have attempted to rally supporters to the stadia with a campaign whose slogan is "Tous au stade!" ("Everyone to the stadium!"). Tickets have been priced for around $1, which is reasonable enough but has not really worked; on a continent whose matchgoing culture differs from that of Europe and some other areas of the world, more than this is needed to energise potential crowds.
Humming in the background to all this is the country's unstable political situation. The sparsely populated stadia may not owe all that much to the boycotts threatened before the tournament but nobody can quite be sure. According to local sources four activists were arrested last week for protesting against the regime of Gabon's president, Ali Bongo, in a Libreville suburb; they are yet to be released but incidents like this have the effect of quelling most potential disturbances at the source.
One thing beyond doubt is the welcome and hospitality afforded by the Gabonese to visiting media; their willingness and forbearance has, in the last nine days, already salvaged more than one potentially disastrous schedule alteration with flights between the far-flung venues constantly subject to last-minute change. The most reliable means of traversing the country has, in fact, been the 12-and-a-half hour journey between Libreville and the eastern city of Franceville, where Algeria's group is based. The timing of the smooth, comfortable overnight service means none of the spectacular jungle that lies en route can be seen but it is an exhilarating enough trip, particularly with the knowledge that the football at the other end is -- at current rate -- unlikely to disappoint.
It is, then, a conflicting and compelling Nations Cup that catches the eye -- for good and for ill -- whichever direction you turn. You hope there will be more occasions for supporters like Mali's to keep the focus inside the grounds over the next two weeks, even if what lies beyond must not be ignored.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.