Equatorial Guinea fan unrest threatens to tarnish Africa Cup of Nations
MALABO, Equatorial Guinea -- Malabo's Hilton hotel, on the road out towards the airport, serves as the Confederation of African Football's (CAF) power base at this Africa Cup of Nations, and it was there the confederation met on Friday morning to decide exactly how much of that strength to exert. Issa Hayatou and his fellow committee members had plenty to discuss after an evening of violence that threatens to tarnish an entire tournament.
Equatorial Guinea's semifinal against Ghana on Thursday night should have been an occasion of unprecedented joy for the tournament's hosts and surprise team, but instead the abiding image is a dystopian and frightening one -- of police helicopters swooping to within 30 feet of supporters and flushing them away with their noise and draught, set against a backdrop of smoke bombs and raining missiles.
The atmosphere in the city on Friday morning remained tense, and there was much to make sense of. Was this purely football violence or an expression of something deeper? Did it serve as proof that Equatorial Guinea was thoroughly unprepared to host this scale of event at the last minute? Can the rest of the tournament go ahead as normal?
What we do know, abetted by the benefit of hindsight, is that a degree of tension has been building up throughout this tournament. All of Equatorial Guinea's home games, staged on the mainland in Bata until Wednesday, had been played to a furnace-like atmosphere, with the sense that a population unused to mass displays of emotion and expression was grasping the opportunity to make some noise together. There had been skirmishes between supporters and police at the group stage game against Burkina Faso and some minor issues elsewhere; it may have been the Tunisians who erupted in the controversial quarterfinal vs. the hosts last weekend but there was a clear sense at the time that things could have turned ugly if the boot were on the other foot.
So the four-minute spell before half-time on Thursday feels as if it was the culmination of something that had been bottled up for some time. The decision of Gabonese referee Eric Otogo to award Ghana a penalty, converted by Jordan Ayew, in the 41st minute caused anger on and off the pitch and was followed by a perfectly correct prevention of Equatorial Guinea's attempt to restart play while the Ghanaians celebrated. Everybody in red had lost their heads and it was no surprise when, as the hosts piled forward, they were caught on the counter from their own corner and Wakaso scored a goal that felt decisive.
What followed was Ghanaian fans and players being pelted by missiles as the match was halted for 40 minutes. Much of that time was spent in a strange stasis as players from both sides waited on the pitch with great patience and composure while a series of bewildering events took place in and around the stands.
Although Avram Grant has taken Ghana to within a game of their first continental title since 1992, it's the memory of the manager standing in a state of apparent incomprehension as helicopter rotors whirled above the west stand that will likely provide a more lasting memory than anything that should come from what is, taken on its own, a mouthwatering final.
Saturday's third-place game between Equatorial Guinea and DR Congo will take place as planned at Estadio de Malabo, in front of a crowd. This was backed up on Friday when CAF announced sanctions against the hosts: Equatorial Guinea will be fined $100,000, they will pay the medical expenses of injured Ghana fans and play a game without supporters present -- the latter of the three punishments merely being suspended. Congolese officials who spoke to ESPN FC on Friday morning had hoped for a behind-closed-doors affair and their centre-back, Gabriel Zakuani, will be among those feeling uneasy come Saturday.
Rocks, fragments of shattered mirrors and plates; these were the types of weapons deployed after the plastic bottles ran out on Thursday. There was evidence of injuries; one South African photographer was grazed by a rock and, more seriously, a long smear of blood could be seen behind one of the advertising hoardings.
The streets outside the stadium were strewn with concrete and other debris for at least a kilometre, suggesting that matters had also taken an ugly turn outside during the game. Fans ignored public-address pleas to hold back, while the missiles were thrown, paying little attention to increasingly desperate-sounding entreaties that they were shaming their country.
Perhaps this is the start of something bigger, but that may only be known in the months or years to come. In the short term, Equatorial Guinea and CAF have to pick up the pieces of what is in danger of becoming a discredited tournament -- and must do so at speed.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.