Malabo — Equatorial Guinea might have the advantage of home support but there is little else going for the host nation as they kick off the African Nations Cup against Congo in Bata on January 17.Originally kicked out of the qualifying competition for using an ineligible foreign player, a legacy of seeking to strengthen their side with mercenaries, Equatorial Guinea have had to scramble to prepare for the tournament after stepping in as hosts after Morocco were stripped of the right in November.
As is tradition for the home team, Equatorial Guinea are top seeds in Group A where they have drawn Burkina Faso, Congo and Gabon in a modest group that offers hope of emulating their achievement of three years ago when, as co-hosts of the 2012 finals, they reached the quarterf-inals.
Then they had extensive preparations, backed by their oil-rich government, but this time have had to piece together a team inside two months.
A change of coach has not helped their cause with Andoni Goikoetxea a victim of a change of leadership after the Equatorial Guinea football federation elections in November.
A new president wanted Stephen Keshi, winner of the last Nations Cup with Nigeria in 2013, but the negotiations stalled. Instead Esteban Becker, an Argentine with little experience, has been moved across from his job with Equatorial Guinea’s women’s team and with just two weeks to prepare.
The drama around the hosts has overshadowed the prospects of the three other teams in the group.
Burkina Faso will be favourites to finish top after being surprise runners-up at the last finals and have returned to South Africa for two weeks in order to try and recreate the same environment that led to their fairytale run to the 2013 final.
Congo have been training in Senegal under the eye of veteran coach Claude Le Roy, who takes charge at a record eighth tournament but has not won since 1988 when in charge of Cameroon.
Gabon, who edged Burkina Faso in their shared qualifying group, had their preparations disrupted by the embarrassment over the selection of Mario Lemina, who first agreed to play but then turned down selection after Gabon announced their squad.
The Olympique Marseille midfielder was born in Gabon but is a French Under-21 international.
Group A will be based in Bata, which was one of the two venues used when Equatorial Guinea co-hosted the finals with Gabon in 2012. It suffered three years ago from violent rain storms and a complete absence of spectators.
There are, however, no such problems for 2013 Nations Cup hosts South Africa who are preparing from Gabon. Bafana Bafana head coach Ephraim Shakes Mashaba believes the international friendly match against Cameroon gave his side a taste of what is to come in the 2015 tournament.
South Africa held the Indomitable Lions to a 1-1 draw on Saturday at the Stade de L’amitie in Libreville, Gabon. Bafana Bafana got off to a very slow start and conceded an early goal but regrouped, forcing a draw in an exciting contest which ended all square.
There was even a chance to win the match as Bafana Bafana dominated the second half.
“We create chances but we don’t finish them off. We planned well, we knew what to expect. They’re a good side, very experienced and hard working. They were all over us in the opening 30 minutes but my boys were very resilient and withstood the pressure and showed great grit. We knew we would come back and come back we did in the second half. The Cameroonians gave us a taste of what to expect in Equatorial Guinea,” said Mashaba.
“Cameroonians are strong, big and physical and this is what you expect from West Africans. But I also want to believe that the people who came to watch the game got their money’s worth because there was everything one could expect in a match of this magnitude. We’re happy we were able to compete in this match and it helped us a great deal with our preparations.”
Bafana captain Dean Furman was full of praise for his teammates.
“We got off to the worst possible start so early in the game and for about 20 minutes we didn’t recover from that, but started picking up in the last 15 minutes of the first half. We had a good talk with the coach at halftime and he told us to believe, believe in our ability, believe in our team and that’s what we did,” said Furman.
“(Sibusiso) Vilakazi came on and he was great — that’s the thing about our squad, everyone’s fighting for places, everyone wants to start, everyone wants to have the jersey on. The boys who came on made a big difference and we’re proud of our second-half performance. We can only get better from this.”
Meanwhile, Bafana Bafana have received accolades from Cameroon coach Volcker Finke.
“Yes, they’re in a tough group but they’re doing well. While preparing for our match against them, I watched tapes of their last two games — the 2-1 win over Sudan and the 2-2 draw against Nigeria — I can tell you now many teams are in for a surprise from South Africa. They look like they can get into the second round, that is very possible,” said Finke.
The Bafana Bafana squad were given a rest yesterday and will return to training today to prepare for their final practice match against Mali on Wednesday, in Libreville, Gabon. — Supersport.com