African Nations Cup begins disappointingly for hosts Gabon
LIBREVILLE, Gabon -- In the end, a day that briefly promised escapism only added to the list of real-world questions. It had been the most muted of build-ups to this African Nations Cup in Gabon, a country with other problems on its mind, but when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang connected with Denis Bouanga's 52nd-minute cross, it was possible to glimpse a familiar, comforting narrative: the homegrown superstar coming good to pull an ecstatic nation out of a tight spot.
Instead, Juary Soares' 90th minute header won a point for minnows Guinea-Bissau and Gabon's night, which finished with boos around Stade de L'Amitie, ended as disappointingly as it had begun.
Across social media and almost certainly elsewhere, a percentage of Gabonese citizens celebrated. The backdrop to this tournament has been fraught with instability: August's controversial re-election of Gabon president Ali Bongo caused violent demonstrations in the country and shone a harsh light on the host nation. There have been widespread calls for a boycott, and the cost of this African Nations Cup, believed to be more than £600 million, has been cited as a waste of public money in a country where many people are without the basics.
Football can go some way towards providing a release valve from sociopolitical concerns, but for long periods there was little in the way of exuberance inside the gaping bowl of a stadium on Libreville's northern fringes. It was barely one-tenth full when, a little under two hours before kick-off, an opening ceremony complete with performers pirouetting in mid-air on ropes suspended from the roof began. A high-wire act might well be a fair metaphor for the next three weeks, and this one did at least pass off safely.
Eventually the attendance struggled to around two-thirds of the stadium's 40,000 capacity; it still felt as if the public had voted with their feet, and although Aubameyang's goal was greeted by cacophonous noise, the sense was of a crowd largely going through the motions. Opponents of the Bongo regime had suggested to ESPN FC earlier in the day that many of the match tickets had been distributed free of charge or given to government workers with instructions to attend.
Perhaps things would be livelier elsewhere. Plans for a protest against the Nations Cup in Place Rio -- one of Libreville's central squares -- had become common knowledge in recent days. After the election result in August, 1,000 people were arrested when many more took to the streets, and there had been suggestions of a four-figure turnout to vent further disapproval Saturday afternoon.
A handful of activists had placed anti-AFCON posters around the city. Their intention was to mobilise, but it turned out to be low-key at best. Around 100 protesters were dispersed by a smoke bomb and with a police presence visible, further unrest never really took hold. Landed with a tournament they did not really want, Gabon's public seem caught between attitudes and scared by the possible consequences of mass opposition.
It all amounted to a flat day for Gabon. On the pitch they were static and sloppy for the first 45 minutes, failing to create a clear chance and struggling to involve Aubameyang. The tempo increased after half-time and Aubameyang's goal, which happily coincided with a call-and-response routine instigated by the local PA announcer designed to rouse the support, appeared to have given the evening a positive sheen.
But Gabon eased off, perhaps reverting to type. They struggled to move the ball accurately or quickly despite the presence of Sunderland's Didier N'dong and Mario Lemina of Juventus, allowing an increasingly bold Guinea-Bissau to try their luck. Soares' goal, from the last of four decent chances created by the competition's rank outsiders, was merited.
It means Gabon already face an uphill struggle to qualify for the last eight.
"Maybe other people will now look up Guinea-Bissau and know about us," said the underdogs' striker, Frederic Mendy. "We didn't steal a point here -- we deserved it."
Guinea-Bissau played with tenacity and some flair -- their midfield schemer Zezinho was the game's best player -- and may yet be one of the more eye-catching football stories to emerge from this tournament. As Mendy spoke, Gabon players (only three of whom engaged with media) filed towards their team coach, greeted by further boos.
How the hosts respond against Burkina Faso on Wednesday will define their likely fortunes in Group A. The Stallions drew 1-1 with Cameroon in the night's second game -- an open, chance-filled match of good quality boasting a flow much more in keeping with the Nations Cup at its best. Burkina Faso have the flair, as they showed those who stayed behind to watch; Gabon have the star turn in Aubameyang but his supporting cast will surely have to step up several gears.
For all the footballing conundrums, the lingering doubt is whether the country of Gabon actually has the will. Can the public muster the kind of fervour at a time of need that has propelled many host countries to unlikely success before?
An Aubameyang-led charge to the latter stages might, even if only a temporary balm, give Gabon a good news story to savour. At full-time, however, visions of a buoyant Stade de L'Amitie at the final in three weeks' time could not have appeared more remote.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.