The 2015 Africa Cup of Nations is over, but what next for Equatorial Guinea?
MALABO, Equatorial Guinea -- The host nation of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations has not been short on sights that provoke a double take over the past month. Another eyebrow-raiser comes when, on what had been expected to be a day spent back home in London before Monday night's flight was cancelled, you sneak a look around Sipopo.
It is a development built around 20km outside Malabo: the streets are wide, the lawns vast, the golf course lush, the rows and rows of apartments smart and the hotels (including the impossibly lavish Sofitel) beautifully appointed. The catch, as it probably takes little imagination to understand if you paid much attention to the delicate balance between on- and off-pitch matters at this year's tournament, is that this entire mini-city, ostensibly built four years ago to host a week-long African Union summit, is almost entirely empty.
This is the case almost year-round; few have much cause to avail themselves of these lavish facilities when events of global or continental scale are not taking place. But the absence of people is particularly noticeable now.
The Equatorial Guinea team, who had been rewarded with a couple of extra days here after finishing fourth, spent much of Tuesday morning sitting around the hotel bar area before an audience with the country's president, Obiang Nguema. But more sorely missed are long-term residents Ivory Coast -- "the most lovely, humble team that has stayed here," smiled the receptionist -- and there seemed little hurry to take down the Ivorian flag that has flown just inside the front doorway for the past four weeks.
The sudden departure of a big football tournament and its associated travelling circuses can sometimes feel as if it leaves a host country bereft, grasping. "Hang on, weren't we having fun?" There is no doubt that champions Ivory Coast, both on and off the pitch thanks to their superb band of orange-clad supporters, were a class act here and deserved the even more appreciative reception they received when they touched back down in Abidjan for a reception on Monday. Overall, primarily down to performances against Cameroon, DR Congo and Algeria -- the latter in a game that would have been worthy of the final -- they were certainly the best team amid a fairly unspectacular pack.
Yet Equatorial Guinea did not really feel like somewhere giddily cleaning up after a party. Journalists who climbed into a taxi in the centre of Malabo on Monday afternoon were surprised to find themselves being driven by Jose Ndonge, chief executive and chairman of the tournament's local organizing committee. He was back in the day job (although he is also a referee in the local league) less than 24 hours after Herve Renard's team had lifted the trophy and asked politely enough about perceptions of country and competition before dropping off his passengers and heading off in search of his next fare.
More widely, you sensed that interest in the tournament had ground to a halt after the hosts' exit in a controversial semifinal with Ghana, and that perhaps the nature of events in Estadio de Malabo that night had led many to prefer a clean break.
You would certainly have expected far more than a couple of thousand (I assessed a crowd of around 300 at kickoff before it eventually swelled) supporters to pay tribute to Esteban Becker's overachievers at the third place playoff with DR Congo if their previous game had been played out more wholesomely.
The crowd for the final, in which Estadio de Bata was visibly half-full (to put it kindly) and tickets were being given away outside the gates, was another disappointment. Even if it could cynically be suggested the fans knew something we did not, what should have been a joyous occasion instead felt as if a bubble had burst.
It had, and that was largely attributable to the crowd violence seen this past Thursday. "Equatorial Guinea condemns and rejects violence," read a banner seen on one side of the stadium at the final, and there was a suggestion that the extent of the shame felt by most of a usually restrained population meant that most would not dream of coming out to court more trouble at a football match.
However you quantify that, it was clear that things had been tarnished beyond repair. The country is relatively new to mass public gatherings and events of this scale. There were also enough unknowns about how it would react to hosting this competition alone for CAF to at least consider possible warning signs before awarding it.
If that is the rather uneasy taste left by matters off the field, there are on-pitch questions to chew over as well. In particular, was this a markedly underwhelming tournament in terms of quality? Aside from scoring a wonderful goal against Guinea, Ghana's Christian Atsu was not a clear "best player" selection, and it was a pity that most of the best individual showings in Equatorial Guinea came as one-offs rather than consistent seams of good form.
Doubts around many of the team hotels and facilities didn't help, nor did the fact that the draw, which seemed so skewed in terms of difficulty, perhaps proved most costly in two relatively straightforward semifinals. Yet there was little rhythm to many of the collective showings, either. It might be worth chalking this tournament off as one that simply had to be honoured in tough circumstances, but a general lack of composure and cohesion in possession was particularly marked this year and the average of 2.13 goals per game -- 2.67 was the figure at the last World Cup -- shows that attacking excellence came in short supply, too.
Not for the first time, you wonder whether Africa is producing (or is allowed, by market demands, to produce) the kind of player it needs for its own teams to move up a level. You wonder whether physique is still privileged above technique in the kinds of African players European clubs seek, even if the "new Patrick Vieira" phase seemed to have passed a few years ago
Either way, the continent's stars have moved on now, and we will see them again somewhere far more stable and storied than Equatorial Guinea, if talk is to be believed, in two years' time. Sipopo will lie empty then, but perhaps some long-term good will have come of all this.
"The emotion that you have provoked mobilized the entire population of Equatorial Guinea," Obiang told the national team's players on Tuesday. It would be tempting, given that last week's skirmishes also pitched fans against police, to give his words a meaning he probably did not intend, but there is an alternative reading, too. The idea that this country's footballing and sporting cultures will be enriched by the impromptu wave it has surfed would at least allow the hope that Equatorial Guinea has been able to generate some kind of tangible positive momentum over the last month that it can harness both on and off the pitch.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.