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Jan 22, 2012

Twists in the tale's beginning

Out of a neon pink jacket a head tossed back a shower of braided dreadlocks. Drum beats rolled in from somewhere over his right shoulder, which jerked in response. A Michael Jackson-esque crotch grabbing followed and moves to rival the famous 'Moonwalk'.

The African Nations Cup had come to Equatorial Guinea; the continent's richest nation per capita with the lowest ranked football team in the tournament. As colours melted into rainbows and local tunes provided the soundtrack for tech-savvy projection show, pride in the tiny nation swelled.

The crowd, most of whom where clad in red to show support for their team, nicknamed the National Lightning, cheered, clapped and blew vuvuzelas (remember them from South Africa 2010?). The President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has led the country since he seized power in a coup in 1979, had a smirk of complete satisfaction on his face.

The entertainers, including two leopard print dressed ladies with blue-streaked hair, another who looked distinctly like an ice-cream cake and a third in a black and white number decorated with an outline of the continent, belted out beats while the watching faces scrunched up in concentration.

Having seen many sporting events beat the odds to come to life in Africa, most recently the 2010 World Cup, it is easy to say that the continent is as good a host as any. African events have a wonderful mix of modernity and traditional cultures, they outdo themselves when it comes to representing people from all corners and the effort they put in stands as an assurance that they do not take their duties as organisers lightly.

The brightness of Bata made Africa proud again; hearing about the police dispersing an over-eager crowd by firing tear gas, saw reality hit home once more.

Equatorial Guinea have no experience of hosting major sporting events and this is the biggest one they have ever had to comprehend. Delays in ushering people in to the new, 37,500-seater stadium resulted in it not being full by the time the opening ceremony started. Every ticket needed to be inspected twice, once at the gate and once at the turnstiles, causing a surge of people and a need for a response from the security forces. Hopefully, they won't be needed again and the Israeli advisors being used by the tournament will remind them that aggressive action should be the last resort.

The national team seem to understand that and waited for the 87th minute to score the winner against Libya to record their first victory in the tournament's history. Just as big events are not the norm for the country, footballing success also isn't and sport is an afterthought in a place that preoccupies itself with oil production above almost anything else.

The women's team is responsible for their biggest achievement - victory in the 2008 African Women's Championship - but the men have never even competed in ANC before. Their country's wealth has often been able to secure them top-class coaches and steps to developing a competitive national team took place six years ago. In 2006, Brazilian coach Antonio Dumas naturalised five Brazilian players, including current goalkeeper Danilo.

As their first continental Cup loomed, a scramble to stock up on players ensued, with the net cast wide and deep to find players who could qualify for the national team. The squad for the tournament consists of six Spaniards, an Ivorian, a Cameroonian, two Brazilians and only a smattering of actual Equatoguineans. It was an issue that former coach Henri Michel reportedly resigned over.

Seventeen days before the biggest test of their sporting prowess, Equatorial Guinea had to appoint a new coach. Brazilian Gilson Paolo had little over two weeks to decide on a strategy, get to know his players and prepare them for a clash against a team who had battled a revolution to qualify for the tournament.

His biggest assistance came from the James and the Giant Peach-sized carrot that was dangled in front of the squad. A million dollars were promised to them for nothing more than victory over Libya. Never mind Senegal, Zambia, qualifying from the group or making it through to the knockouts, all the country's sports minister (who is also the President's son) focused on was the first match. The Equatoguineans have cashed in on a massive pay day not just in financial terms. They've earned victory and respect after beating Africa's sweethearts.

Libya appeared stunned by the consistent Equatoguinean onslaught and could have conceded in the 16th minute if the Samir Aboud's spill over the line was not found to have come from an offside strike from Ivan Bolado. Far from the man who kept Libya in the game against Zambia a few weeks ago, Aboud looked vulnerable apart from a save that came in the second-half off a free kick that curled through the wall.

More worryingly for Libya, they seldom looked like scoring. Ahmed Zuway was rarely fed balls and they lacked control in the midfield. Unlike their opposition, they did have higher hopes in the competition: Zambia and Senegal await. Zambia beat the tournament favourites in the other Group A clash and have already fired the warning shot on their determination pay homage to the victims of the 1993 plane crash with a trophy. ANC2012 began with two surprises, and one wonders how many more are to come.

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