EDITORIAL COMMENT: Spare a thought for heroic E. Guinea

Equatorial-GuineaEQUATORIAL Guinea has, by and large, hosted successful 2015 Nations Cup finals — the football has been captivating, a number of lightweights have punched above their weight and it will all come down to a Dream Final between favourites Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana tomorrow.

Given that this tiny country only had a few months to prepare to host the tournament after Morocco pulled out, the people of Equatorial Guinea have risen to the challenge with remarkable distinction.

They have been a credit to Africa, which faced the possible humiliation of having its premier football knock-out tournament being held, as some might have suggested, in Qatar, as Ebola threatened to knock this sporting festival out of this continent.

President Mugabe, in his acceptance speech as the new African Union chairman, last week hailed Equatorial Guinea for standing up to be counted and taking over the hosting of the 2015 Nations Cup finals at such a short notice.

The footballers of Equatorial Guinea responded well and, from being the lowest-ranked team at the tournament, they bravely fought their way into an historic appearance in the semi-finals and, before Thursday night, they were just one win away from playing in the final.

Never before had this country’s national football team done so well, on the big stage, and their remarkable adventure charmed their country, and a continent that has always loved the little Davids that destroy the giant Goliaths, and there were great expectations in Equatorial Guinea, going into the semi-finals, that this could end as one of football’s greatest fairy-tales.

The team’s 2-0 win over a highly-rated Gabon, which gave them the ticket into the quarter-finals, was very impressive while their never-say-die spirit, which saw them come from behind and score a last minute equaliser, before knocking Tunisia out of the last eight in extra-time, was remarkable.

There were 15 250 fans, mostly Equatorial Guinea supporters, inside the Malabo Stadium on Thursday night, and about two million more watching the game live from their homes, who were carrying real hopes that this could be their country’s football finest hour.

Sadly, the ugly and violent events inside the stadium, as it dawned on the home team’s fans that their dream of conquering the continent had come to an end after Ghana took a comfortable 3-0 lead, have taken away the gloss from this nation’s heroism in moving mountains to host such a big show at such short notice.

As the world watched, in disbelief, the Ghana players and match officials needed the protection of the police, as missiles rained from the stands, as they made their way into the dressing rooms at half-time.

Then, with just eight minutes of regulation time left, the game was stopped after hundreds of Ghanaian fans sought refuge on the field, from host fans in the stands who were pelting them with missiles, and what was supposed to be Equatorial Guinea’s finest hour in football was slowly turning into a nightmare.

It’s a shame that, in this age and era, we should be broadcasting such sickening images to the world and whatever Equatorial Guinea had gained, in successfully hosting this Nations Cup finals, was lost in that mayhem.

“We’re lucky we haven’t lost any lives, though people have sustained injuries arising from objects thrown at them,” Ghana Football Association president, Kwesi Nyantakyi, said after the game.

We have lost a lot of lives at football stadiums on this continent — 73 fans were killed in a stadium in Port Said, Egypt, in 2012 during a stampede, 19 died in a stadium in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, in 2009, 126 fans died in a stadium in Accra, Ghana, in 2001 and, in the same year, a stampede killed 43 fans at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.

African football cannot afford to lose more lives in such riots and it’s sad that our game’s leaders have failed to stamp out this cancer and the events in Malabo on Thursday night show that we are still far away from taming this animal.

Nyantakyi correctly noted that what should have been a memorable night, for Ghanaian, if not African football, when the sleek Black Stars turned on the style with a dominant performance that overwhelmed the hosts, will sadly be remembered for all the negativity that stemmed from the violence.

It’s sad that all the sports headlines, in the international news media, were about the violence rather than the football and it’s a shame that a few thugs, who could not accept defeat, messed it up for a country that moved mountains, at a very short notice, to host a successful major football tournament.

Critics of African football will point to those violent disturbances as proof that the game here is still backwards and, a continent that just five years ago successfully hosted the World Cup, sadly has to look itself in the mirror and deal with the threat of hooliganism.

There will be punishment meted out on the hosts, as usual, but the fans themselves have to play their part to ensure that football remains a very safe game, where people can take their families, without fearing that they might not return home to tell the story of what unfolded on the pitch.

Everyone should play their part.