For 36 minutes last night in Luanda, almost nothing had happened, and after Ghana 2008, which featured more goals per game than any African Nations Cup since Ethiopia in 1976, there was a sense of regression. But then Flavio met Gilberto's free-kick with a stooping header,and the game was set on a bizarrely unpredictable course. With 11 minutes remaining, Angola were 4-0 up and cruising, but defensive sloppiness cost them, and they ended up drawing a remarkable game 4-4.
The tournament needed a spectacular start to help draw the attention back to the football after Friday's terrorist attack, and it got it, even if for much of the game it looked like being a stroll. Only after Carlos Fernandes, Angola's flamboyant goalkeeper had spilt a simple cross, leading to a scramble in which Seydou Keita prodded Mali's first goal, did the hosts begin to look even remotely vulnerable.
Flavio had been excellent, heading in Gilberto's free-kick and Mabina's cross to give Angola a 2-0 lead by half-time. With Mali struggling to deal with Gilberto's surges on the left, the wing-back twice won penalties, converting the first, awarded for a foul by Mamadou Bagayoko, himself, and then allowing Manucho to stroke in after he'd been fouled by Keita.
The Barcelona midfielder clearly felt he had won the ball, and he soon had his revenge. Frédi Kanouté headed a fine second on 88 minutes, and then Keita volleyed a third three minutes into injury time. By then, so complete was Angola's collapse, that the equaliser, from the substitute Mustapha Yatabare had come to seem inevitable. Manuel Jose, who took over as coach in May after a dismal World Cup qualifying campaign, was supposed to have made Angola reliable but dull, but there was no sign of that last night.
So bad were Angola in World Cup qualifying that they failed to reach the final 20 – had they not been hosts, in other words, they would not have qualified for the Nations Cup – and there remains a serious possibility that they might become the first hosts since Tunisia in 1994 to fail to make it through to the group stage.
The crowd, previously fervent and enthused, suddenly and shockingly fell silent. The sense was that their excitement had been born of relief, partly that it seemed they would get off to a winning start, and partly that the tournament was going ahead at all following the terrorist attacks that led to the withdrawal of Togo.
The opening ceremony was spectacular, but even amid the choreography and traditional dancing, and the celebration of Angola's flora and fauna, the booms of a series of firework displays called to mind the bloody events in Cabinda on Friday. It was hard to believe at least some of the crowd were not flinching as the explosions thudded round the arena.
Togo's pain should not be forgotten, but at least now the tournament has something else on which to focus.
Angola (3-3-2-2): Carlos Fernandes; Marques, Kali, Zuela; Mabina, Chara, Gilberto (Guilherme, 82); Dede (Djalma 25), Stelvio; Flavio (Cabungula, 84), Manucho
Mali (4-2-3-1): Sidibe; Berthe, Soumare, Diamoutene, Tamboura; T Bakaye (Fane, 57), M Diarra; Bagayoko (Yatabare, 77), M Traoré, Mobida(Keita, 35); Kanouté.
Referee: Essam Abdel Fatah (Egypt).