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Can a continent's dreams overcome the gunfire?

Angola still hopes to showcase the most beautiful football of any African Nations Cup. But after members of the Togo team were shot yesterday, will the event bounce back? Jonathan Wilson, in Luanda, and Glenn Moore report

The African Nations Cup was not supposed to start like this, with an international football team ambushed by machine-gun-wielding rebels.

The staging of the tournament in Angola was supposed to let the world know that the former Portuguese colony "is not just about war, oil and poverty". That was the sentiment of Fabrice Akwa, the former national captain, when the draw was made in December. "This is a great opportunity to showcase Angola to the rest of the world," he added.

Antonio Mangueira, the director of the local organising committee, used exactly the same phrase last week. "It is an opportunity to showcase Angola to rest of the world and also enhance development," he said. "Through the tournament we are sending a message to all that Angola is a nice country, the war is over and we are united. It is also an opportunity to recover our pride."

Those words are now laden with a cruel resonance. Akwa hoped there would be a tourism boom following the tournament. Instead the world again associates Angola with violence.

The assault on the Togo team is also a devastating blow to the Confederation of African Football, which has pursued a policy of taking its flagship competition away from the continent's traditional powers. Mali hosted in 2002, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea will co-host in 2012, Libya in 2014.

The Mali excursion was controversial, and successful. A nation in which half the population live below the international poverty line, with an income below $1.25 a day, invested $60m on hosting the competition. That all seemed worthwhile when Mali held Nigeria and looked like making the group stages after almost 30 years in the footballing wilderness. Outside the stadium, under a moon coloured red by the desert dust, cars and minibuses parped their horns, while scooters, their silencers removed, roared up and down with passengers scraping the lids of petrol-tins on the ground, spraying sparks behind them. "This," one elderly reveller said, "is the best night we've had since independence."

Angola, and the CAF, hoped similar emotions would be created in Angola. It is not just that the civil war ended only eight years ago, but that Angola is the first Lusophone host, disrupting the traditional two power bases of west and north Africa. The tournament was seen as affirming Angola's growing importance, both from a sporting and political point of view.

Roughly $100m has been invested in building four stadiums – one with a capacity of 50,000 in the capital, Luanda, three of around half that in the cities of Cabinda, Benguela and Lubango – while some estimates of the total expenditure on infrastructure reach around 10 times that. "At last Angola is getting something back," Akwa had said. "Hosting this tournament has led to a drastic development of infrastructure. Hotels have been built, telecommunications improved and, hopefully, we will see a significant benefit for tourism."

It seems unlikely now. The Togolese team were on their way to Cabinda, the exclave in Congo where their opening game was to take place, and where fighting ceased only five years ago. Ivory Coast and Ghana, two World Cup-bound teams with, arguably, the most stellar squads, are also due to play matches there. These may well now be resheduled, creating a major logistical headache.

Even before yesterday's attack there were doubts about whether Angola would take the opportunity hosting offered. It is easy to be glib about such events and imagine great economic benefits, but Angola is not a particularly poor country, despite problems with poverty. "The Cup will increase the passion for sport," the minister of youth and sports, Goncalves Muandumba, said last week. "And that will increase a sense of social inclusion. We must strengthen patriotic education and a sense of citizenship, and the Cup can help us fight poverty and famine."

Construction is going on at a startling rate in Luanda, but poverty remains a genuine issue. Around 75 per cent of Angola's estimated 12 million population live on less than $2 per day, while a third are classed as illiterate. Yet Angola brings in around $6bn a year from oil, has benefited from billions of dollars of Chinese investment, and recently secured a $1.5bn loan from the International Monetary Fund. Since little of that has gone to helping those worst off, there is no reason to believe football will be any more successful at channelling its revenues directly to the poorest walks of life. And the revenues drawn by the African Nations Cup will not significantly add to what is already available.

The great unwatched Cup?

In Mali, in 2002, World Travel and Tourism Council figures show tourism income has grown at 4.8 per cent a year since they hosted the African Nations Cup eight years ago. Yesterday's events suggest there will not be a similar knock-on for Angola but that already looked to be the case, for this was already shaping up as the great unwatched tournament; visitor numbers to the African Nations Cup have grown consistently over the past decade, but they will fall in Angola, and fall sharply.

Unofficial estimates of visitors to the 2008 Cup in Ghana were 60,000, including about 2,000 media workers. The predicted influx to Angola stands at just 8,000, of whom about 1,000 will be journalists.

The economic climate has led to both fans and media organisations cutting back, and that none of Angola's neighbours has qualified has had an impact, but many have been put off by the absurdly high price of hotels in Luanda – even three-star accommodation is around $300 a night – and by the labyrinthine bureaucracy that has to be negotiated to secure a visa. If showcasing the country really was an aim, Angola hasn't helped itself.

Persuading local fans to attend games not involving the host nation is a familiar problem at African Nations Cups – in 2006, the Egyptian government even forced military cadets to fill the stands. With so few travelling fans, empty stadiums could be even more of a feature than usual.

Still everything to play for

Although yesterday's events will inevitably hang over the competition it is possible, assuming there is no repeat, that the football will ultimately regain centre stage for this promises to be an fantastically open competition with half a dozen teams standing a genuine chance of success. Group B, to which Togo are assigned, is perhaps the most eye-catching. It features Ivory Coast, the favourites, and Ghana, who impressed many at the last World Cup.

The Ivory Coast coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, has admitted his side are beginning to feel a certain nervousness as the ticking of the clock grows ever louder. This generation of players, with the likes of Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré, Kolo Touré, Emmanuel Eboué, Didier Zokora and Salomon Kalou is one of the best ever produced by any African nation, but so far they have won nothing, and they have once again been handed a tough World Cup draw with Brazil, Portugal and North Korea in their group in South Africa; the opportunities for success are running out.

Nonetheless, Ivory Coast are in a far better position than Ghana, who enter the tournament in disarray. Injuries have hit them savagely, with the midfielders Stephen Appiah and Laryea Kingston, the Sunderland centre-back John Mensah and the Fulham full-back John Pantsil all ruled out. Michael Essien is only just coming back into fitness after a hamstring problem. In the absence of Appiah and Mensah, Ghana's Serbian coach, Milovan Rajevac, has appointed Essien as captain, which has raised eyebrows, given the Chelsea midfielder last week wrote an open letter to the Ghanaian FA criticising his decision to drop the former Portsmouth midfielder Sulley Muntari.

The extraordinary feud began as Muntari, Essien and the centre- forward Asamoah Gyan all missed a friendly against Angola in November. Essien and Gyan apologised and paid a £3,000 fine, but Muntari remained unrepentant, leading to the decision to expel him from the squad. "He has worked so hard in the past for the Black Stars and I remember at the last African Cup, Sulley and I suffered from malaria, and yet we played our hearts out for the country we love so much," Essien said in the letter.

"Three players didn't show up in Angola for the recent friendly and we have been embarrassed and punished for this. However, I wonder why Sulley has been the only one of the three excluded from the team. Sulley doesn't bring indiscipline to the pitch, he brings experience, value and results to our team and it is imperative we have him in the team if we are to excel at the next games."

Rajevac has insisted the letter isn't a big issue, but it is easy to imagine a fissure opening if things go badly.

For Ghana and Ivory Coast, the Nations Cup offers a chance for fine-tuning ahead of the World Cup. Algeria, who face England in South Africa, have spoken of trying to enhance their attacking options as they prepare for the summer, while Cameroon will hope to continue the progress they have made under Paul Le Guen. "We realised we'd become lackadaisical and needed to work harder and really strive to win every single game," said the forward Achille Webo, whom Le Guen has restored as Samuel Eto'o's strike partner. "We could no longer just expect to turn up and win."

The other World Cup qualifier, Nigeria, enter the tournament in a familiar sense of chaos. Their manager, Shuaibu Amodou, has suffered intense criticism and must know that he will be replaced should Nigeria fail to reach the semi-final. Still, at least Nigeria will be in South Africa, which cannot be said of their first opponents, holders Egypt. They are going for an unprecedented third straight success, but the sense is that isn't their primary concern having missed out on the World Cup yet again.

"We're a very good team," said the forward Mohamed Zidan. "We deserved to go to the World Cup. Everybody in Egypt says we are the best group of players of all time, but you can't always get what you want. The best answer for the fans, for the people and for ourselves would be to defend our title. We've a point to prove to ourselves."

Nations Cup: Vital statistics

*Egypt lifted a sixth African Nations Cup in 2008, beating Cameroon 1-0 in the final thanks to a Mohamed Aboutrika goal. Samuel Eto'o won the golden boot with five goals.

*Six wins: Egypt (1957, 59, 86, 98, 06, 08). Four: Cameroon (1984, 88, 00, 02), Ghana (1963, 65, 78, 82). Two: Congo (1968, 74), Nigeria (1980, 94). One: Algeria (1990), Congo (1972), Ethiopia (1962), Ivory Coast (1992), Morocco (1976), South Africa (1996), Sudan (1970), Tunisia (2004).