Guinea on $1m bonus for Africa's big kick-off

Winds of change in continent's game mean three debutants this year – and a new host

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The Independent Football

On Christmas Day, 1975, the president of Equatorial Guinea, Francisco Macias, had 150 dissidents executed in the national stadium as a band played "Those Were the Days". Tonight, the national stadium in Bata will host the opening game of the 28th African Cup of Nations, between Equatorial Guinea and Libya, before Senegal take on Zambia in the second part of the double-header. The symbolism is quite deliberate.

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Political executions and a repressive paranoia that led to the reduction of the country's already small population by around a third, the official message runs, was then; football tournaments and celebration are now. Certainly hosting a major tournament would have been beyond Equatorial Guinea under Macias, or in the years immediately following his overthrow by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema. Hunted back to his home village, Macias was eventually cornered in a hut and arrested after it caught fire. Also in the hut, the story goes, were all of Equatorial Guinea's foreign currency reserves; depending whose account you believe, somewhere between $150m and $300m was destroyed.

So the country, the third smallest in Africa by land area – essentially a scrap of land between Cameroon and Gabon and a volcanic island an hour's flight to the north-west – was left in even more poverty than before. Obiang has held power since, but everything changed in 1996 with the discovery of oil. In terms of GDP per capita, Equatorial Guinea is now the 22nd richest country in the world, one place ahead of the UK, although the distribution of wealth is radically uneven.

Some of that could be finding its way to Equatorial Guinea's players. They are a ragtag bunch – often with the most tenuous of connections to the country – drawn together from all over the globe and, lying 151st, they are the lowest-ranked side in the tournament. They have never before qualified for a Cup of Nations, but if they beat Libya – ranked 63rd and on a wave of patriotic fervour after the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi – they will receive a bonus of $1m (£650,000), from Obiang's son.

"This is a personal gesture – there is no official standing to the prize," said David Monsuy, a spokesman for the football federation. "The news has given the players an injection of enthusiasm and morale. It shows the popular support everybody has for the team." They will receive an additional $20,000 per goal scored.

That the players are regarded as ambassadors is clear. Over the past couple of days, the local television network has shown over and over again shots of the squad, clad in matching red polo shirts and black tracksuit bottoms, shaking hands with senior politicians. The captain Rodolfo Bodipo, the national news agency reported, was greeted with a spontaneous gift of flowers when he arrived from Spain where he plays for Deportivo la Coruna. Or rather doesn't play. This season the 34-year-old forward has managed just five substitute appearances in the league, a total of 72 minutes. He spent last season on loan, first in Romania with Vaslui and then back in Spain with Elche,a second-flight side.

The new stadiums in Bata (capacity 37,000) and Malabo (capacity 15,000) have both been upgraded for the tournament, having been initially completed in 2007, and are just part of a rush of construction over the past decade. The wide, empty roads into Malabo from the airport are lined with newly built concrete structures; the first vehicle I saw was a truck carrying Chinese construction workers – which perhaps indicates the source of much of the investment.

"We used to have a very small pitch, with a very small capacity for people and tiny stands – and it was a bit dangerous for some spectators," said the midfielder Juvenal Edjogo, who plays for the Spanish second-division side Sabadell. "But today, we have a major new stadium. The country has evolved greatly and we are developing more quickly than the rest of Africa. I can only approve of this because when you look at the past, we are proud to be able to enjoy today all that we have."

That, at least, is the official message. Amnesty International paints a rather grimmer picture, and even from a football point of view, you don't have to look far to see fractures in the happy facade. The experienced French 64-year-old Henri Michel resigned as coach for the second and final time a fortnight before the tournament began. Players have suggested he did not get on with the Spanish contingent in the squad; Michel cited political interference.

He has been replaced by the Brazilian Gilson Paulo. Realistically, taking the team through a group featuring the attacking might of Senegal, an improving Zambia and the motivated Libyans would be an impressive achievement.

The favourites, Ivory Coast, begin tomorrow in Malabo, where they arrived to scenes of astonishing jubilation, their bus surrounded by hundreds of celebrating fans. They face a Sudan team who squeezed through as one of the two best runners-up. The generation of Didier Drogba, the Touré brothers, Didier Zokora, Emmanuel Eboué, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho is among the best any African nation has ever produced, but after reaching the final in 2006, when they were unlucky to lose to the hosts Egypt, they faltered badly in both 2008 and 2010. Time is running out, at least for the older members of that squad, if they are to add silverware to reputation.

With Egypt and traditional powers such as Cameroon and Nigeria failing to qualify, Ghana and Tunisia stand alongside Senegal as the main threats to the Elephants. Tunisia limped through the only five-team group behind Botswana, who are probably the most exciting of the three debutants, but their success in last year's CHAN – the tournament for domestic-based players – suggested that they, like Libya, have been galvanised by the Arab Spring. Drawn with the co-hosts Gabon, Morocco and the debutants Niger, though, Tunisia probably have the toughest first-round group.

Ghana, meanwhile, will miss Kevin Prince-Boateng, who retired from international football last month, but the bigger problem could be the absence of a target man if Asamoah Gyan's calf injury is worse than initially feared.

Whoever wins, though, this feels like the start of a new era for Africa. In the most literal sense, with no Egypt, the trophy must change hands, but the hope must be that the failure of the traditional powers to qualify shakes them from the complacency that has allowed a culture of mismanagement to flourish. Equatorial Guinea hopes this is recognised as a new era for them, too.

Filling the void: Who could benefit (over here) from the African Cup of Nations?

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

Although the return of Thierry Henry owes much to Gervinho's absence, Arsène Wenger does have an option for replacing the Ivory Coast international's direct running. Bought from Southampton in the summer, Oxlade-Chamberlain has impressed in his six starts so far this season. The 18-year-old scored against Shrewsbury and Olympiakos at the Emirates, but is yet to be trusted with a Premier League start. While often compared to Theo Walcott, he is not quite as fast as his fellow Arsenal wideman but is stronger and has better technique in tight spaces.

Leon Best

The muscular centre-forward has been surprising people at Newcastle. He has had to fight Andy Carroll, Shola Ameobi and Demba Ba for first-team opportunities at St James' Park over the last two seasons, but with Ba now away playing for Senegal, Best has another chance to impose himself. He certainly started well, producing the game's only moment of quality in Newcastle's 1-0 win over Queen's Park Rangers last Sunday. If Best is to usefully replace Ba this month, though, he will need to continue to add regular goals to his characteristically selfless team-play.

Danny Guthrie

Guthrie will have to replace the Premier League's leading master of demolition in Cheick Tioté. The Ivory Coast midfielder provides strength, authority, athleticism, ball-retention as well as a rather intimidatory presence in midfield. Guthrie has seen his first-team opportunities limited by Tioté, but now he can try to become Yohan Cabaye's necessary accompanist as the France international needs someone to help him shine. Guthrie started well against Queen's Park Rangers on Sunday, breaking up attacks and moving the ball swiftly. More of the same is required.

Fernando Torres

It is a shame that a £50m striker needs a run of games, but there we are. Fernando Torres' 12 months at Chelsea have been utterly miserable: his pace, his touch, and his ruthlessness have all abandoned him, leaving manager Andre Villas-Boas with no option but to return to Didier Drogba. But there have been recent glimmers - his bicycle-kick set up Frank Lampard's goal against Sunderland last Saturday, for instance. With Drogba in Africa, now, Torres is guaranteed a good run of starts. There is a feeling that one goal may bring about a torrent.

Nigel de Jong

Despite being the keystone of Manchester City's midfield for the last few seasons, De Jong has found himself on the periphery this year. Roberto Mancini has chosen to pair the all-round talents of Gareth Barry and Yaya Touré, with no place for De Jong's destructive approach. He has spent much of this season on the bench, and, with a new contract unsigned, his future at City seems under threat. A good run of games alongside Barry could conceivably be the difference between his staying at City and going in the summer.

Jack Pitt-Brooke