Cup hosts Equatorial Guinea bank on the wealth of Nations

Oil-rich rulers put on show of opulence out of reach to an impoverished population

Malabo

A low wooden bridge stretches from the Sofitel at Sipopo across the bay to a small, heavily forested island, a pretty splodge of basalt deposited there by the volcano that formed Bioko, the main island part of Equatorial Guinea. These days it's a tourist attraction, dotted with small sculptures and with hides for watching the sea birds who come to nest there.

A local man, hunched against the white light, paddles a canoe around the off-shore rocks, presumably looking to fish. Behind him stretches mile upon mile of grey Atlantic. It's a scene that could belong to any century, were it not for the gunboat that guards the harbour.

The Sofitel is a standard luxury resort hotel. There's a pool with a bar, marble floors, and a golf course behind. The former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein sits in the cafe. There are important looking men in suits dotted around the lobby. Ivory Coast have chosen the hotel as their base for the African Cup of Nations, and it's easy to see why: it's luxurious and a comfortable 20 minutes drive out of town, through a security checkpoint – there's little chance of fans disturbing them here.

As you drive back along the coast into Malabo, the Equatoguinean capital, the slopes to the left, leading up to Mount Cameroon, are dominated by lines of orange houses, built in a quasi-Italian style.

They're clearly opulent, locked away behind a 12-foot high wall. These are the 52 villas built to accommodate the heads of state of the African Union at their conference last summer. Goodness only knows how much they cost and, in a country in which, according to EG Watch, 75 per cent of the country's 670,000 population live on under 60p a day, it's understandable that human rights groups queued up to condemn the whole Sipopo project.

The government denies those figures, and argues that hosting events such as the summit of the African Union, of which the Equatoguinean president Obiang Nguema is chairman, increase the prestige of the country, a necessary step to making the most of the vast revenues that have flooded in since the discovery of oil in the mid-1990s.

A similar argument rages over the Cup of Nations. Equatorial Guinea has never been a football nation, has never previously qualified for the tournament and doesn't even have a professional league. The only famous footballer of Equatoguinean descent is the former Arsenal full-back Lauren, who was born in Cameroon, the nation for whom he played, because his pregnant mother fled her homeland when Lauren's father was jailed by Obiang's predecessor, Francisco Macias.

So why did Equatorial Guinea decide it wanted to host a tournament in a sport in which it had previously shown little interest? In 2006, the Confederation of African Football allocated hosting rights for the Cups of Nations of 2010, 2012 and 2013: they were won, respectively, by Angola, Gabon-Equatorial Guinea and Libya. As in the World Cup bidding for 2018 and 2022, oil was the key factor. These tournaments are about enhancing the reputation of nations known, as the Angola captain Fabrice Akwa put it two years ago, "for poverty, oil and war". The problems come when, like Equatorial Guinea, you have no footballing infrastructure: the result has been an unseemly scramble around the globe looking for those who have Equatoguinean heritage – or, in some cases, for anybody prepared to pull on the red Nzanga Nacional shirt. In fact it was a Spanish-born player, Javier Balboa, who scored the late goal that gave the side a surprise 1-0 win over Libya in the opening game yesterday.

This is, by some distance, the biggest public event ever hosted in Equatorial Guinea. Yet for the excitement, you wonder how many locals will be able to afford to go to games: the cheapest tickets cost £4.25, which if EG Watch's figures are accurate, means three-quarters of the population would be sacrificing a week's wages to go to a first-round game.

While the contrast between the outlay on the tournament and the poverty of the populace is shocking, there is a humanitarian face to African football, with players from Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Niger working with Oxfam to publicise a mounting food crisis in the Sahel. Poor rains last year have caused a 25 per cent drop in the harvest, pushing up prices. Whether you think hosting the Cup of Nations is the best use of resources or not, there are times when football is indisputably a force for good.

For Ivory Coast, this is seen as a final chance for a golden generation to win something. For Burkina Faso, it's about turning promise into a first ever place in the knockout stages. Both begin their campaigns this evening in Malabo – Ivory Coast against Sudan and Burkina Faso against Angola.

African Cup of Nations: Police use tear gas to disperse surging crowds

Police fired tear gas as crushes developed around the Estadio de Bata ahead of the opening game of the African Cup of Nations last night. Fans approaching the main gate of the stadium complex in Bata, the largest city in Equatorial Guinea, for the game against Libya – which the hosts won 1-0 – were required to present their tickets for inspection. Delays, perhaps coupled with Equatorial Guinea's inexperience at hosting major sporting events, led to dangerous surges in the street leading to the entrance, at which the Israeli security advisors being used by tournament organisers recommended the gates be opened. On at least one occasion tear gas was fired to disperse the crowd.

Those attending the game still had to show their tickets at the turnstiles to gain access. All 37,500 tickets had been sold well in advance for Equatorial Guinea's debut at the Cup of Nations. Their players have been offered a $1m bonus by the son of the president, Obiang Nguema, to get their campaign off to a winning start.

Security was tight around the stadium, with police setting up roadblocks on all access routes, frisking fans and running vehicles through enormous metal detectors, while dogs patrolled inside the stadium complex. The mood of fans inside the stadium complex appeared good, with many waving the national flag and blowing vuvuzelas. Neither the Confederation of African Football nor the local organising committee were available for comment.

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