Gabon set for the big African Cup of Nations kick-off
Final preparations are underway in the main Stade de l’Amitie in Gabon’s capital Libreville, as the country prepares to host the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) against a backdrop of civil strife in the host nation.
The biennial tournament is made up of 16 teams played at four venues across four host cities in the oil-rich central African country.
The possibility of more protests around the tournament, which will bring an international spotlight the country rarely enjoys, means the likelihood of stifling security as a backdrop to what is supposed to be a celebration of African soccer.
This year’s tournament has been overshadowed by the aftermath of Gabon’s disputed elections held last August that saw President Ali Bongo retain power amid allegations of widespread fraud. The vote divided the political class and the country leading to a wave of riots.
Despite the government’s reassurance that the tournament will take place without incidents, there have been ongoing calls in recent months for strike action by the opposition.
Although faced with a lingering political and social crisis, CAN organisation committee vice-president Snella Ange Pambo assures that security is up to standards.
“We have security that starts at the competition venues of course because we have to ensure the safety of the teams on the pitch, the officials who are in the stands, the many spectators who will travel by the thousands to these stadiums, so there are obviously all the sophisticated means that allow us to have a 360-degree view on the organisation of the competition in regards to safety,” he said.
On the footballing front, the Ivory Coast seek to defend their title, Egypt bid to revive former glories and tiny Guinea-Bissau aim to continue their fairytale run.
On Saturday (January 14), Gabon is due to play Guinea-Bissau in the opening game at the Stade de l’Amitie. The stadium, with a capacity of 40,000, will also host the competition final.
This the second time that Gabon has hosted the continental tournament. It had previously co-hosted the event with Equatorial Guinea in 2012 and were only awarded this year’s event after instability in the initial host nation Libya was too great to risk playing the tournament there.
Football fans in Gabon hope the tournament being held on home soil will boost chances of winning the trophy for the first time for the panthers, Gabon’s national football team.
And now that soccer’s governing body FIFA voted on Tuesday (January 10) to expand the World Cup to 48 teams from its current 32, Gabon is hopeful for what this could mean for the country, with Africa certain to benefit.
“I think the president of FIFA thought this out well in order to allow not only the extension but why not also the construction of sports infrastructures that are missing in many countries,” said Gabonese CAF instructor Raphael Nzamba Nzamba.
“I think it’s a good thing because it will give several countries the opportunity and many chances for everyone (to participate in the 2026 World Cup). So I think that it is a very good thing (decision),” Pamela Mavoungou, a Libreville resident, said.
“I prefer to see the good side of things and to say that with the transition to 48 countries, I hope that Gabon will be in the World Cup in 2026,” Pambo said.
The new format, to be introduced in 2026, will feature a first round of 16 groups of three teams, with the top two in each qualifying for a round of 32. From then on, it would be a straightforward knockout contest.
This year’s edition of the CAN will be held for three weeks and ends on February 5.
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