Hosts ride wave of emotion to punch above their weight
Co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Gabon were not expected to provide much more than four new stadiums for the African Nations Cup but their teams have rapidly transformed themselves from underdogs into contenders.
The pair are already unlikely quarter-finalists, having originally been given little chance of reaching the latter stages of their own tournament.
By winning both opening matches on a tide of emotive support, they have qualified early for the last eight and completely recast their ambitions.
On Friday, Gabon won a thriller against Morocco to ensure progress from Group C, coming from behind to wrestle a 3-2 win from their more fancied opponents.
Coach Gernot Rohr said the energy of the 40,000-strong crowd at the stadium had propelled his team back into he game in the last quarter-hour as they fought from 0-1 down to win in dramatic fashion with a booming free kick on the final whistle.
Two nights earlier, Equatorial Guinea produced the biggest shock in tournament history by beating Senegal, a side more than 100 places above them in the world rankings.
The small former Spanish colony with a population of less than 700,000 are now talking of finishing top of Group A, when they were initially expected to be lucky to get a point.
“Our sights are now set on finishing top of the group. We have done unbelievably well to win our first two games but for me the job is not yet finished. To win a third one is very important too,” coach Gilson Paulo said after Wednesday’s 2-1 win.
Their victory in Bata came against a backdrop of almost feverish support.
The 30,000 capacity stadium was virtually empty about 30 minutes before kickoff but by the time the national anthems were played, it had turned into a nerve-tingling arena.
Spectators cheered every touch and tackle from their side and the roar that greeted the winning goal – a long range rocket by fullback Kily in stoppage time – almost lifted the roof off.
In Libreville on Friday, the public address announcer had to urge fans to stay calm after the heroics of their side.
“The atmosphere after we scored our first goal gave new energy to my players,” Rohr said of the 77th minute equaliser for Gabon that then set up a dramatic finale.
“We want to finish top of our group so that we can play in Libreville in the quarter-finals in this wonderful stadium,” he added.
Gabon’s last group game is on Tuesday in the provincial town of Franceville, where they meet Tunisia, who are also through to the last eight.