AFCON 2015: Against All The Odds

The 30th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations will kick off on Saturday, 17th January 2015 (in few hours from now), with organizers, players and fans hoping the tournament can thrive in the face of adversity.

It was only in November that Equatorial Guinea took over as hosts from Morocco, whose plea to postpone the finals over fears about the spread of Ebola was rejected by the Confederation of African Football (CAF). With concerns over the short time for Equatorial Guinea to prepare, worries about potentially poor attendances at matches in remote parts of the country and doubts about the infrastructure and facilities, football itself has taken a back seat in the build-up to the 16-team, 17 January to 8 February event.

It is not the first time the small, oil-rich central African state of Equatorial Guinea, with a population of just 740,000, has hosted the tournament - they did so jointly with Gabon in 2012. However, the extra burden of going it alone, and at such late notice, is weighing heavily.

Matches will be hosted in four cities; Bata and Malabo - as they were three years ago - and in Mongomo and Ebebiyin. The new venues will be relatively basic because there has been insufficient time to build better facilities in those towns. The stadium in Ebebiyin has a reported capacity of only 5,000. Even so, there is a real chance of it not being filled - one of the 2012 Nations Cup matches hosted by the country was attended by a tiny crowd of 200 people.

It is that kind of statistic which has moved the country's president Teodoro Obiang Nguema to personally pay for 40,000 tickets for fans to attend matches. "We have to buy tickets to fill stadiums. Let those who have the means help the poor," said Nguema. Additionally, the hotel capacity in the new host cities is minimal, making it a struggle for both media and fans to find accommodation and follow the tournament.

On the pitch, little is expected of Equatorial Guinea team, who were eliminated from the qualifiers when they were penalized for fielding an ineligible player - Cameroon-born Thierry Fidieu Tazemeta - in a match against Mauritania, only to be reinstated when they stepped in as hosts. It would be the biggest shock in the history of the tournament if the "National Thunder" became the 12th hosts to lift the trophy. Their chances of making any impact have not been helped by the fact their new coach, Argentine Esteban Becker, was only appointed 11 days ago.

The deadly virus, which broke out in West Africa in March 2014 and has claimed the lives of 8,386 people in six countries according to World Health Organisation figures, has cast a dark shadow over the tournament. However, there are no reported cases in Equatorial Guinea and the country's government has taken measures to prevent Ebola from reaching their soil, including hiring the expertise of a team of Cuban doctors. All players and visitors entering Equatorial Guinea will be tested for Ebola.

Source: Associate Press, BBC, The Guardian, WHO

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