An eager crowd bustles outside a door on a street corner in central Bata. It is 12.30pm on a typically hot and hazy afternoon in Equatorial Guinea’s largest city.
The heat of anticipation is driving up temperatures. Hands slide into crevices between the bodies. Some emerge with the prize. Others remain lodged; presumably open and waiting.
The clamour is for nothing particularly spectacular: red and yellow plastic horns and small flags bearing the country’s colours. But they’re free and the bunting weaves a crucial part of the tapestry that will be Equatorial Guinea’s
against Tunisia on 31 January.
Few beneficiaries from the pavement bonanza will believe in their heart of hearts that there will be further use for the freebies after Saturday night’s game. Equatorial Guinea are placed 125th in the world rankings of footballing countries. Tunisia occupy 31st position. The nations are far apart in placing and pedigree.
But their clash at the stadium in Bata encapsulates the quirkiness of the Cup of Nations. Favourites come and go. Cameroon were highly fancied. But soon they were gone after two draws and a loss in Group D;
Burkina Faso, the surprise enterprise of two years ago enjoying a trek to the final, have been eliminated from Group A. In their stead emerged the host nation.
“I think in terms of getting the crowds to come out and getting the country to feel engaged in the tournament, it’s good that the hosts are in the last eight,” said Jonathan Wilson, editor of the football magazine The Blizzard.
The last time a host nation failed to clear the group stage hurdle was back in 1994. It is a marked difference with the World Cup where, for example, South Africa left the party after the group stages in 2010.
Equatorial Guinea are familiar with the quarter-finals. They were there three years ago when they cohosted the tournament with Gabon. Equatorial Guinea lost in the last eight to Côte d’Ivoire. By comparison Tunisia are gentler beasts.
There is also another difference, said Wilson. “Three years ago when Equatorial Guinea came to Malabo for their quarter-final, the stadium wasn’t full, whereas they’d played in front of a packed stadium in Bata. You got the sense that they cared in Bata about the team but not in Malabo. That’s not the case this time. When Equatorial Guinea qualified for the quarters everyone was out on the streets, cars tooting their horns. There was a feeling that everyone was behind the team.”
Whether that universal elation will have a semi-final outing remains to be seen. Not in doubt is the work of coach Esteban Becker. The 50-year-old Argentine distinguished himself as head of the Equatorial Guinea women’s team and was technical director of all three of the country’s national sides before being appointed head coach of the men’s team just before the 2015 CAN.
He has forged a solid unit of moderate talents. Emilio Nsue, who plays for Middlesbrough in the English second division, is arguably the biggest star. That they stand on the threshold of the last four is a testament to the Becker’s efforts and the unpredictabilities of African football.
Equatorial Guinea were thrown out of the qualifying campaign for fielding an ineligible player. They were reinstated when the country’s leaders agreed to step in as hosts for the 30th CAN when Morocco pulled out over its concerns about the spread of the Ebola epidemic.
The Tunisia coach George Leekens has warned his players about the heat they will face in Bata. “They are confident,” said the 65-year-old Belgian. “And I am confident. You can win or lose, a ball hits the post, a penalty isn’t given – that’s the game. But we are now winners. We find the force to come back if we are behind.”
His side is packed with players from Tunisia’s most famous clubs: Esperance, Sfaxien, Etoile du Sahel and Club Africain. A few also turn out for teams in the French first division. Hostile crowds should, theoretically, not perturb them.
But the Tunisians have the pressure of being favourites, intense expectation from fans and the media back home and 11 men opposite them with nothing to lose.
Those red and yellow plastic horns could well be blaring into early February.