This is a match that no one saw on the horizon. Equatorial Guinea, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, girding themselves to face Ghana, one of the continental heavyweights. The second semi-final of the 2015 Cup of Nations is the classic David v Goliath. The winner will play Côte d’Ivoire on 8 February.
Ghana are boasting their fifth consecutive semi-final. They were beaten in the final five years ago as the Egyptians were attaining their zenith. Since then Ghana have finished fourth. This year there is talk around the squad of beating the fifth-game jinx.
Equatorial Guinea would adore such a knotty psychobabble complex. This is their first fifth game in the Cup of Nations. They really ought not to be here at all.
They were thrown out of the qualifying campaign for fielding an ineligible player but were welcomed back to the competition when President Teodoro Obiang agreed to host the 2015 tournament after Morocco pulled out in November due to its fears over the spread of the Ebola epidemic.
Once at the tournament Equatorial Guinea have genuinely surprised. They emerged from a group containing more fancied teams such as Gabon and the 2013 runners-up Burkina Faso. They then stunned Tunisia in the last eight.
The north Africans have unleashed a welter of complaints over the officiating during the game. They face penalties from the disciplinary panel of the organisers CAF for the slurs hurled at its executives. They have also been fined just over 3,000 euros for smashing up the changing rooms in the Bata stadium.
Out of the hue and cry, Equatorial Guinea’s players admit they got lucky with the referee’s decision to award them a last-minute penalty.
Javier Balboa converted it before his sumptuous free kick in extra-time proved to be the winner. The neutral will forever say the Tunisians should have played the exquisite football they are capable of and crushed Equatorial Guinea rather than sitting on a 1-0 lead and installing gamesmanship as the default setting.
“In the first game we had very bad luck with the referee who disallowed a perfectly good goal,” said veteran midfielder Juvenal. “In the game against Tunisia we had some luck in that a penalty was awarded. This is a game where you need good luck in certain moments.
“Tunisia was a great team but Equatorial Guinea was better.”
That there’s fighting talk. And it echoes the bullish stance of Equatorial Guinea coach Esteban Becker. The 50-year-old Argentine says the Tunisians should simply have scored the goals and ended any arguments about poor officiating. His line is if they felt cheated at the end of 90 minutes, they should have overpowered such a poor team.
When they emerge from their fug, the Tunisians will have to address the spectre of their incompetence.
That’s not the hosts’ problem. They have to negotiate a Ghana team packed with talented, savvy operators.
“I think Ghana have a lot of experience,” said Juvenal. “But experience doesn’t win matches. Ghana have a lot of great players; André Ayew, Asamoah Gyan and Christian Atsu. They played in the last world cup in Brazil. They’re a dangerous team. We have to do the same things that got us here. Run a lot. Fight a lot. This is the secret as to why we’ve got to the semi-finals. We’ll have to do the same thing against Ghana.”
Following the quarter-final victory on 31 January there was a nationwide party. The country’s president Teodoro Obiang has dubbed the players heroes for their achievements. The leader’s speechwriters will have to dream up other epithets and tributes if they overcome Ghana.
That task may be easier than anticipated. The Ghana skipper Gyan is an injury doubt for the clash in Malabo on 5 February. He is recovering from the hip injury he sustained when Guinea goalkeeper Naby Yattara kicked him at the end of the quarter-final between the sides on 1 February. Ghana coach Avram Grant has called on CAF to ban Yattara for the challenge.
Should Ghana lose their talismanic skipper, Jordan Ayew may start instead and the team will be captained by André Ayew.
Ghana assistant coach Mawell Konadu stressed on the eve of clash that the loss of Gyan would be a blow but the Black Stars had played games without him and won.
True, but the opening match in Group C took place without Gyan and Ghana lost 2-1 to Senegal. The 29-year-old Al Ain striker returned from a bout of malaria to score the winner in the last minute against Algeria and he also featured in the triumph over South Africa as well as the last eight game against Guinea in which he was felled.
In truth, Gyan’s absence will not be accepted as a reason for a poor performance. Ghana have been to three consecutive World Cups and should have the nous to negotiate the hurdle posed by the hosts.
“We are thinking of the possibility of beating Ghana,” added Juvenal. “We’re playing for our supporters and for us. It would be a dream to win the game for everyone. The country has worked so hard to organise the tournament.”
Equatorial Guinea skipper Emilio Nsue is probably the most elevated of his nation’s players and he turns out for an English second-tier side, Middlesbrough. An array of Ghana’s operators grace Serie A, Ligue Un and the Premier League. The squads are light years apart.
But despite the disparity, after 11 years with Nzalang Nacional – the national thunder – 35-year-old Juvenal says the semi-final is a moment to savour. “I’ve been with the national team for a long time,” he reflected. “It’s amazing to be here to have a chance to play in a final. We have a difficult game but we can do it. I am sure.”
The 15,000-seat stadium in Malabo will be packed with fans hoping to witness a glorious slice of football history. If it happens, the party in Equatorial Guinea will probably last right through until kick-off on Sunday night.