Four games, three draws, one win, and plenty of action still ahead. It's been an entertaining start to the 2017 Nations Cup.
By Joseph Kizza (Twitter: @joekizza)
So here we are on Matchday Three of the 2017 Africa Nations Cup finals unfolding in Gabon on the west coast of Central Africa! Already, we’ve watched – or listened to – four games offering a dollop of spectacular African action, the first three of which have been draws and the other a win. It’s still early days of the tournament but as you would expect, we’ve already been treated to mouthfuls of what the continent’s top crop can offer. So, with that said, let me take you through the story so far.
My script goes thus . . .
With an estimated 1.5 million people, Gabon took the baton from Equatorial Guinea to host Africa’s biggest football tournament. It was not unfamiliar territory for the largely French-speaking nation, having previously co-hosted the Nations Cup with Equatorial Guinea in 2012.
Here, a group of youngsters are seen playing football at a beach in Libreville, Gabon’s capital and largest city.
This edition of the tournament had been scheduled to be hosted by north African nation Libya, until Africa’s football governing body CAF rescinded its hosting rights in August 2014 because of ongoing war in the country. Hosting responsibility was then transferred to Gabon.
Some 16 nations are taking part in the race for continental glory. Teams started arriving ahead of Saturday’s opener, and Egypt's Mohamed Elneny, who plays for English club Arsenal FC, arrived with teammates at Port-Gentil International Airport in Port-Gentil a day before.
Among the 16 nations taking part is Africa’s No.1-ranked side Senegal. They have come into the tournament as among the favorites, and with good reason at that: they eased into the finals after winning all their six qualifier games. Ahead of their first game against Tunisia, their head coach Aliou Cisse, addressed a press conference at Franceville stadium in Franceville on Saturday.
It’s no doubt what a daunting task it is to host a sporting event of such significance. Four venues were picked to host the 31st edition of the Nations Cup: Libreville, Franceville, Port-Gentil and Oyem. Here, a pitch technician was seen giving a manicure to the pitch of the Stade de l’Amitié Sino-gabonaise Stadium in Libreville prior to the opening match.
Forget the empty seats. Let’s just say, the opening ceremony made for good watching inside the sunbaked Stade de l'Amitie on Saturday.
These silhouetted acrobats did the kind of dizzying stuff only daredevils have the nerves for . . .
Oh, and did you catch the musical performances too? French rapper Booba (real name Elie Yaffa) featured on the entertainment menu.
A number of high-profile people watched the colourful opening ceremony from the stands, including the Gabonese president.
Since its independence from France in 1960, Gabon has had three presidents. Current President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who has been in power since 2009, was snapped speaking to his wife Sylvia Bongo Ondimba as they arrived to attend the opening match between hosts Gabon and Guinea-Bissau in the capital.
President Bongo was also the interest of the cameramen as he listened to Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Issa Hayatou before kickoff.
I wonder what Hayatou was pointing at . . . hmm
Gabon have never won the Nations Cup and neither have they finished as runners-up. But I tell you what, there’s always that lingering respite among home fans when their nation is the host, and it’s no different this time.
They are grouped with Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Guinea Bissau, and fans will hope The Panthers can make it through to the knockout stage.
They will bank on key players like Borussia Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is a former African Football of the Year, and Juventus player Mario Lemina. In fact, Aubmayeng (who wore a stylish captain’s armband, I should say) scored the first goal of this tournament when he slid home a few minutes into the second half against Guinea-Bissau.
It had started off on a slow note, with both sides preferring caution over aggression, but later on in the first half, the game burst into life as the home side searched for a breakthrough. Here, Gabon's defender Bruno Ecuele Manga challenges Guinea-Bissau's midfielder Toni Silva.
It metamorphosed into such an entertaining encounter that this staff member couldn't resist the urge to peer from behind a curtain at the VIP area . . .
For long periods of the second half, Aubameyang’s goal was the difference between the two sides. Well until Juary Soares’ last-gasp equalizer changed the mood around the stadium.
After the hosts were held, next up was another piece of action: Burkina Faso v Cameroon. Same venue, different faces.
Cameroon will host the 2019 edition and will hope to do so on the back of a successful performance in Gabon. But first, the little matter of group stage matches stood in their way. Here, Cameroon's forward Jacques Zoua (right) tried to peel away from the attentions of Burkina Faso's midfielder Charles Kabore under very humid conditions.
It was a game of missed chances and mixed reactions, as Burkina Faso defender Patrick Malo clearly demonstrates here after being guilty of a missed opportunity in front of goal.
After 90 minutes of play, however, it was yet another draw of the tournament. Two games, two draws on Saturday as a win remained elusive. Burkina Faso's Portuguese coach Paulo Duarte was a constant figure on the touchline throughout the game, as was his opposite Hugo Broos, seen here in the background.
Algeria won the African Cup of Nations once in 1990, when they hosted the tournament, and have represented Africa at the World Cup on four occasions: 1982, 1986, 2010 and 2014. In fact, in their last appearance on the global stage, they became the first African side to score four goals in a match at the World Cup, doing so against South Korea.
On the continental stage, this time round, Algeria has been grouped with Senegal, Zimbabwe and Tunisia. Their first match would be against Zimbabwe on Sunday and the day before, they were pictured going through a training session in Moanda.
Meanwhile, the team they would be up against, The Warriors of Zimbabwe, were also seen arriving for their training in Moanda the same day.
Uganda is making a first appearance at the tournament in as many as 39 years, and is the only country in the Cecafa region taking part. The Cranes have a tough group, however, which features Mali, Ghana as well as Egypt, who are the most successful national team in Africa, having won the Nations Cup Africa a record seven times.
Here, Egypt's Argentinian coach Hector Raul Cuper addresses players during a training session in Port-Gentil on Saturday.
The Nations Cup is a rich staple in people’s households and outdoor places. It is watched widely both on the continent and beyond – where some players play their club football from.
The bar you see pictured above in Port-Gentil was one of those places packed during the opening game between home side Gabon and Guinea-Bissau.
Business is booming? I bet it is . . .
Earlier, I talked of Senegal being considered as one of the favorites of this edition. Well, holders Ivory Coast, who saw off Ghana in the previous tournament’s final in a penalty shootout, are also highly favored. They are here to defend their title.
And to kick off their title defence, The Elephants, seen here in a training session, will face Togo later today (Monday) in Oyem in Group C.
The Ivorians are in the same group as DR Congo, who will play Morocco also on Monday. The Congolese finished strongly – third place – at the last tournament, beating hosts Equatorial Guinea 4-2 on penalties. Can they take it a notch higher this time?
Herve Renard became the first coach to win two Africa Cup of Nations with different countries. First, he won it with Zambia in 2012, before guiding Ivory Coast to the 2015 title. He is currently with the Morocco team and ahead of his clash with DR Congo, Renard (right) addressed a press conference in Oyem alongside national team player Moonir Obbadj.
Some time in this tournament, he will have to play against another familiar coaching face on the continent: Claude Leroy, currently with Togo.
Their sides are in the same group.
Le Roy has had a long and varied managerial career, at both club and national level. Among the national teams he has coached include Cameroon, Senegal, Malaysia, DR Congo, Ghana, Oman, Syria, Congo and currently Togo.
Meanwhile, Uganda’s other groupmates are Mali . . .
Here, Mali's French coach Alain Giresse was dwarfed by his players as he took them through a training session in Port-Gentil on Sunday. They will play Egypt on Tuesday in Group D.
The same day, tractors were seen outside Oyem Stadium (Stade d'Oyem), one of the four stadiums hosting matches.
Later that day, it was back to action on the pitch in Franceville as Algeria took on Zimbabwe in a Group B opener . . .
Leicester City striker Islam Slimani was called up for national duty and the Algerian was a force to reckon with against The Warriors on Sunday.
African Footballer of the Year Riyad Mahrez, who also plays his club football for Leicester City, is one of the star players at this tournament. Indeed, he lived up to his expectations as he pulled Algeria out of the hole by scoring twice in a 2-2 affair.
On the sidelines meanwhile, Algeria's Belgian coach Georges Leekens and Zimbabwe's coach Callisto Pasuwa were animated on the sidelines as their sides battled on the pitch.
This man, Avram Grant . . .
The Israeli coach will be in action as his Ghana side meet Coach Micho’s The Uganda Cranes on Tuesday in Group D. In the picture above, he seems to fancy his chances against a team Ghana beat in the 1978 final – the last time Uganda had featured at the tournament.
The Black Stars have won the Nations Cup four times (in 1963, 1965, 1978, and 1982) and have been runner-up five times (in 1968, 1970, 1992, 2010, and 2015).
Well, after three 2017 Nations Cup games ending tied, surely something had to give.
And it did . . .
Senegal became the first team to register a win in this edition when they beat Polish coach Henryk Kasperczak’s Tunisia 2-0 in Franceville on Sunday . . .
. . . thanks to goals by Liverpool striker Sadio Mane and RSC Anderlecht’s Kara Mbodji