Even before Thursday night’s ugly scenes, Equatorial Guinea’s compelling 2015 AFCON adventure had already cemented a place in lasting memory. Engaging, controversial and implausible – the National Thunder’s journey to the last four was anything but uneventful.
The final chapter of that voyage would however take the drama to previously unscaled heights, in the form of one of the crassest nights witnessed in AFCON history.
The host’s contentious quarter-final triumph over Tunisia had already seen disorder of what appeared unrivalled levels, yet the hideous occrances that infused in Malabo just four days later rendered those events almost nonsensical.
All this would have seemed beyond even the widest realms of possibility when Equatorial Guinea were supposedly disqualified from the qualification process at the first hurdle back in May – the fielding of an ineligible player against unheralded Mauritania resigning them to the apparent exit door.
A route back in was however engineered back in November, when Equatorial Guinea offered their services as an eleventh hour host following Morocco’s Ebola associated withdrawal.
Ranked 113th in the world, with a squad seemingly cobbled together from all corners of the globe and a manager appointed just weeks before proceedings commenced, the National Thunder weren’t given a prayer of being anything more than cannon fodder.
Those forecasts however couldn’t have been wider of the mark, as the hosts – caught up in a wave of vociferous support and with the fortunes gods watching their backs – disparaged the odds to momentously march into an implausible quarter-final date.
It was undoubtedly the story of the group stages and the ecstasy created by that accomplishment would engulf the tournament.
Off the field Equatorial Guinea were collecting further plaudits, accounting that for a tournament organised off the back of minimal notice period things were being carried off remarkably well.
Yes there had been minor problems – primarily involving accommodation and crowd congestion – but considering the circumstances the hosts were rightly being revered for negotiating the seemingly unattainable timeframe to put on a respectable spectacle.
The seminal last eight victory over Tunisia should have generated a notion of yet further continental wide euphoria, yet it is here where the mood showed signs of turning sour.
An already ill-tempered fixture descended into complete chaos following the most dubious awarding of an Equatorial Guinea penalty in stoppage time, which allowed Javier Balboa to extend the disorder into extra-time.
The football almost became a mere subplot throughout that additional half hour, with a vulgar brawl amongst the most distasteful aspects of an uncomfortable extension to the game.
The visibly enraged North Africans hardly helped themselves with an unpleasant cynical display, whilst their reaction in the face of adversity was widely condemned as disgraceful – but for the assistance of riot police it wouldn’t be fathom from the truth to suggest that referee Rajindraparsad Seechurn might have come to genuine harm.
Inevitably the questionable outcome of that fixture was greeted with cries of foul play; although others claimed Seechurn had simply lost patience with Tunisia’s persistent disruption tactics.
Nevertheless CAF were quick to act by handing the Mauritanian official a six month ban – a decision that some would argue represents a virtual admission of guilt.
With the dust barely settled on that controversial success, the hosts relocated away from Bata to dual with Ghana in Malabo – a fixture really which should have signified a celebration of the National Thunder’s historic achievements.
Ultimately Ghana were a simply to a force too formidable for the plucky hosts, yet the feeling of inadequacy only served as a vehicle to generate anguish amongst the hosts nation’s supporters and to a lesser degree their players.
From the point in which the Black Stars moved into the ascendancy the atmosphere began to grow unstable, with Ghana’s players requiring a police escort down the tunnel following an assault in the form of projectile objects.
That pelting of both Ghanaian supporters and personnel only intensified after the break, with inspections of the playing area once the drama had concluded painting an alarming picture of stones, broken glass and other unsavoury objects – make no doubt about it, the implications of the unrest could have been beyond catastrophic.
As the possibility of Equatorial Guinea manoeuvring a route back decline, disharmony in the stands only deepened – to such a degree that for their own safety Ghanaian fans were relocated from their designated seating area onto a section of running track behind the goal.
That harrowing sight was seemingly enough for Eric Otogo-Castane to bring proceedings to a temporary halt.
From that point confusion was the overriding theme, as numerous CAF officials chaotically debated the safest course of action to take – all this occurring amidst the consistent backdrop of flying objects and tear gas.
In reality the authorities were plunged into an unwinnable situation, given that abandoning the fixture had the potential to only heighten tempers.
Both the presence of a police helicopter and a protest from Equatorial Guinea’s players seemingly had little becalming influence.
However play did eventually reconvene, although only a sobering period stoppage time was played out rather than the eight minutes of the 90 that had been lost to the disruption.
For Ghana – whose players exercised a remarkable calmness throughout – their advancement to a first AFCON 2008 is now undeniably a feat tinged in sadness given the suffering of their own supporters; nonetheless the impeccable Black Stars endeared themselves to many in Malabo.
In the case of Equatorial Guinea, it’s difficult to recall a nations going from darlings to devils in such a short time period. Their captivating adversity quashing story – both on the pitch and logistically – had won a plethora of hearts, yet the overriding memory of the hosts will now be one tarnished by hooliganism.
The hosts’ campaign has encapsulated virtually every emotion and it is a desperate shame the actions of one regrettable night has left a terminal sour taste.
For what has largely been a hugely successful tournament – despite the presence of substantial obstacles – the worldwide impression will now frustratingly be dominant by the volatile events of Thursday evening.
Having in the large part evaded mainstream media, this story has thrust a tournament which has entailed countless uplifting narratives into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Most exasperatingly, the scenes in Malabo have created a brush from which the ill-informed can fuel outdated stereotypes of the African game.