If ever there was a group that epitomised the sheer unpredictability of the African Cup of Nations, then the current group A is most certainly it.
From virtually the moment hosts Equatorial Guinea began proceedings against Congo all rational plausibility has been out of the window, with a host of unforeseen circumstances culminating in those two nations claiming the most unlikely of last eight berths.
When the draw was initially made Gabon and Burkina Faso might have been forgiven for perceiving their assortment to be a golden ticket into the knockout stages, whilst the carrot of a winnable quarter-final only heightened the notion that the stars were seemingly aligning perfectly in the pair’s favour. Those aspirations weren’t built on wobbly foundations either, with Burkina Faso supposedly in similar shape to the side who fell at the last hurdle in 2013, whilst there was significant evidence to advocate Gabon and their golden generation as genuine dark horses.
Equatorial Guinea and Congo could only vaunt minimal pedigree at best – for a start, both had been eliminated from the qualification process before it had barely begun. The fielding of an ineligible player at the first hurdle appeared to have done for the National Thunder, whilst Congo fell to Rwanda just a stage later.
Both however were reprieved; with Equatorial Guinea’s route back in coming courtesy of the oil rich state providing CAF with an olive branch in their desperate search for a new host at the eleventh hour. Congo benefitted via Rwanda being cruelly disqualified for employing an illegal player, although the manner in which Claude le Roy’s side then negotiated a group consisting of South Africa, Nigeria and Sudan should not undervalued.
Nonetheless this was the Congolese’s first AFCON showing in 15 years and on top of that the Red Devils hadn’t won a game at Africa’s grandest stage in 41 years. Even accounting for Claude le Roy’s unparalleled experience – the Frenchman has remarkably made at least the quart-finals in seven separate AFCONs – expectations on Congo’s limited squad were largely non-existent.
The outlook appeared even bleaker for the hosts, who entered the tournament ranked at a lowly 118th in the world and with virtually no preparation time to fall back on. Coach Esteban Becker was appointed just weeks before the tournament’s initiation, whilst the Argentine’s squad represented an assortment of personnel seemingly cobbled together from all corners of the globe.
When the two underdogs shared the spoils in the tournament’s curtain raiser, it was believed to be a result that would prove terminally detrimental to both side’s aspirations of unseating their group rivals. Further to that, the manner in which Congo laboured to that point – which only arrived courtesy of Thievy Bifouma’s late strike – offered little indication that the Red Devils possessed the credentials upset the apple cart.
Equatorial Guinea followed up that draw by acquiring a point from a profligate Burkina Faso, who having initially being spoken of as potential winners were showing signs of implosion. Akin to against Congo the hosts to a degree rode their luck, yet like in that fixture but for more composure they might have emerged with the full allocation of points.
It was however Congo who threw the proverbial spanner in the group A works via a workmanlike win over Gabon – in the process ending that exasperating wait for an AFCON victory. Having won countless admirers following a captivating offensive showing against Burkina Faso, the Gabonese cut an altogether more perplexed outfit as the Panthers seemingly struggled to harness the fresh expectations that were inevitably born out of their opening victory.
That victory took Congo to the cusp of qualification – the final equation for le Roy’s side revolved around obtaining a point from a Burkina Faso side who at that point were yet to register a goal – however Equatorial Guinea entered their final date still battling the odds.
Nonetheless infront of vociferous crowd the National Thunder made a complete mockery of those who projected the hosts would be mere also runs, with goals from Javier Balboa and Iban securing a momentous triumph – in the process resigning a Gabonese campaign that promised so much to a disappointing conclusion.
In hindsight there is scope that Equatorial Guinea’s progress is not the anomaly it might appear. In 2012 – when they co-hosted alongside Gabon – the National Thunder negotiated an arguably more arduous group and similarly calamitous preparations en route to the last eight. If the history of African football teaches us anything it is that the advantage of home conditions should never be underestimated, no matter what the circumstances. There is also little doubt that both the hosts and Congo have been substantial aided by Gabon freezing in the face of pressure and Burkina Faso grossly underperforming.
Even accounting for all that, there is no denying the immeasurable scale of Equatorial Guinea’s astounding accomplishment. Congo you could perhaps argue were opportunistic and with luck and le Roy on their side possessed upset instigating capabilities, however it can’t be reiterated enough that not even in the widest realms of feasibility were Equatorial Guinea given a prayer of progression.
Becker is particularly worthy of weighty praise having moulded a functioning collective from the most unlikely compilation of individuals in just a matter weeks.
It is compelling stories such as Equatorial Guinea’s unlikely journey that make African football what it is. The football played out in the second round of fixtures has come under scrutiny and although that is in many ways justified, there is little refuting that in regards to both drama and storytelling capabilities Africa is the international arena’s gold standard.