The heat is on as Gabon hosts Africa’s big foot­ball party

The Star Early Edition - - SOCCER - NJABULO NGIDI

IWILL prob­a­bly have sweated off a few ki­los by the time I come back from Gabon. The hu­mid­ity here hangs in the air like a bad odour, stub­born and men­ac­ing.

Mov­ing from a place with an air con­di­tioner to the out­side feels like go­ing through the sea­sons. I had buck­ets of sweat stream­ing down my body with­out do­ing any­thing but punch the key­board of my lap­top.

I am not com­plain­ing, though.

Cov­er­ing my first Africa Cup of Na­tions out­side South Africa is a dream come true.

Hav­ing had brief trav­els on the con­ti­nent last year – where I went to Ghana, Zam­bia, Egypt and Cameroon – I ar­rived in Li­bre­ville ex­pect­ing the worst in terms of or­gan­i­sa­tion.

My pes­simism helps me to be calm when things aren’t go­ing well. Sur­pris­ingly ev­ery­thing has been smooth.

It took me less than five min­utes to get my ac­cred­i­ta­tion. The me­dia cen­tre, with a cool air con­di­tioner, was a breeze and the in­ter­net worked a charm.

The Gabonese are so proud of their high speed in­ter­net that there was a story about it in the newspaper Esprit d’equipe (Team Spirit).

It was when I was at the me­dia stand at Stade de l’Ami­tie that the men­ac­ing heat did as it pleased. It at­tacks you from all fronts, even though we were lucky be­cause Satur­day was over­cast and there were a few drops of rain, which meant it wasn’t that hot by the lo­cals’ stan­dards.

It is af­ter-all tech­ni­cally win­ter in the north­ern hemi­sphere. But that word, win­ter, doesn’t ex­ist here.

The view from where I sat showed the con­trast of this city. On the right, I could see a boom­ing me­trop­o­lis with its high-ris­ing build­ings. On the left was an un­der-de­vel­oped side of Li­bre­ville.

Those two faces of this city, and coun­try – rich and poor – were set to clash at the open­ing match of the Af­con.

There were planned protests to boy­cott the tour­na­ment in protest of the money spent to build sta­di­ums while the gov­ern­ment is­sued cut­backs on health and ed­u­ca­tion.

There was also the anger that stemmed from the Au­gust elec­tions that Pres­i­dent Ali Bongo Ondimba claimed to have won but the op­po­si­tion, led by for­mer AU head Jean Ping, dis­putes that.

There were no such protests in the sta­dium’s precinct be­cause of the large se­cu­rity and mil­i­tary pres­ence.

It felt like Gabon the coun­try, not their na­tional team the Pan­thers, was go­ing to war be­cause of the mil­i­tary trucks that cir­cled the sta­dium. Those se­cu­ri­ties pro­tected Stade de l’Ami­tie, which iron­i­cally trans­lates to the Friend­ship Sta­dium, like the Guinea-Bis­sau de­fend­ers pro­tected their box to pull off a mas­sive sur­prise, get­ting a point from the hosts.

The lo­cals are pes­simistic about their team.

When I asked our trans­la­tor, Loris, if he thinks they can win the Af­con, he laughed and said, “let’s be re­al­is­tic”.

Even though this is Gabon’s party, it feels like it’s Cameroon’s party with Gabon play­ing host. The In­domitable Lions fans were louder at the sta­dium and more pop­u­lar on the streets.

There is even a (Sa­muel) Eto’o Fils Bar on the road to the sta­dium. Per­haps I’ll pass there to beat this heat one of these days. But I won’t be drink­ing their lo­cal beer Re­gab. It tastes ter­ri­ble, like some­one de­cided let’s throw sugar in there per­haps it’ll make it bet­ter.

That’s what this event feels like, the Pres­i­dent de­cid­ing, let’s throw them a party in the form of the Af­con, per­haps they’ll stop be­ing restless.

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