A weird tale of two coastal cities

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT - Njabulo Ngidi

STADE DE Port-Gentil is so new that you can smell the paint in cer­tain ar­eas while the legs of the chairs in the me­dia stand were still cov­ered in bub­ble wrap. You can see the ad­he­sive on the tiles in the toi­lets in cer­tain ar­eas was re­cently ap­plied.

The grass on the pitch showed it still needed time to grow, eas­ily suc­cumb­ing from be­ing pun­ished in two matches. The sand-like foun­da­tion un­der­neath the grass popped up from the pres­sure. The precinct is still re­ceiv­ing some fi­nal touches, in­clud­ing where there is sup­posed to be grass. At the mo­ment there is just sand, and a sign that says don’t walk on the grass.

It’s an am­bi­tious state­ment, just like this sta­dium that has a built-in ho­tel.

Barcelona and Ar­gentina star, Lionel Messi, laid the first stone. His dress-code for that oc­ca­sion, torn pants and an un­kempt ap­pear­ance with his bear un­shaven, caused a stir just as the $3.5-mil­lion (just over R47-mil­lion) Gabon’s gov­ern­ment al­legedly paid him to ap­pear. The gov­ern­ment de­nied mak­ing such a pay­ment. “The mes­siah of foot­ball ar­rived in Gabon like he was go­ing to a zoo: dirty, un­shaven and his hands in his pock­ets, look­ing for peanuts to throw to them! When you’re called Lionel Messi and you’re a multi-bil­lion­aire, you don’t have the right to present your­self to of­fi­cials of a repub­lic, even a ba­nana one, with your hands in the pock­ets of a ripped, tat­tered pair of shorts,” the coun­try’s op­po­si­tion party, Union of the Gabonese Peo­ple, said in a state­ment.

Messi’s ap­pear­ance that day re­flects this city. More than a decade ago it was named the world’s most ex­pen­sive city. But it’s hard to see where those riches went to given the city’s ap­pear­ancer­ance. Cur­rently Port Gentil is the fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal of Gabon be­cause of oil and tim­ber. But it looks un­shaven and tat­tered.

We could eas­ily have been at the coun­try­side as we drove from the air­port to this sta­dium such was the state of the road. It was tar then sud­denly it became gravel and then back to tar again.

The tar ended and we en­tered gravel be­fore re-en­ter­ing tar. A large stretch lead­ing up to the sta­dium that had dirt, was cov­ered up by ban­ners pro­mot­ing the Africa Cup of Na­tions. This beau­ti­ful sta­dium stands out with the bam­boo-like struc­ture that looks like Cape Town Sta­dium. The weather on Mon­day felt like the Mother City. I woke up to the reg­u­lar heat in Li­bre­ville. It rained just be­fore my flight and I ar­rived into a hot Port-Gentil that later turned over­cast, threat­en­ing to rain. A light driz­zle ended the long day.

Rain in Li­bre­ville al­most put me in trou­ble with the ush­ers at the air­port. It was rain­ing when we made our way from the board­ing gate to the small plane that car­ries just over 50 pas­sen­gers. The usher men­ac­ingly told me to slow down be­cause run­ning isn’t al­lowed on the run­way, even in the rain. I lis­tened.

Peo­ple, mostly jour­nal­ists, boarded that plane as if they were tak­ing a taxi, there was no re­served seat­ing. There was also no screen to show the safety pro­ce­dures. The at­ten­dant had to mimic it, do­ing each act twice – when the voice ex­plained it in French and in English. It was a quick flight, tak­ing less than 30 min­utes. The view be­tween the two coastal cities was scenic.

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