Be careful what you wish for. President Ali Bongo was desperate for Gabon to host the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations but, when he was leaning on the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to grant him the tournament back in 2015, the central African dictator would not have anticipated everything that has happened since.
First, his family’s 50-year regime (he succeeded his father Omar Bongo in 2009) has been under serious threat: an election widely condemned as rigged in August 2016 led to street protests, state violence and the Parliament building burning in Libreville. Second, oil-rich Gabon is having to get used to becoming oil-austerity Gabon. Declining revenues and budget cuts have now coincided with a $700 million (£575m) spend on Africa’s showpiece football event.
But the disputed presidential election isn’t the only questionable vote hanging over the latest AFCON. Gabon was awarded the tournament at an often farcical meeting in Cairo in April 2015. Both Ghana and Algeria, who had presented strong bids, openly questioned the validity of the count.
There was little doubt who Issa Hayatou, long-time president of the CAF, preferred as host. At the very least, Gabon at that stage could point towards “stability” and a recent record of co-hosting with Equatorial Guinea in 2012. On the other side of the ledger was the country’s democratic deficit, a population of just 1.5 million and a significant infrastructure gap.
CAF doesn’t like empty seats on the TV screens. Free tickets are being distributed, while Gabonese businesses are being encouraged to buy up blocks for their employees. Amid the opposition calls for boycott – restated on Monday in Libreville – organisers will be hoping for a strong showing from Les Panthères to sweep the doubters away on a tide of patriotism.
Gabon have Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in their ranks and find themselves in a weak Group A with debutants Guinea-Bissau, a diminished Burkina Faso and a transitional Cameroon. A quarter-final place is almost assured.
Elsewhere, Group B in Franceville sees marginal favourites Algeria and Senegal alongside Zimbabwe and Tunisia. Algeria and Leicester forward Riyad Mahrez returns with enhanced credentials and the team’s ever-attractive, intricate passing style will require the higher gear only he provides. Sadio Mané may find the Senegalese system constrains his sparkier instincts.
Defending champions Ivory Coast, shorn of the Touré brothers and the injured Gervinho, open their tournament against Togo in the jungle of Oyem. Look out for the youthful promise of midfielders Jean-Michaël Seri and Franck Yannick Kessié as Les Elephants look to a new generation. Morocco and DR Congo will join the fight for second spot.
In the coastal city of Port-Gentil, Group D perhaps presents the most open prospect: Avram Grant’s Ghana, who lost out on penalties in the final two years ago, will face a stern challenge by Mohamed Salah-inspired Egypt (seven-time winners but attending their first AFCON since 2010), consistent Mali and a spirited Uganda, the Cranes joining the party after a 38-year absence.
Nigeria and South Africa failed to qualify – to much national gnashing of teeth. This is still, bar the Premier League dropouts, the tournament everyone wants to make it to – and, who knows, come the final on February 5, football may yet win out over politics.