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Remote Oyem passes 1st African Cup test, Ivory Coast doesn’t

By GERALD IMRAYJanuary 16, 2017
Togo supporters chant before the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Ivory Coast and Togo at the Stade de Oyem in Oyem, Gabon, Monday Jan. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
Togo supporters chant before the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Ivory Coast and Togo at the Stade de Oyem in Oyem, Gabon, Monday Jan. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

OYEM, Gabon (AP) — Oyem passed its first test at the African Cup of Nations even if defending champion Ivory Coast didn’t, with one of Gabon’s two new stadiums holding up on its opening day of games. Port-Gentil’s new venue will be under scrutiny on Tuesday, and so will Egypt and Ghana after Ivory Coast became the latest title contender to underwhelm on its first outing.

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There can’t have been many more remote choices for a host city at a major tournament than Oyem, buried deep in the jungles of northern Gabon with just rubber plantations for company. Oyem isn’t even a city, it’s a town, and the Stade d’Oyem isn’t even in Oyem. It juts out from dense jungle around 15 kilometers (miles) outside of town, and is reachable by a narrow road that winds left and right and up and down through the vegetation. The Stade d’Oyem held up on Monday on its opening night, but there was frenzied activity in the hours before its first game, with workers buzzing around the stadium finishing all sorts of jobs. Apart from a giant television screen that blinkered on and off throughout the second half of Ivory Coast’s 0-0 draw with Togo, there were no problems. Even the field, with its bumps in some places, and bare patches near the corners, wasn’t an issue. Although, TV viewers won’t have seen the construction debris strewn around the half-finished outer parts of the stadium. The readiness of Oyem and Port-Gentil has been a big worry for the African Cup. Port-Gentil, with its shiny golden roof, is the venue for Group D’s first round of games on Tuesday.


Even if the games go off OK, the cost of the new stadiums in Oyem and Port-Gentil appears shockingly wasteful: $133 million for 15 games. That’s how many matches the two Chinese-built stadiums will host at the African Cup, and with no soccer clubs of any note anywhere near them, they’re unlikely to be used with any regularity again. It’s a steep price to pay for Gabon, where many struggle in poverty and where public services have recently been cut.


Egypt and Ghana take up the challenge after three surprises for the bigger teams on the first three days of the Cup of Nations. Gabon was held by debutant Guinea-Bissau on the opening night. Then, Algeria had to dig deep for 2-2 with Zimbabwe, which hadn’t qualified for the African Cup for over a decade before this year. Ivory Coast’s title-holders were matched by Togo in Oyem. Egypt is the record seven-time champion but failed to qualify for the last three African Cups with the distraction of political upheaval back home. Egypt is back and faces Mali in its first game in Port-Gentil. Ghana, the losing finalist last tournament, plays Uganda, another dangerous outsider.


Egypt goalkeeper Essam el-Hadary could set a new African Cup record if he plays against Mali, as expected. El-Hadary, at 44, will become the oldest player to feature at the tournament, overtaking former Egypt striker and teammate Hossam Hassan, who was 39 when he won the title with the Pharaohs in 2006. El-Hadary has been part of four African Cup triumphs already, and is seeking a victorious finish to a professional career that began in 1993.


Follow Gerald Imray on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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