Kicked out, welcomed back and broken in between: Equatorial Guinea's madcap run to the AFCON knockouts
As they ran their lap of honour, blowing kisses to the crowds while draped in flags of their country, one would have expected to see a trophy in among the celebrations of Equatorial Guinea's national team in the Estadio de Bata.
Though there was an absence of any silverware amid the red shirts, they had achieved something that few believed was possible, in qualifying for the knockout stages of their own Africa Cup of Nations. There's no trophy for that, of course, but it's been greeted that way by the people of the small African state.
The post-match celebrations summed up what was an incredible evening in Bata. At the climax of Group A, Equatorial Guinea took on Gabon in what was tipped pre-match as the day the hosts' luck would finally run out. After milking draws against Congo and Burkina Faso in their opening two games, Gabon would surely be the team to condemn them to a nice but ultimately unsuccessful campaign.
A respectable display in their three group matches was the mandate, given how their participation in this tournament came about. But as people partied in the streets after the game, hugging, blowing whistles and yelling 'Nzalang!' (the national team's nickname, meaning 'lightning'), you didn't need to be in the stadium to know what had happened. The partying outside was a microcosm of what was going on elsewhere, as stories emerged of airport baggage handlers and Ebola workers abandoning their posts to celebrate the win.
By beating their neighbours 2-0, Equatorial Guinea sent the country into meltdown as Group A's pre-tournament expectations were turned on their head.
The possibilities of all four teams qualifying created a game in which both were keen to win, and dissolved the dour, attritional formula for games that had gone before it.
A second-half penalty from Javier Balboa and a late goal from Ivan Edu confirmed the three points to see them into the knockout stage in second place behind Congo.
Boss Esteban Becker lauded his side's “Cinderella story” after the match, a fairytale reference that's by no means an exaggeration for a team that wasn't even playing football two months ago.
Forfeit, panic, relax
You have to hark back to May 2014 to understand the story of Nzalang Nacional. Against Mauritania in first-round preliminary qualifying, a 3-1 aggregate win over two legs should have seen them through to the next stage, where they would be two wins from joining the group stage of qualification for AFCON 2015.
However, a familiar problem would come back to bite them. After employing a controversial naturalisation policy, their team selection has been more akin to a club side than a national one in recent years, with various recruits from South America being used in an attempt to foster some quality.
Thierry Fidjeu was deemed to be ineligible, and the appearance of the Cameroon-born player forced them to forfeit the two legs against Mauritania. Their opponents took their place in the next round.
With six months of inactivity, the announcement that Morocco had bailed on hosting AFCON 2015 created a bizarre opportunity for a reprieve, as Equatorial Guinea president Obiang Nguema accepted CAF's request for them to step in as hosts just 57 days before the tournament was due to start.
With the panic focused on how they would manage to host a continental competition in such a tiny time frame, few seemed interested in preparing the team that was to represent Equatorial Guinea.
As such, then-manager Andoni Goikoetexea was tasked with forming a team capable of giving a half-decent impression during their hastily-arranged hosting.
But at the end of December, another bizarre blow threatened to worsen their already-poor preparations. The Equatoguinean federation FEGUIFOOT announced that Goikoetexea's contract had expired on December 31 2014, and that they would not be renewing it for the forthcoming tournament.
After missing the initial deadline to name their squad, brief confusion was stemmed when they announced that the new manager would be Argentine Becker, who'd previously bossed the very successful Equatoguinean women's team that won the AFCON equivalent in 2008 and 2012.
Yet after hastily assembling a squad, gathering them in Madrid before heading to Lisbon for friendlies, Becker has somehow managed to create a functioning, attractive side that has defied all expectations.
Led by Middlesbrough forward Emilio Nsue, this team has found a balance between ability and showmanship.
Their football manipulates the crowd in such a way that makes playing them an intimidating prospect.
See the constant tricks, flicks and last-ditch tackles; the way goalkeeper Felipe Ovono lays on the ball for several seconds even after the most basic of claims. All of it ignites the crowd for screams and applause for their newfound heroes.
Nobody called Equatorial Guinea and Congo advancing beyond the group stage. The inquest starts now for Burkina Faso, finalists two years ago and since proving themselves to be one of the strongest sides in the continent, while dark horses Gabon will be desperately disappointed – especially after rumours that president Ali Bongo attended the final group stage game.
But on the equator, they don't care. As locals danced on the slightly odd statue of a gorilla outside the Estadio de Bata, the red of Nzalang Nacional dominated everywhere from Malabo to Mongomo on the back of this nation's finest footballing achievement.
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