It took a turn of pace quite unsuited to the sweltering conditions when, at the end of the final Africa Cup of Nations group stage fixture between Egypt and Ghana, journalists were invited to avail themselves of some free transport. Board a bus beneath the press box quickly enough and, before you knew it, you could be on an aeroplane from Port-Gentil back to the Gabonese capital, Libreville – with delegates from the Confederation of African Football (CAF), including its president Issa Hayatou, for company.
A scramble downstairs, a police convoy and a dash through an empty airport led to by far the quickest – and most glamorous – journey of a tournament whose logistics have not been simple.
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Mobility will be put to the test again during a packed weekend across all four venues but the lineup of quarter-finals does, at least, put a spring in the step. Senegal v Cameroon, in Franceville on Saturday, looks comfortably the tie of the round, while Ghana could be pushed all the way by DR Congo. Egypt and Morocco, managed by double Cup of Nations winner Herve Renard, contest a north African derby, while Burkina Faso’s clash with Tunisia heightens the possibility of a relative outsider making the final.
If the tournament’s early throes were troubled, and hardly improved with the exit of host nation Gabon, a tight and high-quality knock-out stage seems likely.
Ivory Coast’s elimination may have disappointed those with an eye on the big names – if not those working at the clubs they play for – but it emphasised that Africa’s playing field has leveled in recent years. There is not one outstanding team; rather, there are a number of good ones that, at a World Cup, would compete strongly without delving too far into the latter stages.
The base that was not evident previously is in place and now Africa’s best eight teams need the right stage to perform. That has been a recurring issue during the tournament and it has become more pressing: some of the tournament’s pitches, notably those in Port-Gentil and Oyem, appear nowhere near the quality required for a major tournament and there is little doubt that the standard of football – in a fortnight that, make no mistake, has been entertaining – has suffered at times.
The rough, bobbly surface in Port-Gentil has borne witness to a number of injuries, most recently to Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan – although despite managers’ public concerns there is no firm evidence that it has directly caused players harm. It has, though, marred matches – such as the clash between Egypt and Ghana – that would, on a pristine surface, have made entertaining spectacles between technically adept teams.

Egypt's defender Ahmed Fathi (L) challenges Ghana's forward Jordan Ayew during the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations group D football match between Egypt and Ghana in Port-Gentil on January 25, 2017.

Image credit: AFP

So contentious has the Port-Gentil pitch been that initial discussions were held earlier in the week about moving the Egypt v Morocco quarter-final (which will be held there on Sunday) to the northern city of Oyem. Egypt, who have been based in Port-Gentil throughout and had little appetite to up sticks, were reluctant enough to make that a non-starter; in any case, Oyem was subject to a downpour before Uganda’s match with Mali on Wednesday night and large sections of the pitch were submerged in water. Of the two spectacles on show that night, the one on offer in Port-Gentil was infinitely better and, probably, safer.
These are different issues to those being pored over two weeks ago, when opponents of the Gabonese president, Ali Bongo, were vociferous in calling for a boycott of the tournament.
Support for the national team itself was disappointingly muted, but crowds elsewhere have held up relatively well by Cup of Nations standards – particularly where countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso, which have large expatriate communities in Gabon, are concerned.
CAF has calculated “an average of 17-18,000 supporters per match”, according to its media director Junior Binyam, and while that looks somewhat generous, the visual impression is that there has been no drop-off from the norm.
Gabon has been keen to make supporters and media alike feel welcome. A group of visiting journalists was invited to dinner with the country’s Prime Minister, Emmanuel Issoze-Ndonget, on Thursday evening at a beach club close to Libreville’s US embassy. The line of conversation rarely diverged from political and social issues relating to the tournament but, when football itself was discussed, Issoze-Ndonget expressed a wish to see Cameroon – which borders Gabon to the north – progress to the final, while noting that Ghana look a strong contender.
How close his expectations match reality will be apparent by Sunday evening, when Ghana and Cameroon will be looking forward to a semi-final match in Franceville if all goes to plan. And even if it takes unseemly haste and the largesse of CAF bigwigs to make sure, the international press pack aim to have every inch of the action covered.
-- by Nick Ames
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