Afcon: welcoming the football, watching out for Ebola

2015-01-16 06:57

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A gun-like sensor is put against the head of each person as soon as they get off a plane in Equatorial Guinea, the host country for the African Cup of Nations. When the sensor beeps, the man holding it nods and the passenger is ordered to move along.

Next, unsmiling women wearing white coats and masks spray cleansing gel on everyone’s hands and tell them to rub them together. And questionnaires have to be filled in, asking if you’ve had a fever in the last 21 days. The body temperature of everyone is checked.

It’s all part of the preparations for Africa’s big football tournament.

In the wake of the terrible West African Ebola outbreak, tournament organisers the Confederation of African Football were certain the January 17 to February 8 African Cup should go ahead, confident the disease wouldn’t be a threat. Now they have to make sure it won’t be after dumping Morocco as host because of that country’s fears over Ebola and desire to postpone the 16-team event for up to a year.

CAF refused Morocco’s suggestion and chose Equatorial Guinea as a short-notice replacement. It was really CAF’s only choice as no one else wanted the tournament and its thousands of travellers.

“When all [Equatorial] Guineans learnt that the African Nations Cup was going to be played here, everyone was afraid, we were terrified,” Genoveva Abesolo Obunu, an official with Equatorial Guinea’s health ministry, said.

“But when we learnt about the steps the government was taking to prevent the sickness, the fear subsided.”

So the tournament will go on, kicking off this weekend in the oil-rich Central African nation halfway up the continent’s west coast. It is Equatorial Guinea’s second go at the African Cup in three years after co-hosting with Gabon in 2012.

CAF and Equatorial Guinean authorities have announced this time that everyone arriving in the coming days – players, officials, fans, everyone – will undergo Ebola screening. No one is exempt, no matter where they come from.

In the airport terminal in Malabo, the capital, posters describing the dreaded symptoms of the deadly virus hang alongside triumphant photos of the country’s president holding the African Cup trophy. Pictures warning people of the possible implications of vomiting and diarrhoea sit next to the football championship’s colourful and cheery mascot; a squirrel-like creature with red, blue, green and white fur kicking a ball.

Equatorial Guinea has no reported Ebola cases. Guinea, far away in West Africa, is one of the three countries badly affected by Ebola and the only one of the three to have a team qualify for the tournament. But the disease – which has killed more than 8 000 people – will call for constant vigilance over the next three weeks, authorities here say.

In Bata, Equatorial Guinea’s biggest city, posters in the national language Spanish call above all for an African Cup “without Ebola”. Ebola screening tests also take place at its airport, this time on the tarmac as travellers walk toward the terminal.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

Equatorial Guinea’s reward for taking on the tournament with just two months to prepare is the reinstatement of its team as host nation in place of Morocco. The decision was contentious because Equatorial Guinea had been disqualified from the Cup of Nations last year for fielding an ineligible player. Now it’s back in.

“The people of Bata are overjoyed,” Bata resident Pedro Nga said, speaking French, the country’s second language. “We will applaud and support the team, that’s all I can say.”

Equatorial Guinea opens the African Cup on Saturday against Republic of Congo in Bata. Burkina Faso then plays Gabon at the same stadium in the first of a series of double-headers. Games will also be at three other venues: Malabo and two border towns in the far east, Ebebiyin and Mongomo.

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