Zambia held to draw by Congo at African Cup of Nations
EBEBIYIN, Equatorial Guinea — Zambia and Congo drew 1-1 to open Group B at the African Cup of Nations on Sunday at a tiny new stadium carved out of the dense jungle in the far north-eastern corner of Equatorial Guinea.
Zambia’s Given Singuluma struck first after an early error by Congo goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba in the remote town of Ebebiyin near the borders with Cameroon and Gabon – maybe one of the unlikeliest venues to host two former African champions.
Congo equalized in the 66th when Yannick Bolasie swept a shot into the top left corner after the ball fell to him on the edge of the area.
The teams were the first at the African Cup to play at Ebebiyin Stadium, a 5,000-seat ground hastily put together for the continental championship and with no stands behind the goals. Local fans not used to this standard of soccer cheered both countries, and roamed around the stands in long lines, dancing and chanting and enjoying their rare exposure to top-level football.
Outside the ground, more people made themselves at home under a huge tree, setting up makeshift tents and shelters away from the black-suited riot police who had to make the three-hour drive up from the city of Bata to provide security for the game.
Ebebiyin is one of the venues under especially close scrutiny in the hurried buildup to the Cup of Nations. It’s a town of just over 30,000 people with little football infrastructure.
”It’s OK. We are not complaining,” Zambia coach Honour Janza said. ”We are enjoying the atmosphere. I think it reminds us of 2012. So I think we are OK.”
Zambia’s only previous African Cup title came in 2012, when Equatorial Guinea co-hosted the tournament.
On Sunday, the Zambians got a lucky early break when Kidiaba punched the ball straight to Singuluma, who drilled it back past the `keeper into the net.
Congo stamped its authority on the game from then on, with Bolasie forcing Zambian goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene to block a close-range shot in the seventh minute, and sending a deflected free kick just past the right post toward the end of the first half.
Bolasie did find the net in the second half, and ran all the way to the dugout to do a little jig with his teammates.
Ebebiyin Stadium was full by the end of the game, including a packed section of Congolese supporters in one corner banging drums constantly. The pitch wasn’t good, though, cutting up often and forcing players to stamp big lumps of turf back down again.
But Equatorial Guinea only had two months to prepare for this tournament after Morocco withdrew as host, and the Central African country had just a handful of stadiums it could use to save the African Cup.
”We knew that (Equatorial) Guinea obviously wasn’t ready to host this African Cup of Nations,” said Congo captain Youssouf Mulumbu, who plays in the Premier League. ”I don’t want to criticize them. They do their best. If we want to be in better conditions, we need to go past this group stage.”