Africa Primed for Soccer Cup

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Marco Werman: Tourists interested in the region's wildlife may be scarce, but those interested in soccer are flooding to Gabon and its tiny neighbor, Equatorial Guinea. The two Central African countries are co-hosting the Africa Cup of Nations. It's Africa's biggest and most important sports competition. The tournament kicks off tomorrow in Bata, Equatorial Guinea. The BBC's Matthew Kenyon is in Bata and anxiously counting down the minutes. How excited are the locals on the eve of the Africa Cup of Nations there in Equatorial Guinea, Matthew?

Matthew Kenyon: Well Marco, they are pretty excited but it's not the kind of fan fervor that you've seen at World Cups and other Africa Cup of Nations. Equatorial Guinea is, it seems, at any rate, to be quite a subdued kind of a place. I mean, there are flags, there are posters. But certainly, people are really excited to see their football team competing on the continental stage for the very first time.

Werman: Now, we'll see how subdued the fans are tomorrow when Equatorial Guinea takes on Libya.

Kenyon: [Laughs].

Werman: Now, it's 16 national teams from across Africa are competing, Libya among them. Given the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi and the turmoil that Libya experienced, how did Libya make it to the Africa Cup of Nations when traditional powerhouses like Egypt and Nigeria didn't?

Kenyon: It was a fabulous qualifying performance, as you say, played out over the turmoil that was going on in their country back home. They started the competition playing under the flag of Colonel Gaddafi's government and, midway through, the national team switched allegiance and at least one squad member left the camp and went to fight on the frontline. Many others, of course, had family and friends caught up in everything that was going on. But, they did it partly because of their skill as footballers and partly because, I think, they really, really wanted to achieve this goal because of what it would mean to, what is in some ways now, a new country. Egypt obviously were affected by what was going on in their country at the same time, but there were sound footballing reasons why they didn't make it here as well, and likewise for Nigeria and Cameroon.

Werman: That's an extraordinary story about Libya. It sounds like they are kind of a symbol of home almost for Africa and maybe for the Africa Cup of Nations.

Kenyon: Yes. If people are looking for great stories here, then Libya's qualification and their possible progress out of a group which also includes Senegal, who are incredibly strong…if they make it out of that group, then they will have done very well.

Werman: Now, the last edition of the Africa Cup of Nations was in Angola and, frankly, it was a mess. Some listeners will recall that the Togolese team was violently ambushed on a highway there. Is Equatorial Guinea along with co-host Gabon prepared to make this one right?

Kenyon: I think they are. I mean, the security is very strong. All the teams are surrounded by security when they travel around the country and they are cloistered away in hotels which are very carefully watched over because memories of what happened to Togo two years ago are still very strong amongst everyone involved. In terms of the organization, this area where I'm sitting now, only a few months ago was a literal building site. They're still doing a few fine touches, but the infrastructure appears to work.

Werman: The BBC's Matthew Kenyon in Equatorial Guinea. Equatorial Guinea and Gabon are co-hosting the 28th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations which runs through February 12. Great to speak with you, Matthew. Thanks.

Kenyon: That's my pleasure.