Unity is main goal of Libyan team in Africa Cup of Nations

Players enter soccer tournament in a spirit of democracy, as host’s dictator, Teodoro Obiang, looks on

How Muammar Gaddafi would have loved to be there. Libya's footballers kicked off Africa's biggest football tournament on Saturday after a kitsch opening ceremony reminiscent of the late leader's own jamborees. Whereas the Libyans were now representing a very different nation, their hosts, Equatorial Guinea, would have made Gaddafi feel at home: rich in oil but poor in freedom.

In a match that pitted the Arab spring against a seemingly interminable African winter, the Libyans played for pride while Equatorial Guinea had a baser incentive: a $1m (£644,548) win bonus plus $20,000 for every goal they score.

Gaddafi would have arrived at this Africa Cup of Nations in flamboyant sunglasses and robes, taking a gilded box seat and rubbing shoulders with his host and fellow autocrat, Teodoro Obiang. He would have relished an opening ceremony that began with a red-suited presenter resembling a young Michael Jackson joined in a disco dance routine by six men in bright shirts and ties.

They were followed by performers in traditional facepaint, headdresses and straw skirts, bare-chested dancers and children in football strips.

Fans at the new Nkoantoma stadium in Bata, waving giant orange hands marked "clap", watched a light and sound show with images of waterfalls, rivers, forests and gorillas and a map of Africa projected on to central screens. There was triumphalist music – inevitably Obiang's face loomed large – before national flags unfurled and fireworks and searchlights filled the night sky. Outside, more ominously, police fired teargas to control the surging crowd.

When Gaddafi, Africa's so-called "king of kings", was toppled last year, Obiang supplanted him as the continent's longest-serving leader alongside José Santos of Angola. Both came to power in 1979, a year before Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.

For, in football parlance, Africa in 2011 was a continent of two halves. North of the Sahara, the defection of Libya's national team was a symbolic moment in the revolution. The players donned a strip featuring the red, black and green colours of the country's new flag in a 1-0 qualifying win over Mozambique.

They stayed undefeated in qualifying despite having to play all their matches in other countries, and with some players having joined the rebel forces in combat. Fans in Libya were preparing to watch Saturday's match on TV with hopes that it could prove a force for unity. The players huddled together and linked arms when the new national anthem was played.

"This is much more important than just some football cup," midfielder Walid al-Katroushi said. "We came here because we want to do something good for Libya – we are not here to enjoy ourselves. The Libyan people understand football, they love the game. It's a long time since the country had something to smile and be happy about."

Not everyone has embraced the new reality so quickly. The Confederation of African Football was still using the Gaddafi-era green flag for Libya on its website until the team protested and threatened a boycott, forcing a switch to the new flag just hours before kick-off.

In sub-Saharan Africa, change has been harder to come by. Obiang is enjoying the fruits of a 10-year construction boom fuelled by oil and gas reserves and remains virtually unchallenged. Equatorial Guinea is ranked 136th in the world by the UN's human development index – and 151st in the world by Fifa. Their experienced French coach, Henri Michel, resigned just weeks ago, leaving Brazilian replacement Gilson Paulo with little time to get to know his squad.

Playing down expectations, Paulo said: "We will be trying to put on a good, strong show, but it has to be realised that the preparation time was short."

Obiang does not seem ready to accept excuses. "You have to be confident of the possibility of Equatorial Guinea winning the trophy," he told the players. "We must banish selfishness, because unity is strength."

Perhaps aware of the need to concentrate minds, Obiang's son, Teodorin, has dangled the carrot of $1m to be shared if the team pull off an upset. Money is apparently no object for the playboy accused by the US government of looting more than $100m from state coffers..

Equatorial Guinea and co-hosts Gabon have spent millions from their oil wealth on the Cup of Nations, which features Premier League stars including Manchester City's Ivorian brothers, Yaya and Kolo Toure.

Some believe the tournament should not be held in Equatorial Guinea at all, given its dismal human rights record.

Steve Bloomfield, author of Africa United: How Football Explains Africa, said: "Obiang and Gaddafi share many traits: dictators willing to go to any lengths to stay in power, oppression of the masses, all fuelled by billions in oil money. This tournament is taking place in a dictatorship and a sham democracy. It's a disgrace for African football."


David Smith Johannesburg

The GuardianTramp

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