Going into the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, Equatorial Guinea were the lowest-ranked side in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking at 151. However, the National Lightning shocked heavily fancied Senegal on Wednesday to become the first nation to reach the knockout stage.
Their 2-1 win over the now-eliminated Lions of Teranga in Bata in Group A was even more against the form book than their first win last weekend, when they narrowly edged Libya with a late goal in the opening game of the 16-team tournament.
But now the co-hosts, whose realistic ambitions at the start of the event were to prove competitive and try and achieve results of any kind, have set their sights on top place in their pool. To the delight of the nation’s 700,000 inhabitants, the national team have a two-point lead over second-placed Zambia and need only draw against the Copper Bullets to remain in Bata for next weekend’s first quarter-final.
Looking for three more
Not only is Equatorial Guinea a small country with little in the way of footballing pedigree, but their run-up to the finals was not as smooth as it might have been after coach Henri Michel quit just a month ago. With just two weeks before the event, in stepped unheralded Brazilian boss Gilson Paulo, who was a youth coach at Vasco da Gama previously. Despite having less than a week to decide on a final roster, Paulo has managed to give his charges self-belief, and he insists that more can be done.
“Our sights are now set on finishing top of the group,” he said after the dramatic victory over Senegal, where Kily scored a stunning match-winner late in second-half injury time. “We have done unbelievably well to win our first two games, but for me the job is not yet finished. To win a third one is very important too. We have more ambition.”
Captain Juvenal Edjogo echoed his coach’s words amid scenes of some delirium at the Estadio Bata, where supporters celebrated defeat of a team replete with international stars. “We fought to the last second and have qualified, but we still want to win our last match against Zambia. It is an historic victory and historic day. Our target is to finish as the winners of the group, and we can only achieve that by winning our last game,” he reiterated. Actually a draw would be good enough, but it is evidence of how drastically Nzalang Nacional’s ambitions have shifted inside five days, propelled by the national fervour that has greeted their unexpected success.
Unlikeliest of heroes
Six points from Equatorial Guinea’s two matches has condemned Senegal to an early exit in the tournament, and Libya need a minor miracle to get through. A draw will also be good enough for Zambia, who play Equatorial Guinea in the last group game in Malabo on Sunday at the same time that Libya and Senegal will meet in Bata.
The image of a team of players largely from the lower leagues in Spain battling for a deserved win against the much-vaunted Senegalese, who had two of the best strikers in Europe last season, was a rarity in a major competition where shocks of this magnitude are few and far between. The success on the pitch has also given a massive energy injection to a nation not used to seeing its national team winning. National colours are flying everywhere and the entire populace seems dressed in smiles and the red national team strip.
Rodolfo Bodipo, who would have captained the side where it not for his ankle injury, said the euphoria had spread “important unity” across the country, which is all the more remarkable given that the Equatoguinean side is made up mostly of players born outside of the nation. “This has done a lot for the people and helped to get everyone behind the team.” he said.
His replacement as captain Juvenal Edjogo captured well the feelings after the fairytale start: "This is a dream for us and our fans, and we want it to continue."