Spotlight suits rising co-hosts
© AFP

Although Zambia flew home with the gold trophy, there were many winners after three weeks of exhilarating action at the recently concluded CAF Africa Cup of Nations. A first-ever title for the underdog Chipolopolo is being celebrated with gusto, but it was generally a tournament of surprises and unlikely advancement - for none more than co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

The concept of co-hosting itself was a risk taken so that smaller countries could step into the spotlight, and the two Atlantic-bordering nations passed the off-pitch tests with excellent marks. “This is the first time we have had two countries co-bidding to host the finals and putting together the tournament together,” said Confederation of African Football President Issa Hayatou. “And it proved a great success. We think both have done a wonderful job.”

On the pitch as well, the experience was extremely positive, with the direst of predictions avoided and a pair of extremely creditable performances delivered. Gabon in particular impressed watchers, playing up-tempo attacking football en route to a sweep of their group - beating Niger, Morocco and Tunisia - before being felled in the last eight by Mali in a nerve-shattering penalty shoot-out.

The resulting 46-place climb in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking moves them to 45th in the world, just behind their west African conquerors, but still 15 spots off their all-time best achieved back in 2009. Equatorial Guinea were the lowest-ranked team coming into the tournament at 151st, but they also took an impressive leap, up 41 places to 110.

We have created a young team that has great potential to push on and achieve more.
Gabon coach Gernot Rohr

It’s a sign of good performances, particularly by the Panthers, who had one of the breakout stars of the tournament in co-top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The 22-year-old Aubameyang, who had the misfortune of being the only player to miss in the Mali shoot-out, plays his club football for Saint Etienne, and he was joined by fellow France-based midfielder Eric Mouloungui on the Team of the Tournament as substitutes.

The Gabonese, who reached the quarter-finals just once before in 1996, were as a group also a part of the match of the tournament: an unforgettable 3-2 victory over Morocco, which saw both sides score in second-half injury-time and clinched Gabon’s place in the knockout rounds with panache.

Their coach Gernot Rohr has the side pointed in the right direction in the rankings and in development. “We have created a young team that has great potential to push on and achieve more,” said the Franco-German coach most known for his time with Bordeaux. “We slipped up on some little details, but now we're going to continue to work."

Memories and momentum
While Gabon have a fairly rich history in African football, ambitious Equatorial Guinea were an unknown quantity heading into the tournament. The Nzalang Nacional had never before played in a continental championship, and more worrisome, they changed coaches in the run-up to the event. Out went well-known veteran Henri Michel and in came relatively unknown Brazilian Gilson Paulo. But the red-clad side adjusted quickly enough to the pressure of the situation to snatch a late 1-0 win over Libya in their opener, with one-time Real Madrid product Javier Balboa the hero.

Much like Gabon, the other co-hosts also won their second match in dramatic circumstances, in this case beating prohibitive favourites Senegal 2-1 in front of an ecstatic crowd in Bata. Moussa Sow had seemingly given the visitors a point with an 89th-minute goal, but Spanish journeyman Kily had other ideas. The right back streamed forward on a muddy pitch and curled a 25-yard stunner into the top corner for the win. A 1-0 defeat to eventual champions Zambia in their last group contest was no disgrace, but it meant they would have to meet mighty Côte d’Ivoire in the quarter-final.

It proved a step too far, and the Didier Drogba-inspired Elephants ran out 3-0 winners. But it was an important, high-profile opportunity for the Equatoguineans, who rewarded their Brazilian coach with a one-year contract extension after their successes. Paulo will no doubt be hoping to continue the momentum throughout 2012 as both co-hosts work begin qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, as well as next year’s Cup of Nations to be hosted by South Africa.