Equatorial Guinea’s Africa Cup of Nations dream came to a disappointing end amid more shameful scenes in Malabo on Thursday night.
The hosts have lit up this tournament, performing footballing miracles, backed by enthusiastic support. But as they exited at the semi-final stage, those same fans showed an uglier side, throwing bottles at Ghana’s players, staff and fans and eventually causing the game to be stopped for more than half an hour.
With eight minutes left and the Ghana fans being pelted with bottles from both sides, the game was stopped for them to be escorted from the stadium, amid fears for their safety.
But with no safe path away from fans determined to cause trouble, referee Eric Castane was left with no choice but to temporarily halt the game. Despite the use of a police helicopter to try and restore order, it took more than half an hour to restart, with the stadium almost empty.
Travelling fans and journalists alike had to deal with a shower of glass and stones during the delay, while outside the ground there was carnage.
Riot police eventually stormed some sections of the stadium, firing tear gas and using their batons on fans as they tried to re-assert some control.
The final few minutes, once play restarted, were played out at the pace of an exhibition, and with the atmosphere of particularly grim funeral.
It was a farcical end to a shameful spectacle that will overshadow an otherwise excellent tournament.
Ghana manager Avram Grant remained calm throughout, keeping his players out on the pitch despite the potentially dangerous situation.
‘It’s the first time I’ve played games in this tournament,’ the former Chelsea and Portsmouth boss said after the game. ‘I didn’t know what was happening, we saw some incidents of violence. I could not say I wasn’t concerned but I wanted to keep the safety of my players – it was very important for me.
Equatorial Guinea captain Emilio Nsue, who plays his club football at Middlesbrough, apologised for the trouble, which the players had consistently tried to calm, but with no effect.
‘I’ve never played in front of anything like that,’ he admitted. ‘I’d like to say sorry on behalf of my team. It was an odd experience – one I’ve never felt before.’
On the pitch, Ghana came out of the game with plenty of credit. Avram Grant’s side have grown into this tournament after a slow start, and kept their calm, and concentration to reach the final. On this showing, they will provide Ivory Coast with a stern test in Bata.
Jordan Ayew put the Black Stars ahead from the penalty spot after Felipe Ovono had fouled Crystal Palace’s Kwesi Appiah.
Then just four minutes later, with the home side throwing everyone forward at a corner, Everton’s Chelsea loanee Christian Atsu led a quick break, before feeing Celtic’s Wakaso Mubarak, who cut inside and fired home.
It was too much for the supporters, who reacted not only with boos, but also with water bottles.
The first signs of trouble had come after Ayew’s penalty. With Ghana celebrating in their own half, Nsue and Balboa tired, cleverly or unsportingly, depending on your moral compass, to kick off quickly.
Referee Castane, already unpopular with the crowd for (correctly) awarding the penalty moments before, called them back.
The Estadio de Malabo is neither as big nor as intimidating as the ground in Bata where the hosts had played all their previous games, but it still provided a raucus, and eventually violent, environment.
As the home players protested, bottles began to fly from the stands, mostly aimed at the Ghanaian bench, where substitutes and coaches were under almost constant fire for the rest of the half.
Worse was to follow at the break, after Wakaso had doubled Ghana’s lead. The dugout continued to take a pounding, and riot police had to be called in to help the Black Stars off the pitch. Even with their helmets and shields, there was a point at which the officers had to take shelter themselves in the relative calm of the tunnel.
By the time Andre Ayew had scored the third Ghana goal, midway through the second half, bottle throwing greeted every refereeing decision, aimed not only at the pitch but at the corner of Ghanaian fans in the stands.
It was not just shameful, but also a real disappointment in that it distracted from what had been a decent performance from the hosts for the first 40 minutes, and a stunning tournament for Equatorial Guinea in general.
The hosts came into the tournament ranked 37th in Africa – to put that in context, it is the equivalent of Armenia reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2016.
And they looked for a spell at least, as if they might even go a step further. For the first 40 minutes they matched their more illustrious opponents, looking as likely to score as Avram Grant’s men.
Diosdado Mbele, the teenage centre-back who plays domestically for the Vegetarian Lions, was more than a match for Jordan Ayew and Kwesi Appiah, of Lorient and Crystal Palace.
When his defence was breached Ovono, of Deportivo Mongomo, another scarcely-known local side, was quick to show why he is odds on to be named goalkeeper of the tournament.
The young keeper charged out of his goal to punch on three occasions, saving at the feet of Atsu on another, before denying Appiah with an excellent stop when the forward, on loan at Cambridge United, was through on goal.
His occasional rash judgement was exposed, both in the giving away of the penalty and in the rush of blood that allowed the third goal, but he still deserves to considered a star of the tournament.
Going forward the front four of Kike, Ivan Edu, Nsue and Balboa was threatening, if sometimes a little over-excited. Ivan Edu in particular looked badly effected by the emotion of the occasion, over-hitting most of his early passes and almost being drawn into fights several times.
Neither side mustered too many clear-cut chances, but until the first goal, it was hard to pick a winner. But two goals in five minutes effectively killed the game, booking Ghana their place in Sunday’s final.
For the hosts, this should have been remembered as a miraculous achievement. Three months ago they weren’t even allowed in the tournament. Barely two weeks before it started, they had no manager. To reach the semi-finals under such circumstances is a feat of on-pitch achievement few can match.
But, instead, their run will be overshadowed by controversy. The terrible quarter-final penalty decision, which saw them get this far, might eventually be forgotten (though not for a while, one feels, in Tunisia).
But the missiles from the crowd will remain far longer as the dominant memory, not just of this game, but of this tournament.
Courtesy of Daily Mail