Libreville (AFP) – Minnows Guinea-Bissau enjoyed an Africa Cup of Nations debut to remember as they held the host nation Gabon of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to a surprise 1-1 draw in Libreville on Saturday.
Juary Soares scored a last-minute equaliser to cancel out the opener from Borussia Dortmund striker Aubameyang at the Stade de l’Amitie in the Group A curtain-raiser.
It is all square in the section after four-time winners Cameroon had to settle for a 1-1 draw with Burkina Faso in the day’s second game.
That means there is still everything to play for but the final whistle was greeted with jeers from the home support in Libreville, providing a stark contrast with the joy of the Guinea-Bissau players.
For them, just being at the tournament for the first time in their history is a remarkable achievement and the result saw thousands take to the streets of the capital Bissau to celebrate.
“This is a moment of joy for us. Despite our country’s difficulties we managed to qualify,” said Baciro Cande, the coach of the team known as the ‘wild dogs’.
Guinea-Bissau fell behind seven minutes into the second half when Denis Bouanga’s low ball to the back post was turned in by Aubameyang for the first goal of the competition.
But Gabon then sat back and were punished in the 90th minute as Soares got in front of Bruno Ecuele Manga to head in a Zezinho free-kick.
“We knew Gabon have an excellent team and the best player in Africa and in Europe,” Cande added.
“We have our limits, but we had ambitions coming here and we will try to go as far as possible.”
It was a stuttering start from Gabon as they bid to win the trophy for the first time but their coach Jose Antonio Camacho insisted: “Our chances of qualifying are the same as if we had won.”
There have been calls from opponents of Gabon’s President Ali Bongo to boycott the tournament amid a social and political crisis in the central African country of 1.8 million people, and the 40,000-capacity ground was not completely full for the occasion.
Bongo was there, however, alongside his counterpart from Guinea-Bissau, Jose Mario Vaz, and Issa Hayatou, the Cameroonian veteran head of the Confederation of African Football.
– Moukandjo goal not enough –
Cameroon’s own tournament build-up had been overshadowed by a raft of withdrawals by key players, including Liverpool defender Joel Matip and Schalke striker Eric Choupo-Moting.
New captain Benjamin Moukandjo gave them the lead against Burkina Faso with a fine free-kick 10 minutes before half-time.
Christian Bassogog then looked set to double Cameroon’s lead as he raced clean through on goal but Burkina Faso ‘keeper Herve Koffi came flying out of his area and denied him with a crunching challenge.
And Burkina Faso, the beaten finalists in 2013, equalised on 75 minutes, Issoufou Dayo bundling the ball in after Banou Diawara’s free-kick was saved.
“We dominated the game and created chances. The only thing we needed was someone to put the ball in the net,” deplored Cameroon’s Belgian coach Hugo Broos.
Before that game, a technical problem prevented the national anthems being played at the stadium, leading organisers to apologise for what they called an “unfortunate incident”.
Otherwise it was a smooth start to a Cup of Nations that marks 60 years since the tournament was first held.
Just three teams took part in the first Cup of Nations, while now 16 sides are involved in a total of 32 matches until February 5, when the final will be played in Libreville.
Games will also be played in Oyem, Port-Gentil and Franceville, where the Algeria of African player of the year Riyad Mahrez meet outsiders Zimbabwe and Tunisia face much-fancied Senegal in Group B on Sunday.
Reigning champions Ivory Coast begin their defence of the trophy against Togo in Group C on Monday, before DR Congo face Morocco.
DR Congo players had gone on strike on Friday due to a row over unpaid bonuses, but were back in training in Oyem on Saturday.
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