- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2017

LIBREVILLE, Gabon (AP) - The African Cup of Nations in Gabon will temporarily leave behind the beaches and palm trees of the capital Libreville and head deep into the jungle to Franceville in the far west for the next games on Sunday when two title contenders, Algeria and Senegal, open their campaigns.

Here are some things to know with the African Cup underway:



Saturday’s opening ceremony at Libreville’s Stade de l’Amitie was a riot of color and noise, although the stadium wasn’t even half full for the start. Acrobats in red, blue and yellow leotards wriggled and jiggled while suspended on wires from one of the stadium’s two giant arches, flames and fireworks burst into the air, and a dancer took to the stage dressed as a soccer shirt-wearing black panther in recognition of Gabon’s national team nickname, the Panthers. The ceremony reached a crescendo, as the fan numbers grew, with a performance by French rapper Booba, a social media phenomenon and the latest foreign superstar to be booked by an African Cup host. At the last cup in neighboring Equatorial Guinea, Akon made a surprise appearance.

But this can be a party with problems. As fans danced away in Libreville, now fully into the fun, no fewer than 100 Congolese officials headed to the far northern town of Oyem to try and convince their players to end a strike over unpaid bonuses, a regular African soccer problem. The Congo players earlier posted a video on social media where, standing huddled together, they complained about their treatment. Captain Youssouf Mulumbu called their treatment “deplorable” on Twitter but still promised they would play their first game against Morocco on Monday.

Also, Togo coach Claude le Roy, a veteran manager at African Cups dating to the mid-1980s, said his players were left waiting by organizers at the crowded Libreville airport for five hours on Friday without food or water, with their official transport failing to show up.

“It doesn’t bother me that they have readied all these salons and lodges and things for the big officials, but you would think that the most important thing in the African Cup of Nations would be the players,” Le Roy said.


The opening game featuring host Gabon against Guinea-Bissau was ultimately just about full by the time the soccer began, helped by tickets prices at 80 US cents each. The tickets were advertised on billboards along Libreville’s main Atlantic Ocean boulevard alongside the slogan “Everyone at the stadium!” in French. But don’t expect full, or even half-full, stadiums everywhere. Franceville, venue for Sunday’s games, may be the president’s hometown but a big crowd is not expected at Stade de Franceville, an arena that pops up, bright blue and yellow, out of lush jungle vegetation near the border with Republic of Congo. Unreliable attendances is just the way it is at the African Cup and organizers won’t lose any sleep over it, remembering that around 200 people - yes 200 - watched an African Cup quarterfinal in Equatorial Guinea in 2012. The party went on.


Sunday’s second day of games features two teams tipped to be title contenders. Algeria’s attack has attracted plenty of attention, led by English Premier League forwards Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani of champion Leicester and attacking midfielder Yacine Brahimi of Porto. Algeria opens Group B against Zimbabwe, back at the Cup of Nations for the first time in a decade.


Senegal was even better than Algeria in qualifying for this tournament and has a squad packed with talent from the Spanish, Italian, English and French leagues. Senegal plays Le Roy’s Togo in its first game.


Follow Gerald Imray on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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