- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2017

LIBREVILLE, Gabon (AP) - The African Cup of Nations surprised, delighted and bewildered on Saturday, as it tends to do, with a rank outsider stunning the host on opening day and Cameroon captain Benjamin Moukandjo scoring a wonderful goal.

Teams were also forced to abandon singing their national anthems because of technical problems, and another squad was on strike and refusing to train, requiring a delegation of 100 government officials from their country to fly in to solve the problem.

Gabon’s tournament began in the capital Libreville with a pair of 1-1 draws, starting with the host and striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, one of the hottest properties in European soccer, shocked by a 90th-minute equalizer by a Guinea-Bissau team of lower-league battlers playing in their first major tournament.

“We are very, very happy,” Guinea-Bissau coach Baciro Cande said. “Now we have the motivation to go as far as possible.”

Defender Juary Soares’ header, just as the clock hit 90 minutes at Stade de l’Amitie, threw up an unexpected start and meant Aubameyang’s goal wasn’t enough to give Gabon a winning start. Soares plays for a second division side in Portugal, but he took the limelight from Bundesliga top-scorer Aubameyang when he rose to meet a free kick right at the end and angled his header into the bottom corner.

The free kick was provided by Guinea-Bissau’s own star, midfielder Zezinho. But he’s a star in a different galaxy to Aubameyang. Instead of the Champions League, Zezinho lights up the Greek Superleague.

As Soares whirled away to celebrate wildly with teammates, Gabon’s home fans were silenced by the late bombshell. And then some booed.

They had gone through the full range of emotions at the start of an African championship they weren’t expecting to host for a second time in five years but were given after Libya withdrew. There was a sense that the central African country - co-host in 2012 - may not want it this time following disputed and violent elections last year that saw President Ali Bongo Ondimba retain power.

There have also been deep cuts in health and education in Gabon, while at the same time Bongo’s government spent a reported $220 million on a new stadium, named after Bongo’s father, the president before him. That stadium was useless for this African Cup as it wasn’t finished on time.

Yet the appearance of a smiling Bongo, supposedly unpopular with some after deaths on the streets following the election in August, was greeted with rapturous cheers by the Gabonese before the game. They then roared out the words to “La Concorde,” the national anthem.

The passion and excitement turned to exasperation as Gabon made no headway in the first half against the minnows. Inflatable tubes, swung up and down to the beat of the anthem shortly before, were hit in frustration against seats and metal rails.

Gabon responded in the second half.

Denis Bouanga hit a curling right-foot shot that was pushed away by the Guinea-Bissau goalkeeper just before he provided the pass for Aubameyang to knock home the 2017 African Cup’s first goal in the 52nd minute. As he celebrated, Aubameyang cupped his hand to his ear, as if to ask the crowd why they had stopped cheering in the first half. By the end, they’d fallen silent again.

“It’s very difficult to win the first match in these tournaments,” Gabon’s high-profile Spanish coach Jose Antonio Camacho said.

In the second game, which follows swiftly at the same stadium in the African Cup’s early stages, Cameroon and Burkina Faso players were left bemused after no music played for their anthems. The players attempted acapella versions, gave up, and were on the field limbering up for kickoff when the music kicked in. They didn’t bother going back. Organizers the Confederation of African Football apologized for the technical glitch.

Moukandjo was on-song though, sending a sweet free kick into the top left corner to give Cameroon a deserved lead. In an ending reminiscent of the first game, Burkina Faso defender Issoufou Dayo roamed forward for a free kick and eventually forced a header home for the equalizer.

While the action began in Libreville, Congo’s squad was into a second day of a strike in the remote town of Oyem over unpaid bonuses. The players posted a video on social media with them all huddled together and explaining their grievances. Meanwhile, Congo sports minister Willy Bakonga flew to Gabon with 99 aides to sort things out. Also, Togo coach Claude le Roy complained that his squad had been left stranded at Libreville’s crowded airport for five hours on Friday when their official transport failed to show up.

More tests of Gabon’s organization will come in the next few days when the African Cup pushes out to two cities it has never visited before, Oyem in the northern jungles, and the oil industry center of Port-Gentil in the south. Both those have new, untested stadiums and shaky infrastructure.

The African Cup is a party, just along the lines of an impromptu house party. It’s often not well thought out, and things get broken, but people do have fun. Just look at Guinea-Bissau.


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

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