African Cup of Nations opener provides salvation

The thrilling first game of the tournament between hosts Angola and Mali has switched the focus, writes Jonathan Wilson.

LUANDA // Perhaps the Cup of Nations can be about football again. The horrific events of Friday, in which three people were killed and a fourth left in intensive care by an attack on the Togo team bus in Cabinda, cannot and should not be forgotten, but Sunday's extraordinary 4-4 draw between Angola and Mali at least meant that there was another topic of conversation in Luanda. Several Togolese players have suggested the best way to honour the dead is for the tournament to go on, to show that the militants will not win. If that really is the case, football did everything it could to retake centre stage in the opening game.

The curtain-raiser at the 11 Nov-ember Stadium was not, in truth, a particularly good match; it was littered with mistakes, and Angola's defending, by the end, had become laughable, but such was the drama it hardly mattered. "It was the same teams on the pitch for the first 80 minutes and the last 10," said Mali's coach, Steve Keshi. "But they were not the same teams in the head." When Seydou Keita poked in Mali's first after 79 minutes, there was no thought of what was to follow.

Even when Fredi Kanoute added a splendid header on 88 minutes, it seemed unlikely to matter. Yet so total was Angola's collapse that when the substitute Mustapha Yattabare knocked in the equaliser five minutes into added time, it had come to seem almost inevitable. "We can't play again like we did in the first half," said Kanoute. "We showed great character, but we can't make those kind of mistakes again."

As Angola had swept into a four-goal lead, thanks largely to the predatory instincts of Flavio, and the surges from left wing-back Gilberto, the stadium fizzed with noise and celebration and, it is probably fair to say, a measure of relief. That was partly down to the scoreline - no host since Tunisia, in 1994, has failed to make it out of the group, but given Angola's dreadful form in World Cup qualifying, when they failed even to make Africa's final 20, there were genuine fears Angola could be embarrassed - but also down simply to the fact that the game was going ahead at all.

That second reason, perhaps, explains why even after Angola's astonishing late collapse, the atmosphere, if a little muted, wasn't hostile or angry. There were some moans about the goalkeeper, Carlos Fernandes, who was badly at fault for Mali's first, and partially at fault for two others, but, generally, the pride of hosting the tournament, for the moment at least, seems to outweigh the disappointment of the performance.

Even amid the exuberance, though, there is an unease. As fireworks exploded during the opening ceremony, it was hard not to be reminded of Friday's attack. That, sadly, is likely to be an ongoing feature of the tournament: no matter how good the football, no matter what happens, beneath whatever drama or excitement it throws up, there will always be thoughts of what Hubert Velud, Togo's coach, referred to as "the fear and the blood".

Understandably Didier Drogba, the Ivory Coast captain, spoke before yesterday's game against Burkina Faso of struggling to get in the right frame of mind to play, and there were indications while Togo considered whether they should stay in the tournament, that both Ivory Coast and Ghana were considering pulling out if Group B was not moved away from Cabinda. Emmanuel Adebayor, Togo's captain, who has been scathing of the Confederation of African Football's handling of the affair throughout, even suggested undue pressure was placed on the other teams in the group not to withdraw, although he gave no specifics.

"Everybody here is confused and scared, but we want to play because we don't want to surrender to terrorists," said the Ivory Coast coach Vahid Halilhodzic, who was shot during the conflict in Bosnia. "But I'm not scared because the army and police are all around. We're surrounded by them and there's almost no contact with the outside world. The players are a bit scared, but not me. I had good training - I lived through much worse things in Mostar."

He may be phlegmatic, but others in the tournament lack his sang-froid. Football began on Sunday to claw its way back to the centre of attention, but it has some way to go yet. sports@thenational.ae