Letter from Africa: Nations Cup 2015 - bring it on
In our series of letters from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo writes that the Ebola outbreak will not spoil the mood at Africa's premiere sports event.
The African Cup of Nations is upon us - and it has a new host after Morocco backed out because of fears over Ebola, with barely two months to go before the January kick-off.
Africa's flagship football tournament will now be held in Equatorial Guinea, which has only ever competed in one Nations Cup before, when it was co-hosting with Gabon.
The latest series of qualifying matches produced some fascinating encounters - Malawi beat Mali 2-0 at the Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre but puzzlingly forgot to press their advantage over one of Africa's football superpowers by failing to win their final match against the Ethiopians in Addis Ababa.
Senegal's bad-tempered encounter with the Egyptians in Cairo resulted in a Senegalese victory in one of the toughest arenas for visiting teams.
Among the players, it was a physical affair, as expected. Beyond the sidelines, the Egyptian crowd got away with the most unsporting behaviour - using smoke bombs and flares, and shining distracting laser lights into opposition players' eyes as they took free kicks and corners.
Even as Senegal triumphed, it felt as if Egypt, holders of seven continental titles, were struggling to recapture their reputation for ruthless efficiency by arguing with the referee at every opportunity.
It was no surprise then to see them capitulate 2-1 to Tunisia on the final match day and miss out on Equatorial Guinea 2015.
But perhaps the shock of the final match day was provided by the Super Eagles.
Nigeria, current champions of Africa, gave up their crown in the new showcase Arena of Uyo with barely a whimper to a hungry and determined South Africa.
Much was made by Nigerian pundits of the fact that South Africa had yet to beat the Super Eagles but Bafana Bafana have a new spine under coach Shakes Mashaba that saw them gain three wins and three draws and top spot in their group.
Nigeria were forced to rely on results elsewhere after a bad run of form and trouble with misfiring strikers.
Despite a 2-2 draw with South Africa, Congo's 1-0 victory over Sudan left the Super Eagles in the humiliating position of third in their group, facing the barely believable prospect of not being present in Equatorial Guinea to defend their crown.
For football fans, it's been a fortnight of great excitement, putting to bed our anxiety over Rabat's abandonment of the Africa Cup of Nations.
For South Africa, which recently experienced the shocking death of captain and goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa in an incident of gun violence, this was a cleansing of sorts.
Cup of Nations contenders:
Equatorial Guinea (hosts), Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Congo, DR Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia and Zambia
Perhaps their fans can have some hope that through their football stars, the nation can be redeemed and have something to look forward to instead of the constant bickering of politicians and their failure to confront the country's problems.
Of course, sport, and football in particular, can do that to a nation.
There is no denying the overwhelming jubilation in Ouagadougou after the ousting of Burkina Faso's long-serving ruler Blaise Compaore last month, though the military's role in an interim administration has caused some tension.
Lt Col Isaac Zida, now prime minister, was quick to seize a footballing boost by giving out free tickets for people to watch the Stallions qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations after Jonathan Pitropia equalised against Angola, allowing the post-Campaore age to begin with Burkina Faso finishing second on 11 points behind Gabon on 12.
It is easy to watch the football stories and see them as allegorical depictions of the politics on the ground, but the Confederation of African Football has on more than one occasion been a hostage to fate.
Only a few years ago, Togo pulled out of a tournament when Angolan gunmen opened fire on their bus, and the Moroccans refusal to play ball as hosts over Ebola forced the confederation's hand in choosing Equatorial Guinea.
And the next tournament, meant to be in Libya in 2017, is currently without a host because the Libyans withdrew "over security and organisational concerns" - we all know what has been going on there since the departure of a certain colonel.
But the show must go on. And so oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, who have only ever competed in one Nations Cup, find themselves more than happy to play the hosts yet again.
Dig deeper and you will see that back in May Equatorial Guinea had been kicked out of the 2015 competition for fielding a Cameroonian player. And in June it was being whispered and alleged that they had naturalised up to nine Brazilians.
Equatorial Guinea's oil money, once attractive to reckless mercenaries intent on a coup, could easily purchase football talent and pay for this emergency Africa Cup of Nations tournament.
The other Guinea, at the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak, defeated Uganda and Togo in their final qualifiers to make it to the finals and raise the flag for their beleaguered nation. They actually played their qualifying matches in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, only for Morocco to abandon the Cup after that act of selfless brotherhood.
The Cup, come January, will as always be full of such sweet confusions.
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