THE Africa Cup of Nations semi-final between Equatorial Guinea and Ghana was suspended for almost 40 minutes on Thursday night after crowd disturbances that led to police evacuating part of the stadium with smoke bombs and a helicopter.
In scenes that will colour what remains of the tournament, home supporters aimed bottles at Ghana players and supporters, and the visiting team were forced to leave and re-enter the pitch under cover of riot police shields either side of half-time. The crowd was largely dispersed, with reports that trouble continued outside the stadium after the match. Eventually the game was restarted in front of near-empty stands before the Gabonese referee, Eric Otogo, blew for full-time five minutes early.
It confirmed a 3-0 win for Avram Grantâ€™s Ghana team, ensuring they will compete in Sundayâ€™s final against Ivory Coast. But football had become a secondary concern long before Grant and his players shuffled, dazed, from the pitch â€“ celebrations were muted and nobody quite able to compute what they had just experienced.
The atmosphere, curiously tense from the beginning, was ignited shortly before half-time. Ghana had imposed themselves on the game and were awarded a penalty after 41 minutes, Jordan Ayew scoring after the Crystal Palace striker Kwesi Appiah had been fouled.
Equatorial Guinea contested Otogoâ€™s decision and were angered further when their attempts to restart the game while Ghana celebrated were pulled back. Bottles were hurled towards the visiting players and dugout, forcing the Ghana substitutes to seek refuge on the pitch beyond the crowdâ€™s range.
The home side had lost their cool and were caught on the counterattack shortly before half-time when Christian Atsu set up Wakaso Mubarak to double the lead. None of this four-minute sequence had contained anything objectively controversial but the area around the tunnel was peppered again and Ghanaâ€™s players were made to wait for police to assemble before departing the pitch.
Tannoy announcements attempted to calm the crowd when the players re-emerged for the second half, with Equatorial Guineaâ€™s players joining to plead for calm. It made some impact but the situation was palpably on a knife-edge and descended into lawlessness 15 minutes from full-time.
The prompt was a third Ghana goal, tapped in by AndrÃ© Ayew from Appiahâ€™s pass. It led their segregated pocket of supporters, situated in the north-western corner of the stadium, to be attacked by adjacent home fans. The Ghana fans, having corralled themselves as far away from danger as possible, made a break for safety via a gate at the front of the stand and police attempted to lead them around the pitch. The scheme failed as they were trapped behind the goal, effectively flanked by uncontrollable crowds on three sides as the situation threatened to take a turn for the considerably worse.
Equatorial Guineaâ€™s security forces have not been averse to heavy-handed treatment of fans during this tournament and the methods they employed to quell the trouble inside Nuevo EstadÃo de Malabo were as brutal as they were effective. In a disturbing and downright dangerous manoeuvre, a police helicopter swooped within 30 feet of the crowd in the west stand, forcing the majority to scatter because of the noise and power of its rotors.
It returned three more times, making its point firmly while smoke bombs were deployed in other areas of the stadium. A South African photographer was grazed by a rock thrown from the east end of the stadium. Ghanaâ€™s official Twitter feed described the scene as â€œlike a war zoneâ€.
By 10.20pm local time the situation was judged calm enough for play to recommence. Grant had been on the pitch twice during the tumult and could be seen deep in discussions with Otogo and CAF representatives; his players, who remained calm if evidently confused, behaved with enormous credit, effectively facing down the most volatile of situations you will see inside a football ground â€“ and they saw out the game without fuss.
Emilio Nsue, the Equatorial Guinea captain and Middlesbrough player, said: â€œIâ€™ve never played in front of anything like that and Iâ€™d like to say sorry on behalf of my team. It was an odd experience, one Iâ€™ve never felt before.â€
It was neither the fault of Nsue nor his team-mates but a number of questions linger. Other disturbances, albeit of a lower profile, had accompanied Equatorial Guineaâ€™s games in this competition, notably some clashes between supporters and police before the group stage game against Burkina Faso in Bata. Nobody had been left in doubt about the authoritiesâ€™ low tolerance levels then, yet the air in Malabo had felt combustible from the beginning and the lack of response to those public address entreaties was revealing.
â€œVerguenzaâ€ (â€œShameâ€) repeated the announcer while the police helicopter was causing everyone to cower. â€œThink of the country, the embarrassment.â€ Nobody appeared to, and police found themselves subjected to barrages of their own. The violence was watched by Obiang Nguema, the countryâ€™s president, whose reign has been notorious for repression and apparent human rights abuses; displays of mass civil unrest are virtually unknown in this country but at this tournament, in the fermenting pots that football stadiums conveniently provide, you wonder whether a crescendo had slowly been building.
The volumes in EstadÃo de Bata, where Equatorial Guinea played their first three games, were as loud as anything you will hear but you now wonder exactly what you were listening to.
And you wonder what CAF will be thinking. A hastily cobbled-together tournament had by and large gone swimmingly â€“ to the eye at least â€“ but fingers will be pointed now. Can sufficient security for such a large-scale competition really be mustered at eight weeksâ€™ notice? Should someone have suspected that this outwardly docile population might be a tinderbox?
Those questions will be asked and, you hope, answered. For now there is the clean-up operation to undertake and the question of Saturdayâ€™s third-place play-off to ponder. That match is scheduled to take place here between Equatorial Guinea and DR Congo; in this climate, the risk of staging it at all â€“ and casting an even greater shadow over a hitherto enjoyable month â€“ may be too great. – The Guardian