The sound generated by the Congolese fan club maintained a steady deafening level until about the 75th minute of the game. That’s when it finally hit the Leopards fans that Côte d’Ivoire was leading 3-1 and there were only 15 minutes left.
It was a depressing end to the African Cup of Nations (Afcon) for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – last week in what seemed like a miracle, they overcame a 2-0 deficit early in the second half against their neighbour across the river and beat Congo Brazzaville 4-2.
The day before the match, I arrived in Bata. It’s about a 45-minute flight southeast of Malabo on the mainland, that chunk of Equatorial Guinea sandwiched between Cameroon and Gabon. The plane that brought me from Bioko Island was South African registered, complete with South African crew – the safety demonstration before take off sounded like it had been recorded in Benoni.
I’m a DRC fan – I support them in just about anything and everything. I met the woman I would have children with in Kinshasa – that;s a good enough reason.
No jerseys, lots of excuses
First order of business in Bata was finding a DRC football jersey. It’s the Afcon finals in Equatorial Guinea – football jerseys are on sale everywhere, for every team in the championship – except Congo Kinshasa.
Shopkeepers provided a number of theories as to why Leopards shirts weren’t available – nobody expected Congo to make it to the finals, they hadn’t finished making the shirts on time, and they couldn’t find the money to deliver them from Kinshasa.
A United Kingdom sports journalist covering the tournament told me that the lettering on the jerseys was too small, and the African football federation ordered them removed from the market.
I was resigned to having to wear my Big Pineapple T-shirt from Bathurst in the Eastern Cape. And then I bumped into the president of the DRC football supporters association – Thomas Ayala – looking rather lost in a sea of Côte d’Ivoire supporters in the lobby of the Ibis hotel in his “I’m behind the Leopards” shirt.
There was a party atmosphere happening but Thomas wasn’t part of it – he had his back to the wall, was close to the door, in a corner next to a very bored looking woman sitting at the car hire desk.
Thomas couldn’t help but register how happy I was to see him – just before I spotted his jersey, hotel staff had told me I couldn’t use the internet unless I was a paying guest, so I was about to go back out into the overheated steam room that is Bata and everywhere else in Equatorial Guinea.
The day hadn’t been much of a success up to that point. Thomas changed that. Visibly pleased to have a fellow Congo supporter in his midst, the pleasure was compounded when I told him I had worked at his favourite radio station in Kinshasa. The bottom line is he offered me a Congo shirt – all I had to do was pick it up at his hotel in the morning.
The locals don’t seem interested
Congolese fans, what there were of them, were not staying at the Ibis, the only sort of luxury hotel in Bata – they had taken over the Albermon, a very rough around the edges, and the interior as well, sort of place that looks like it belongs up river in Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter.
At 10am on the day of the match, the DRC fan club was in full preparation mode in the Albermon’s parking lot – football shirts were distributed, and Thomas had one for me, all the extras for the fan club show were being loaded into cars – drums, horns, wigs, water bottles full of paint in the colours of the Congolese flag. And the beer was flowing.
Bata stadium is big – much bigger than its counterpart in Malabo. Somewhere in the region of 40 thousand fans can sit comfortably inside the place. Wednesday night perhaps about 18 thousand people sort of filled the stands – if the TV cameras only pointed towards mid field, then the place would have looked reasonably full.
The problem getting people to the matches is a bit of déjà vu for fans who attended Afcon in South Africa in 2013 – the locals just don’t seem to be interested in African football.
The focus is on tonight
Where South Africans seem to have some sort of obsession with English Premier League, Equatoguineans show the same sort of mad devotion to Spain’s La Liga.
Bata stadium had few English or Spanish supporters in the stands for this match – the overwhelmingly dominant language was French – most of the fans were from Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Guinea, and of course, the DRC.
I don’t know what Equatoguineans were doing while the Leopards and the Elephants confronted each other on the pitch. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of other options for entertainment in Bata on a Wednesday night.
Nzalang Nacional, as the EG team is known, plays tonight in Malabo against Ghana to see who moves on to the final on Sunday with Côte d’Ivoire. Malabo stadium has about half the capacity of Bata, and, with the home team making it this far, they should be able to fill the place.