BATA, Equatorial Guinea – Beating Libya has completely changed Equatorial Guinea’s expectations at the African Cup of Nations as it prepares to play a Senegal side in desperate need of a victory on Wednesday.
Previously, fans of Equatorial Guinea gave the tournament newcomer and lowest-ranked team little hope of winning a match.
Then it stunned Libya in the cup opener on Saturday.
Now, taxis are bedecked with flags, the red shirt of the national team is everywhere and the team’s nickname — Nzalang Nacional, meaning “National Lightning” — is on everybody’s lips.
The victory means the Equatorial Guinea team will have to shoulder a different kind of pressure against Senegal, as fans expect a positive result against one of the tournament’s top-ranked teams.
“I think we needed to play well and win the first game,” said Equatorial Guinea midfielder Juvenal Edjogo-Owono, who captained the side against Libya. “We had to win the first game to have more confidence. With hard work and faith in our chances we can go far.”
As the nation gets behind the team, some have questioned how representative the squad really is.
Most of the players in the 23-man party were born abroad and have either been naturalized to play with the Nzalang Nacional or qualify through a family member.
CAF spokesman Nicholas Musonye said all players registered to play at the African Cup had their eligibility checked with FIFA by tournament organizers.
Edjogo-Owono, who was born in Spain to an Equatorial Guinean father and Spanish mother, has spoken against the use of too many naturalized players. He told The Associated Press that those with Equatorial Guinean ancestry plying their trade in foreign clubs should be scouted more actively.
“We see players in Spain and Portugal who could play and we tell people he is good, but they (the players) don’t always come. I don’t know why,” he said.
For now, the team is making the most of the players it has — wherever they come from. A win against Senegal would all but clinch a place in the knockout round with a game to spare.
Equatorial Guinea coach Gilson Paulo is unlikely to change his starting lineup, though Spain-based striker Rodolfo Bodipo is pushing for a place as he continues his recovery from a left ankle injury.
For Senegal, captain Mamadou Niang may drop to the bench as coach Amara Traore searches for a more balanced approach from a team that looked to have too many attacking options during the 2-1 opening loss to Zambia.
Finding the right mix has eluded Traore so far, as he tries to fit attackers such as Demba Ba, Papiss Demba Cisse, Moussa Sow, Souleymane Camara and Niang into a cohesive lineup.
Asked whether his team can win the whole tournament, coach Paulo allowed himself a grin.
“It’s my job — I can’t think anything else,” he said.
In the other Group A match on Wednesday, Zambia will look to follow its surprise 2-1 win against Senegal with a second victory against Libya.