By Mark Gleeson
LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Rising concerns over pitch conditions are hanging over the African Nations Cup finals in Gabon and highlight a perennial problem for the continent's sporting showpiece.
The condition of the playing surfaces at all four venues – in the capital Libreville, Franceville, Oyem and Port Gentil – have been heavily criticized after serious injuries and matches whose quality has been affected by bumpy surfaces.
Hosts Gabon have three players out, Burkina Faso have lost two for the rest of the tournament and Ghana’s fullback Baba Rahman, on loan from Chelsea to Schalke 04, has flown to Germany for knee surgery and is not expected to play again this season.
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“There have been up to five injuries at the tournament because of pitches,” claimed Ghana coach Avram Grant, whose side are in the quarter-finals after two straight wins characterised by his side being pinned back in the second half.
“It is very difficult when the opponent is coming at you and you want to go on the counter attack on this pitch,” he said on Saturday of the newly-laid turf at Port Gentil, whose stadium was opened just a month before the tournament kicked off.
"We want to play on good pitches. We are a technical team, we play to pass and to play football, but we can’t.”
Teams playing at Port Gentil on Saturday were not allowed to warm up on the field before the double header as organizers tried to preserve the pitch while, at every conceivable opportunity, a group of workers watered and patched it up and sprinkled wheelbarrow loads of grass shavings on it.
“The pitch is horrendous it's really tough to control the ball, to drive with the ball, everything is tough,” said Crystal Palace winger Bakary Soko after two matches there with Mali.
Confederation of African Football (CAF) general secretary Hicham El Amrani noted concerns at a pre-tournament news conference but expressed confidence in the local organizers.
But with Gabon only completing the construction of new stadiums in Oyem and Port Gentil weeks before the finals kicked off, there has been little time to properly prepare pitches.
This has often been the case in Nations Cup tournaments where similarly poor playing conditions have marred the finals.
CAF official told Reuters on Sunday that concerns about the pitches had been highlighted to Gabon more than a year ago.
However, late delivery of stadiums by host countries means there is little time to get fields in top condition.
(Reporting by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Ken Ferris)