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Angolans try to start the party but unease remains

THREE LANES wide and bumper to bumper, the traffic crawled, heading south out of Luanda until the Estadio 11 de Novembro came into view.

And there, following the Istanbul principle laid down in the Champions League final in 2005, the road turned abruptly right, away from the ground for several kilometres, before swinging back on itself, carrying on past the stadium, and then checking back again. Perhaps those heading to the opening game of the African Nations Cup were trying to create the world’s longest traffic jam; perhaps the stadium’s architect simply wanted to ensure his creation was observed from all angles, but it was deeply impractical.

The promised traffic jams ahead of the hosts’ game with Mali had materialised in the city yesterday morning, caused apparently by army officers blocking roads to allow Angola’s president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, to pass through. Motorists, evidently used to such obstructions, took to driving down the wrong carriageway, on pavements and in some cases through rubbish dumps to escape the congestion.

From a coach, a frustrated horde of women, all dressed in white T-shirts marked with the cog, machete and star emblem that adorns the Angolan flag, poured out on to the road, and in tight formation jogged the final few hundred yards to the stadium, drawing a parping of horns from the cars and cheers from the pedestrians milling among them. The emblem is supposed to represent the three spheres of labour: urban, rural and intellectual, but the machete, of course, recalls acts of the most dreadful barbarism that marked Angola’s civil war, and the violence from which this country is struggling to emerge.

It would be wrong, though, to think Angola had been gripped by a mood of universal gloom in the aftermath of Friday’s terrorist attack on the Togo team bus. For the most part the atmosphere in the build-up to yesterday’s game was excited, and it was at times possible to believe, however briefly, that this could still, despite it all, be a successful tournament.

A battered white truck sped through the red dust that marked the central reservation, dozens of fans, all dressed in the red and black of the Angolan flag, all cheering or blowing whistles. Many sported red and black wigs, others had scarves wrapped around their necks, both feats of some fortitude as temperatures soared into the high thirties.

This was chaos, but it was at least happy chaos, and it was possible to see what the Confederation of African Football had been thinking three years ago when it awarded Angola the right to host the Nations Cup.

The stadium itself is highly impressive, from the outside at least, as it shimmers in red and silver triangles through the baobab trees. Inside it has a slightly generic feel, the running track and vast apron pushing the fans back so that even those in the front row are probably 25 yards from the pitch. Still, the atmosphere in the stadium yesterday was enthusiastic, with supporters, in pockets of white, red and yellow, jumping and dancing, vuvuzelas warbling and clap-sticks thwacking into an indiscriminate but rousing cacophony.

Malian fans were notable by their absence, although given that theirs remains one of the poorest nations in Africa, that perhaps was not surprising.

Away fans, generally, are unlikely to be much seen in the tournament, a fact rather unfortunately alluded to in the official programme for the opening ceremony, which declared that in stage one “we pretend to see the spectators of the Africa Cup of Nations”.

Given that locals seem already to have turned a blind eye to the events of Friday, ignoring the rows of empty seats likely to blight any games not involving the hosts should be relatively simple.

Whether the optimism of the hosts alone can carry through the tournament is doubtful. When this Nations Cup is remembered, it is hard to believe that it can possibly bring to mind anything other than the terrorist attack. The uneasiness of the atmosphere was reflected in the local newspapers, which combined reports on Togo’s deliberations as to whether to play on in the tournament and photographs of a clearly distraught Emmanuel Adebayor, with pictures of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Manucho under the headline: “The stars of the ball have arrived.”

The mantra from local organisers before the tournament was that it would “showcase” the virtues of Angola; so far the impression given is that, after years of practice, Angolans are resilient in the face of tragedy. Fabrice Akwa, Angola’s former captain and their most capped player, had spoken of trying to demonstrate to the world that his country was not just about oil, poverty and war; the events of Friday, though, perpetrated by separatists angered by what they consider the iniquitous distribution of oil revenues, rather suggested that Angola remains about just those three things.

This has always been a blighted land, as the opening ceremony made clear. To assert that “dolour arrived” with the Portuguese, disrupting the “cultural diversity” of the country, is to oversimplify the case, but it is certainly true that since colonial times and the coming of the transatlantic slave trade, Angola has rarely been a comfortable place to live. After focusing on Angola’s prehistory, and the deleterious impact of the Portuguese, the ceremony depicted in some detail the 27-year civil war or the “liberation fighting of Angola” as the programme called it.

And that, of course, had an unfortunate resonance with the ambush on the Togo team. The war in Angola finished in 2002, apart from in Cabinda, where a peace treaty was signed in 2006 – only shortly before Angola was granted hosting rights. For the separatist movement FLEC and its leader, Rodrigues Mingas, though, the war is not over and his threats of further actions during the tournament ensure that, behind all the vibrancy and the excitement, a sense of fear still remains.

And that is probably the way it will continue. For every high point, there will always be something to call back the image of “the broken glass and hiding on the floor”, as the Togo coach, Hubert Velud, put it, “the blood and fear”.