Minnows Guinea-Bissau made it a memorable start to the Africa Cup of Nations as a late Juary Soares equaliser saw them hold hosts Gabon to a 1-1 draw in Saturday’s opening game.
Soares headed home for the tournament debutants in the 90th minute to cancel out Gabonese poster boy Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang‘s opener in the Group A game at the Stade de l’Amitie in capital Libreville.
The final whistle was greeted with jeers from the home support but there was delight for Guinea-Bissau, for whom just being at the tournament is a remarkable achievement.
Four-time winners Cameroon, who have been hit by a raft of withdrawals, and 2013 runners-up Burkina Faso were set to meet at the same venue at 1900 GMT knowing a victory would leave them on top of the section after the opening round of games.
After an opening ceremony in which French rapper Booba was the star turn, Gabonese President Ali Bongo declared the tournament officially open.
Bongo was accompanied by his counterpart from Guinea-Bissau, Jose Mario Vaz, and Issa Hayatou, the veteran head of the Confederation of African Football, at the 40,000-capacity stadium.
There have been calls from opponents of Bongo to boycott the tournament amid a social and political crisis in the central African country of 1.8 million people, and the ground in Libreville was not completely full for the occasion.
Supporters of Jean Ping, who insists he should have won last year’s contested presidential election rather than Bongo, had planned a protest in central Libreville to coincide with the opening game.
Those who wanted to see the host nation get off to a winning start in the 60th anniversary Cup of Nations were to be disappointed.
After a first half that failed to catch fire, Gabon came to life in the second half and opened the scoring in the 52nd minute.
The Guinea-Bissau defence failed to clear their lines and talented winger Denis Bouanga’s low ball to the back post was converted by Borussia Dortmund star Aubameyang, to the delight of the home fans.
However, Gabon began to sit back and Guinea-Bissau had opportunities to equalise towards the end, with Rudinilson Silva and substitute Frederic Mendy both coming close.
They looked to have blown their chance, but they drew level in the final minute, Soares getting in front of Bruno Ecuele Manga to head home Zezinho’s free-kick and allow the ‘wild dogs’ to claim a point from their first ever match at the Cup of Nations finals.
The Cup of Nations features 32 matches and runs until February 5, when the final will be played in Libreville.
Games will also be played in Oyem, Port-Gentil and Franceville, where the Algeria of newly-crowned African player of the year Riyad Mahrez meet outsiders Zimbabwe and Tunisia take on Senegal in Group B on Sunday.
Senegal have never won the Cup of Nations but arrived in Gabon as the top African side in the FIFA rankings and are one of the favourites this time around.
A star-studded side notably containing Liverpool winger Sadio Mane is determined to make up for their poor showing at the last Cup of Nations two years ago in Equatorial Guinea, when they were eliminated in the group stage.
“We have an obligation to make up for what happened. What we did was not great given the expectation of the Senegalese people. We are here to do better than in 2015,” declared skipper Cheikhou Kouyate, of West Ham United, on Saturday.
Reigning champions Ivory Coast begin their defence of the trophy against Togo in Group C on Monday.