There was frustration for much-fancied Tunisia and for 2012 champions Zambia as the Africa Cup of Nations moved to the remote outpost of Ebebiyin on Sunday.
The small town where the borders of Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and Gabon all converge welcomed a capacity crowd at its 5,000-seat stadium as Zambia and DR Congo opened their Group B campaigns with a 1-1 draw, with Premier League star Yannick Bolasie rescuing a draw for the Leopards.
And later in the day Cape Verde came from behind to draw 1-1 with Tunisia thanks to a well-taken penalty by the impressive Heldon to leave the group finely poised ahead of the second round of games.
Zambia went on to win the trophy the last time they played in Equatorial Guinea during the 2012 finals, but were eliminated in the group stage a year later despite drawing all their games.
The Chipolopolo extended their unbeaten record in the finals to 12 games, although they were unable to hang on to the second-minute lead handed to them by Given Singuluma, who plays for leading DR Congo club Tout Puissant Mazembe.
Crystal Palace winger Bolasie netted midway through the second half to ensure a share of the spoils, and the result appeared to satisfy Zambia coach Honour Janza.
“It was most important that we did not lose this match because opening games are often very tricky,” he said.
‘Stepping stone’ –
“It was a tough game, but we learnt a few things and this will be a stepping stone for us in this competition.”
Meanwhile, DR Congo captain Youssouf Mulumbu, of Premier League club West Bromwich Albion, rued his side’s poor finishing while accepting that the conditions in the tiny venue in Ebebiyin were not ideal.
“We deserved to have won this game because we were the better team today, but we missed many chances and so did not score more than one goal,” he said.
Of the stadium, he added: “We knew Equatorial Guinea obviously wasn’t ready to host this Cup of Nations.
“I don’t want to criticise them, they do their best. If we want to be in better conditions we need to get past this group stage.”
Organisers turned to Ebebiyin as they searched for venues for a tournament that was moved from Morocco after Ebola fears, and all spectators arriving at the ground were forced to wait in lengthy queues to get through temperature screening as part of Equatorial Guinea’s rigorous controls against the deadly virus.
While Morocco are absent from the competition, another north African side Tunisia are bidding to become continental champions for the first time since 2004.
Solid in qualifying, Georges Leekens’ side appeared on course to start with a victory when Mohamed Ali Moncer finished off a neat move to put them in front with just 20 minutes left.
Nevertheless, Cape Verde, who had seen Fernando Varela hit the bar inside two minutes, were not to be denied as the tricky Sporting Lisbon winger Heldon won and then converted a penalty on 77 minutes.
Unlikely quarter-finalists in 2013, Cape Verde face DR Congo in their next game on Thursday, after Tunisia clash with Zambia.