In front of me was utter chaos — angry, screaming fans. But there were scared, scurrying fans, too.
Above a helicopter hovered over the Estadio de Malabo, the venue of Thursday’s Africa Cup of Nations semifinal between Equatorial Guinea and Ghana.
For about 12 hours before the game kicked off, that dark blue and yellow chopper had been pacing the skies around the stadium, as if it had a premonition as to what would happen that night.
“I’ve never played in front of anything like that and I’d like to say sorry on behalf of my team. It was an odd experience — one I’ve never felt before,” said Equatorial Guinea star Emilio Nsue after his team lost 3-0.
The host nation’s fans started the match with hopes of Equatorial Guinea making its first ever AFCON final, before they started grumbling when decisions didn’t go their way. Meltdown then ensued.
Ahead of kick off the mood had been one of optimism. Earlier the country’s state owned Television GE had taken calls on its build up show and every one of the 35 callers had predicted a 2-0 win or more for Equatorial Guinea..
That might partly explain why the home fans became so angry.
Ghana’s third goal — scored by captain Andre Ayew — was the cue for the missile throwing and pelting to intensify.
But amid the madness, there was also humanity.
“We shall protect you,” said Bruno Ekedo, a middle-aged man clad in the red jersey of the Nzalang Nacional, as the home team are affectionately called.
“If they try to come near you we will hit them with this,” he said with a grunt as he lifted a metal barricade with POLICIA emblazoned on it, before adding that he was disgusted by the “stupidity of some of the fans.”
Equatorial Guinea was the first AFCON host nation to reach the semifinals since Ghana did it in 2008 and perhaps there was a sense that a final appearance on Sunday was preordained.
“But that does not give you the right to beat people who have come to play good football, does it?” said an exasperated Ekedo, as he tried to call the attention of the police to two men in the crowd shaking their fists and making menacing gestures at the Ghanaian journalists in the press box.
Then the smoke bombs and tear gas started flying, with the Ghana Football Association characterizing the scenes as a “like a war zone.”
Ekedo wasn’t the only local to make it their business to help out.
“There were four guys from the street who just saw my friends and I and decided to help us,” said Selina Opare, sporting a cut to her left eye from a rock thrown at her group of girls wearing bright Ghana-themed dresses.
“They made us take off our dresses and they gave us their shirts. We wore their Equatorial Guinea jerseys and they walked on the road bare chested so we were able to get back to the Ghana Embassy safely.”
While the Ghana FA president Kwesi Nyantakyi called the actions of fans “barbaric” and “uncivilized,” he also acknowledged the efforts of the “very few good men who opted to help us.”
Disappointment and then…hope
Returning to my hotel I found it filled with people from the stadium who couldn’t go home because of the chaotic nature of the streets.
As I was going back to my room, a familiar face walked in.
“Mi amigo!” It was Ekedo, who was volunteering to help with the transportation needs of any stranded Ghanaian fans.
Equatorial Guinea can expect some unfavorable headlines in the coming days and weeks, but the unheralded helpers show that African football — and Africa — is not all that bad.