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Football retakes centre stage in Angola

11 January 10 03:04 GMT

By Louise Redvers
BBC News, Luanda

Angola had promised a glitzy opening ceremony to officially kick off the 2010 African Nations Cup and it certainly did not disappoint.

Luanda's 11 November Stadium was lit up by a colourful show of fireworks and music, which accompanied displays of traditional and contemporary dancing performed by people in elaborate costumes.

The Angolan singer, Felipe Mukenga, sang the tournament's official anthem, Pais de Futuro (Country of the Future).

He danced next to the pitch, waving the national team's scarf above his head to rows of cheering fans, many wearing red, black and gold wigs and body paint.

Six heads of state from around the region attended the opening ceremony, including Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

During a short speech to the 50,000-strong crowd, Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos condemned the attack on the Togo team by separatist rebels in Cabinda on Friday, which left three people dead and led the players to pull out.

"Despite the terrorist attack, Cabinda will remain a hosting city," he said. "There is no need to be afraid."

A perfectly-observed minute's silence was held prior to kick off to remember the victims of the shooting, which has left a dark cloud over what was supposed to be Angola's re-launch, following the end of its long civil war in 2002.

While international media have been frenzied in their coverage of the violence, which has sent shockwaves through the footballing community, most Angolans have shrugged off the incident.

Empty streets

By 1700, the capital's normally packed main roads had emptied, except for those stuck in traffic trying to get to the stadium.

Beer-swilling fans gathered in side streets and stood around projectors which beamed the game onto walls painted white especially for the occasion.

Nearly every car had an Angolan scarf on display, and fans of all ages sported wigs, shirts, caps, flip-flops, bandanas, belts and beads in the national colours.

Some people said they had deliberately chosen to stay away from the stadium because of traffic congestion, while others said they had not been able to get hold of tickets, which had only gone on sale two weeks ago in selected bank branches.

Luanda's main open-air cinema, Cine Atlantico, was packed with lively groups, while downtown, security guards sat huddled around fuzzy television sets balanced on chairs or peered through shop windows to watch the action.

'Regrettable'

One fan watching the game between Angola and Mali in a bar in the city, Edmund Portalegre, 30, said it was necessary to forget what had happened in Cabinda.

"It's regrettable what happened, but we have to put this behind us. Angola is a country which has fought for peace and we are at peace," he said.

"That was just a few individuals - it's not the whole of Angola."

Rosana Estevao, 32, who was watching the game with her husband and two young children, agreed.

"What happened was shocking, but we hope that from here everything runs smoothly and this can be put into the past," she said.

From the moment the opening game kicked off, the Togo incident did indeed seem to have been relegated to the backs of people's minds.

Stunned

Inside the bar, the fans cheered and shouted raucously at the TV screens, chanting "Forca Angola" ("Go Angola") and blowing vuvuzela air horns.

At the stadium, the crowd also made as much noise as they could, led by brass bands and organised fan groups with set cheering routines. The few hundred Mali supporters who had made it to the game were well and truly drowned out.

By the time Angola was leading 3-0, those in the bar were jumping about and dancing, spraying beer across the tables and leaping on chairs.

Teenagers revved their motorbikes outside and others ran to their cars just to beep their horns.

But with just 10 minutes to go, as some fans started to leave the stadium to beat the traffic home, things started to go very wrong. In an extraordinary final 11 minutes, Mali pulled back four goals to draw the match 4-4.

Suddenly it was as if someone had pushed a button and put the city on mute.

Within minutes, what had been a celebration worthy of winning the final became a muted throng of groans disappointment and the odd angry shout.

Beers were left unfinished and most bars emptied as Angolans returned home, disappointed that their team had thrown away a seemingly unassailable lead.

The commentators on Televisao Nacional de Angola were almost too stunned for words, while the Palancas Negra's coach, Manuel Jose, said in a post-match interview that he had no explanation for what had happened on the pitch.

"It's hard to take in," one fan said as he got in his car, taking off his cap and throwing it on the back seat. "We really should have won it, but we threw it away."

Another added: "We have to beat Malawi now, or else."

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