LONDON – Equatorial Guinea will kick off the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations today, only two months after stepping in as hosts.
Original hosts Morocco had asked to postpone the event because of their fears over the spread of the Ebola virus but their plea was rejected by the Confederation of African Football.
The opening match of the 30th edition of the finals will feature the home country against Congo from 6p.
Equatorial Guinea return to the tournament for the first time since co-hosting the event in 2012 when they reached the quarterfinals.
The hosts also head into the tournament with a brand new coach after Argentine Esteban Becker was appointed two weeks before the tournament following the dismissal of Spaniard Andoni Goikoetxea.
Becker is not new to the hosts after leading the female side to victory at the 2012 African Women’s Championship and has also been the local FA's technical director for the last three years.
The pressure is on Becker to emulate Brazilian-born coach Gilson Paulo who kicked off the 2012 tournament with a 1-0 win over Libya at the same venue.
Congo star Delvin Ndinga said: “We are leaving as an unknown nation as we are the only team among the 16 not to have been competing at an Afcon for 14 years.
"But we prepared well and are in good spirits. We are going to Equatorial Guinea to achieve a good result and to surprise everyone.”
Three hours later Burkina Faso will meet Gabon in the other Group A match.
Both games will be played in Bata, the country's biggest city, which also held the opening game in 2012 when the tournament was co-hosted with Gabon.
There have been fears about Equatorial Guinea's readiness to stage the tournament., with concern about the central African country's infrastructure, facilities and accommodation.
Those fears grew on Thursday when Congo coach Claude Le Roy revealed five of his 35-strong party attending the tournament did not have accommodation.
Burkina Faso coach Paul Put also criticised facilities, saying the event should have been delayed until June.
Preparations at the venues and in host cities have also come under scrutiny – in Malabo, workmen were still busy getting the stadium in the capital ready on Thursday, with press facilities clearly not in a position to welcome the world's media..
Meanwhile, opposition parties in the host nation have called for residents to boycott matches in protest at the human rights situation in the country.
In a joint statement, they asked "citizens not to go to football stadiums during the Africa Cup of Nations", highlighting the lack of freedom of speech and media freedom in the country.
In contrast, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema has personally paid for 40,000 tickets for fans to attend matches.
On the field, there is no overwhelming favourite for the tournament, with many of the teams considered to have a realistic chance of emerging as champions.
Algeria are Africa's top-ranked team and would have been one of the firm favourites were the event still taking place in Morocco.
So too would Tunisia, who were impressive in an unbeaten qualifying run in a preliminary group competition that lasted three months from September to November.
But north African teams rarely succeed in the difficult conditions of central Africa.
There is likely to be a strong challenge from the West African teams Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso, who were surprise runners-up in South Africa two years ago.
Mali have finished third at the last two editions and Ghana have played in the last four semi-finals.
Reigning champions Nigeria did not qualify, meaning they will sit out the tournament along with seven-times winners Egypt – the most successful nation in the competition's history. – Agencies
Equatorial Guinea v Congo (6pm), Burkina Faso v Gabon (9pm)
Zambia v DR Congo (6pm), Tunisia v Cape Verde (9pm)