The Africa Cup of Nations, also referred to as AFCON, is held every two years and is the main international association football competition in Africa.
Following the decision to relocate the Africa Cup of Nations tournament to Equatorial Guinea with only eight weeks to kick-off, STRI was contracted by CAF (Confederation Africaine de Football) to deliver the stadia and training pitches to the required standard for the third largest football tournament in the world and to provide training and support to the groundstaff at each venue.
- Two of the stadia – Estadio de Bata and Nuevo Estadio de Malabo – had been purpose built in 2007 for the women’s Africa Cup of Nations but Estadio de Mongomo and Nuevo Estadio de Ebebiyín were in poor condition and required upgrading and re-turfing. This meant that an appropriately high grade of Bermudagrass turf needed to be sourced, transported, laid and established within a period of just eight weeks.
- The turf was sourced from a nursery in Valencia and flown from Madrid to the mainland. However, as the turf was unrefrigerated, it did not travel well. Two turf laying machines were also flown to the mainland but one broke during the journey and was unable to be repaired. It was becoming evident that we were going to have an uphill struggle to prepare the surfaces to the desired standard.
- Installation of the turf commenced on 19 December and, after working over Christmas, was completed seven days later. Unfortunately, due to a lack of machinery, much of the surface preparation and consolidation prior to turfing had been completed with hand tools and problems with surface levels were quickly apparent. The short interval between this and the first game impeded our ability to prepare surface levels to European standards.
- Encouraging the turf to root and then develop a playing surface was the next challenge. In Europe, under such time constraints we would normally choose thick (40 mm) cut turf, but this was not an option and thinly cut washed turf was selected. Bermudagrass turf is usually quick to root under optimum growing conditions. However the tournament coincided with the dry season and the irrigation systems at both venues were poor. At Ebebiyin the irrigation tank served both the stadium and the pitch. Running out of water was a daily occurrence and impacted upon root development.
- All eight of the proposed training venues were inspected and found to be in quite poor condition. They had been neglected in the previous months in favour of the stadium pitches. Some had been reseeded, but again irrigation problems abounded and grass coverage ranged dramatically between 30% and 80%. Practical training sessions were held with each of the ground teams in order to communicate the standards expected for the tournament and to draw up a strict schedule for maintenance operations.
- Progress was slow and the contractors employed were under-resourced – one pitch had been renovated back to sand but the irrigation system had broken down and was being watered using a watering can and a wheelbarrow. Without appropriate equipment, ingenuity and resourcefulness are required; aeration was carried out by a member of the ground team wearing aeration shoes!
- STRI remained to provide tournament preparation consultancy and consultancy during the tournament. The timeframe for completion of the tournament meant that matches during the group stages were scheduled to occur back-to-back which placed additional pressure on the young turf.
- After the first games were played at Ebebiyín, it was necessary to plug some areas of the pitch that had failed with blocks of new turf lifted from behind either goal. Plugging and turf repairing techniques were demonstrated to the stadium’s grounds team who had never plugged before. It was also a new experience for us as the only tools available were machetes and shovels!
- Another first for us… a witch doctor was hired by the Equatorial Guinea football team to perform a ritual sacrifice within the centre circle of the pitch for good luck. It seemed to work as they won their first match 2-0 against Gabon at the Estadio de Bata. It didn’t help the turf though and despite our best efforts we couldn’t prevent this from being repeated at each of their subsequent games.
CAF was delighted with the results, stating that the pitches in Equatorial Guinea had been the best surfaces played on in the last 30 years of the tournament.
STRI was extremely proud to have supported CAF as well as helping to improve the skills and knowledge of the staff at each of the venues through onsite training.
This aspect is probably the most important legacy of the tournament, particularly if the knowledge gained can be utilised to maintain the surfaces to still higher standards.