The helicopter that had hovered over the stadium all game passed low over the stands. Then it came back again, lower. And again, even lower so that when it crossed the tribune at the western end of the stadium, fans fled and a swarm of inflatable orange hands, clap-sticks, empty water bottles and scraps of paper were swept into the air. It came one more time, passing perhaps 30 feet above the top of the stand, by which time smoke grenades had been released.

Behind the goal, a line of Ghanaian fans huddled in fear, protected to an extent by local riot police, but still having to dodge the occasional missile. Red-shirted Equatoguinean players approached in despair, hands out, trying to calm their own fans. Ghana’s players stood in the centre-circle, sporadically shaking their legs to keep loose. An announcement came over the loudspeaker, urging fans to remember the image of the country. The word “vergüenza” – shame – was repeated. It only inflamed the situation, prompting a further hail of water-bottles to be hurled at police.

Eventually the stand behind the goal and the main stand were cleared of home fans. The mood among some remained strangely cheery. As they were hastened along the aisle in front of the press-box, one inadvertently knocked off a colleague’s laptop charger, apologised, rescued it from the churn of feet and handed it back. After a delay of 40 minutes, the game restarted. There were eight minutes plus injury-time remaining; they lasted perhaps three before the Gabonese referee Eric Otogo blew the final whistle.

Ghana won 3-0, and had played extremely well, particularly given the absence of Asamoah Gyan because of a pelvic injury sustained when he was kicked by the Guinea goalkeeper Naby Yattara. That, though, was not what will be remembered from the second semi-final. The first sign of trouble had come when Iban Edu, a player notable for being quick, irritating and immaculately groomed, had dispossessed Wakaso Mubarak midway inside the Ghana half, giving him a clear run on goal. The tackle seemed clean – and the linesman, who was no more than 15 yards away didn’t flag – but Otogo deemed it a foul. Iban Edu, who plays in a constant bubble of fury, harangued Otogo and was rapidly joined by four or five teammates. A couple of bottles were lobbed towards the pitch.

Ghana were clearly the better side and, unlike Tunisia in the quarter-final, they took on Equatorial Guinea at football, rather than seeking to scrap and to spoil. Again and again Wakaso hit Christian Atsu with rapid long passes from deep in midfield and he soon exposed Rubén Belima’s shortcomings at left-back. Four minutes before half-time, Atsu laid in Kwesi Appiah, who was tripped by the goalkeeper Felipe Ovono. Equatorial Guinea protested, but the decision was clear-cut. Jordan Ayew converted the penalty.

As Ghana celebrated by the bench, Equatorial Guinea kicked off quickly, charging through an empty half at Razak Braimah’s goal. Otogo called them back and, as he was surrounded, more bottles were thrown, aimed mainly at the celebrating Ghanaian players. Equatorial Guinea’s discipline deserted them and, as they threw men forwards for a corner, Ghana hit them on the break, Atsu leading the counter before laying in Wakaso to make it 2-0. This time the hail of bottles was heavier and when the half-time whistle blew soon afterwards, Ghana’s players were unable to leave the field until riot police had formed a testudo with their shields. The start of the second half was delayed until a similar shelter had been created – despite pleas from Equatorial Guinea players for their fans to calm down – after which Avram Grant, notably unconcerned, led out his players.

A tense second half was played out at half pace until, with eight minutes remaining, Appiah crossed for Dede Ayew to add a third. Bottles rained down and then the missiles began to be directed at the 500 or so Ghanaian fans in the western corner of the north stand. It later became apparent that it wasn’t just plastic water bottles being thrown, but glass beer bottles and stones, even half a plate and a piece of mirror. The Ghanaians, panicking, made first for the top corner of the stand, where they were at least protected from anything hurled from the west stand and then fled down to the front of the tribune. It was widely reported that they’d forced the gate, but later inspection showed no damage: either the gate was already open or stadium security had released the magnetic lock. As the fans spilled through, police escorted them onto the running track, where they became targets for the west stand.

In the press box, there was a strange sense of dislocation and disbelief. Only twice did it feel that this could develop into something really serious: briefly when it seemed the Ghanaians may fight back and attack the west stand, and then when riot police, batons raised, cleared the main (south) stand. The Ghanaians, though, were admirably restrained and the evacuation actually passed off reasonably smoothly. The police, once they took action, ultimately responded well in quelling mounting tensions. Yet certain images remain. A ball boy, terrified in his uniform black shirt and orange shorts, hiding behind two medics. The back of an advertising hoarding streaked with blood. A photographer, a friend, hiding behind an inflatable Pepsi can as missiles peppered the track around him. An Equatoguinean couple sitting – defiant? dumb? drunk? – in their team’s red shirts as an exasperated policeman prodded the man with the end of his baton. The Ghanaian fans, a fatalistic calm having settled over them, waiting outside the stadium for buses to ferry them away.

Was it a major incident? In terms of casualties, no, but in preventing the game from continuing, absolutely. For a long time, it seemed impossible that the game could carry on: what, after all, was the point with Ghana already 3-0 up? Then, slowly, realisation dawned. The television feed, beholden to the Confederation of African Football (CAF), had cut away from the violence almost as soon as it began (which is why most of the footage of the incidents, shot by a South African cameraman from the back of the press box, features the freelancer Nick Ames and me in the foreground). 

And what sort of incident was it? Ostensibly, this was a home crowd reacting petulantly when its dreams of a final were taken from it, yet it was noticeable that the police became as much of a target as Ghana’s players and fans. The outward appearance is of a placid population that has bought en masse into the propaganda of Teodor Obiang Nguema’s regime, or is at least too weary or too frightened to fight. But opposition voices were quick to suggest that the relative anonymity of the football crowd – as so often before, in so many places – had permitted dissent to kindle. Obiang is 72 and his son, Teodorin, is making desperate attempts to persuade the world he isn’t the free-spending playboy he has appeared. If the oil money is running out, what does that mean for the future of Equatorial Guinea?

There was other, more immediate, politicking at play. By insisting the game went on, by going through the charade of playing out those final minutes, CAF could create a simulacrum of normality. In the future, people looking at the results will see a game that Ghana won 3-0, not a match that was abandoned after 82 minutes with Ghana leading 3-0. Image is everything: that the tournament was staged at all was testament to the demand that the show must go on.

When Morocco withdrew from hosting the Cup of Nations in November, it left CAF with a major problem. “Once you postpone this event, it will open the door for everybody to ask for a delay of any competition and we will no longer be credible and cannot organise anything,” the CAF president Issa Hayatou said. “We will hurt our sponsors and partners. Everyone will say we are not ready and finally it is CAF that will pay the piper.”

But as well as finance, there was an issue of credibility. “You know, we have a problem with French clubs which will not release our players if we move the Africa Cup of Nations,” Hayatou went on. 

There was also the issue of pride. The Cup of Nations was established in 1957 as a direct response to what CAF saw as Africa’s under-representation at the World Cup. In that sense the tournament stands as an expression of African self-reliance, which is one reason CAF has resisted numerous calls to make the tournament once every four years in line with the Euros, the Copa América and the Asian Cup. Hayatou, over the past fortnight, has repeated again and again that CAF has never in 57 years postponed the Cup of Nations, for disease, war or political upheaval. For Hayatou and for CAF it was a point of principle that the tournament went ahead.

Quite why Morocco pulled out was something of a mystery. It has invested significant sums in football infrastructure, making a bid to host the World Cup and staging the Club World Championship. The Cup of Nations seemed a logical part of that strategy of self-promotion. Presumably the reasoning was that fear of Ebola would have such an impact on Morocco’s tourist industry that it made more economic sense to accept CAF’s sanctions – which eventually amounted to a ban for Morocco from this and the next two Cups of Nations, a $1million fine and €8million damages. The actual threat, though, was minimal, given that only one country afflicted by Ebola, Guinea, qualified, and that their travelling support and media could probably be numbered in double figures. Even more bafflingly, with Guinea banned from playing in Conakry because of the epidemic, they played ‘home’ games in Casablanca. 

As CAF cast about for alternate venues, it turned out there was only one viable option – in Africa at least. Equatorial Guinea, having co-hosted the 2012 Cup of Nations with Gabon had the experience, two functioning stadiums and a further two under construction. It also had the wealth and the political will. Given it had a little under two months from being announced as hosts to the opening game, Equatorial Guinea did a remarkable job. Construction of the stadium in Mongomo was completed and a pitch laid, while improvements were made in Ebebiyin. Rudimentary press facilities were installed; sometimes the wifi even worked after half-time. 

The biggest problem was hotels, less in Malabo than on the mainland. Tunisia arrived to find a three-hour power cut and no water. Burkina Faso moved because there weren’t enough rooms. Claude Leroy, the Congo coach, spoke of the worst facilities in his eight Cups of Nations. DR Congo stayed in a bizarre holiday camp near Bata airport that featured a lot of sinister men in sunglasses and no wifi until the second week. For journalists, finding accommodation on the mainland was hugely problematic.

I was one of five British journalists who’d booked flights from Malabo to Bata the day before the opening game. Three years ago I’d stayed in a hotel called the Sueño, run by a struggling French couple, but there seemed to be no trace of it online and I assumed it had gone out of business. The day we were due to fly there, we still had nothing and met in a café that morning to discuss our options. Somehow Brian Oliver, the former sports editor of the Observer, who was already in Bata, got wind of some rooms being let by a Mr Chang. We called him, negotiated a rate, and found ourselves staying in a Chinese restaurant. Chang himself came to meet us at the airport. He was young, friendly, extremely lean and muscular and had a bodyguard who carried an AK47. His fleet of cars, including at least one Porsche, suggested either that Chinese food is extremely profitable in Equatorial Guinea or he has some sort of sideline.

Before the opening games, the streets were packed, lines of white and blue taxis left gridlocked by the decision to shut the coast road to all but CAF officials and the teams. As we looped way east of the city before turning south towards the stadium, we passed the Sueño, still very open, and adorned with a photograph of the Congo team. 

The stadium in Bata has an official capacity of 35,000 and in many ways is extremely well-appointed. Its major drawback is that everybody has to approach along one road and pass through a single gate. Three years ago, a crush there led to smoke bombs being fired by police to disperse a crowd, a scenario that was repeated ahead of the second group games this time round. Even when we arrived for the first games, five hours before kick-off, there were signs of problems to come as a few fans encroached beyond a barrier, police raised batons, and those fans ran back in a panic, into a line of other fans who were arriving behind them. By the time we left after the game, the gate hung buckled from a single hinge. Before the second game, against Burkina Faso, frustrated ticket-holders hurled rocks at police. Between the two games, it became so busy in the stadium hotel that they had to close off the bar; a producer for Al-Jazeera saw one irate local pull a gun in an attempt to gain admittance.

Equatorial Guinea took the lead against a sluggish Congo, Middlesbrough’s Emilio Nsue taking advantage of a generous offside call to finish neatly. He was denied a second by an incorrect offside call and Congo battled back to level through Thiévy Bifouma. Leroy was furious, although it was unclear whether he was alleging skulduggery or ineptitude when he described how before the game the air-conditioning failed on the team bus, which then took 70 minutes to complete a 10-minute journey. Equatorial Guinea responded with an official complaint about the disallowing of Nsue’s goal and alleging there was a “conspiracy” to “complicate” their progress to the second round. Gabon then beat a disappointing Burkina Faso with surprising ease.

Internal transport in Equatorial Guinea wasn’t easy, but fortunately in the week before the tournament I’d been contacted by Chris and Melvyn, who worked for a British consultancy overseeing a construction project in Mongomo. They’d read a piece I’d written about the difficulties of finding accommodation and had very kindly offered the use of an apartment belonging to a colleague of theirs who was stuck in Britain with visa issues. Even more generously, they offered us the use of their office manager, Edu, as a driver. He picked us up in a Toyota Hilux at Chang’s and, with four packed into the back, drove us through the jungle to Ebebiyin.

We arrived about four hours before kick-off in the first game there and popped into the town’s one major hotel looking for something to eat. We were shown to the dining room, where the Cape Verde team were already tucking into a buffet of rice and various meats. When they left, the Minister for Sport, Francisco Pascual Obama Asue, arrived with his entourage. He happily agreed to an interview. He was very keen to assert that Equatorial Guinea had never volunteered to replace Morocco as hosts. “It was CAF who asked us and we said yes,” he said. “They had no other solution. We were the last resort. CAF asked who could do it and if no one could, it would have gone to Qatar. It would not have been good for this tournament, a celebration of African football, to be cancelled or moved outside Africa. So for that reason the President agreed. Africa has to consume what is African.”

This is very much the image the president Obiang Nguema, who took power in a coup in 1979, is trying to portray: Equatorial Guinea is taking an increasingly important role within Africa, hosting the African Union summit in 2011, for instance, as well as the two Cups of Nations since then. There’s clearly a reluctance, though, to appear too pushy. “We do not seek to be a protagonist,” Obama said. “When we are asked, we are ready to help. There is a sense of satisfaction, of course, that the rest of Africa trusts us to do it.” 

There’s also a sense of a future being prepared. Oil production has peaked – rough estimates suggest that the tier-one oil companies will start withdrawing in 2030 – and that the fall in the price of oil at the back end of 2014 has created major financial difficulties for the government, while causing those tier-one companies to consider backing out of costly deep-water drilling that remains only just financially viable. Clear information on how much hosting the tournament cost is difficult to find, but South Africa reportedly spent £25million to stage the 2013 edition, taking over from Libya at short notice (although not nearly so short as the notice Equatorial Guinea had). Obama could give no precise figure for the cost of the tournament beyond a vague figure of £10.5million each for the new stadiums in Ebebiyin and Mongomo. 

Whether the government has overreached or not, the scale of the infrastructure projects – roads, water, electricity – is impressive and much needed. That said, there is still much to be done: although the La Paz hospitals in Sipopo and Bata, funded by Israel, are excellent, they remain out of the reach of locals. The main hospital in Bata is so basic it doesn’t even have an incinerator: needles are buried in the forest, while the story is told of a man who had his leg amputated and was given it to take home when he was discharged; he threw it from the taxi window, where local children played with it until it was eaten by dogs. With such obvious deficiencies, President Obiang’s various vanity projects, his many palaces, his private helicopter that was once dispatched to Ebebiyin to pick up a cake, become even less justifiable.

Even hosting the tournament, for all the good it may do in terms of boosting Equatorial Guinea’s profile and enhancing its prestige within Africa, has been questioned. Before the opening game in Bata, an opposition leader, Celestino Nvo Okenve, was arrested for handing out flyers and T-shirts urging people not to support the tournament by attending games and the human rights activist Santiago Martin, a member of the opposition, was detained for planning to lead a demonstration against the tournament. 

The Equatoguinean exile Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel wrote a blog post that was reprinted in the Guardian in which he pointed out that “Many [Equatoguineans] barely have roofs over their heads, for the majority live in horribly overcrowded houses and sleep in whatever living-space is left over to them. We won’t even mention drinking water, schools or centres for professional training.” Laurel has a political axe to grind, but the basic truth of what he says is indisputable. Yet the argument is not as simple as he suggests. For one thing, if only those nations with adequate provision for healthcare and education were permitted to stage tournaments, the list of hosts would be impossibly short; and for another, there is surely some value in the happiness and pride that can be stimulated in a host nation by positive results. 

The stadium in Ebebiyin is basic, with a horseshoe of stands and one end left open to the jungle, but it’s more than good enough for group games, even if the pitch did cut up alarmingly – although hardly surprisingly, given it had been laid a matter of weeks earlier. Most significantly, it was full. Three years ago, other than for games involving the hosts in Bata, matches in Equatorial Guinea had been notable for their poor attendances – not that that is exactly unusual in Cups of Nations. This time, prices were set low, some going for as little as 500XFA (58p – or the price of any taxi journey within a city), while Obiang had personally paid for 10,000 tickets in each of the four venues to be distributed to fans. “We have to give solemnity to the Nations Cup. It is necessary to buy tickets to fill the stadiums,” he said. “Let those who have the means help the poor.” That’s an intriguing take on his social policy, but it did suggest the extent to which, for him, this Cup of Nations is about spectacle.

The opening games in Ebebiyin may not have offered too much of that from a football perspective, although Yannick Bolassie’s equaliser for DR Congo against Zambia was a goal of great beauty as he ran on to a cut-back from the right and creamed the ball into the top corner from just inside the box. Tunisia’s 1-1 against Cape Verde was rather less memorable. In fact, the whole group faded quickly from the recollection: Cape Verde were dogged and dull, a disappointment after the fluent team of two years ago, while Zambia lost their nerve having taken the lead against Tunisia, conceding two soft goals. In the end, a draw between Tunisia and DR Congo took both through.

Mongomo remains just as weird as it was when I passed through three years ago. The development has moved on apace and there is now a library and museum to go with the palace and the 8,000-capacity basilica, the second-largest Catholic place of worship in Africa. It still feels as incongruous as Portmeirion, an Italianate folly rising from the jungle. The new stadium was full for the opening games as Senegal overpowered a limp Ghana side and won 2-1 with a late goal from Moussa Sow. Afterwards Avram Grant cut an uncomfortable figure, shoulders hunched as a bat fluttered above his head in the press-conference room and he faced a barrage of criticism for his decision to switch to a back three shortly before the tournament.

Algeria, the pre-tournament favourites, fell behind to South Africa, whose goalscorer Tokelo Rantie missed a penalty soon afterwards. It was then that the goalkeeping situation that had always looked a potential weakness became a major issue – a phrase that while undoubtedly true sounds almost offensively banal given the context. After the murder of Senzo Meyiwa in October, the most experienced candidate to keep goal for South Africa was Darren Keet, who had won just four caps. He played against Algeria and, although he made one stunning double save with the score at 1-0, he was responsible in varying degrees for all three goals South Africa conceded in the final 23 minutes. From Algeria’s point of view, it was an emphatic conclusion to a game in which they’d been largely undistinguished.

It didn’t immediately get better for them as they faced an improved Ghana, the return of Asamoah Gyan from what was described as “a mild dose” of malaria inspiring them. Gyan looked exhausted by the end of the game against Algeria but in injury-time, with the score at 0-0, he summoned the strength to run on to a long pass from Mubarak Wakaso and hit an awkward bouncing finish across Aymen Mathlouthi and in at the far post. With Senegal drawing with South Africa, who again threw away a lead, that meant all four sides could conceivably have made it through.

An early goal from Riyad Mahrez against Senegal put Algeria in control of the group and when Mandla Masanga scored with a brilliant volley against Ghana, South Africa were a goal from joining them. They were forced deeper and deeper, though, as they had been in their opening two games, and goals from John Boye and Dede Ayew gave Ghana a win that took them through with Algeria, who eventually won 2-0.

In Malabo, it was a story of West African giants crashing into each other with great force. Guinea were the romantic choice, having won their last two games to qualify despite being banned from playing matches at home because of the Ebola crisis. They brought a surprising number of fans, one of whom stood in front of the press box dressed in a green, yellow and red jester’s costume brandishing a banner that read, in French, “God is great! Come on Guinea, the team of Ebola!” They started well against a sluggish Côte d’Ivoire and took a first-half lead through Mohamed Yattara. When Gervinho was sent off just before the hour for lashing out amid some general pushing and shoving, a Guinean win began to seem possible. Hervé Renard brought on Seydou Doumbia, went to a 3-4-2 formation and, as Guinea tired, the substitute found the equaliser. The Guinean press was furious, one journalist directing a diatribe against the coach Michel Dussuyer, accusing him of being overly negative, and storming out. A physical Mali then forced a 1-1 draw against a Cameroon side that lacked the spark it had shown in qualifying.

Côte d’Ivoire were only moderately improved in their second game, Max Gradel hitting an 84th-minute equaliser after Bakary Sako had given Mali the lead with a superb finish. When Ibrahima Traoré, winning a second successive man of the match award – “one for mam, one for dad,” as he put it – equalised for Guinea against Cameroon, all four sides in Group D were locked on two points, with two goals scored and two conceded.

Café Malabo has the best juice, the best wifi and some of the best food in town, so three of us decided to go there to watch the final games in Group A. Equatorial Guinea had drawn 0-0 with Burkina Faso in their second game which, with Congo beating Gabon 1-0 meant Equatorial Guinea needed to beat their great rivals Gabon to go through. The hope was that with all its screens and Cup of Nations decorations, Café Malabo would offer a happy balance of atmosphere and internet connectivity.

Unfortunately, half the bar had been booked out by a baby shower, so the build-up to the game was dominated by kids running about, shaking maracas and hitting drums. As soon as the players left the tunnel, though, the music was turned off and the commentary turned on. The adults at the shower, a couple of dozen young women, belted out the national anthem and settled down to watch the game in a combination of mute anxiety and panicked screams. 

It was 0-0 in both games at half-time, then word came through that Congo had scored. For Equatorial Guinea, that changed nothing. Then Balboa burst into the box. Lloyd Palun stuck out a leg, Balboa went down and the referee, Noumandiez Doué of Côte d’Ivoire, gave a penalty. Balboa, under the intensest pressure, drove his kick home. The baby shower went wild, women running about, shrieking, hugging. Then they settled back for 35 minutes agonising waiting. When Iban Edu appeared on the touchline, running his fingers through his carefully coiffed hair, there was a ripple of approval; he’s clearly something of a pin-up. He also turned out to be the match-winner, stabbing the rebound into the net with four minutes remaining after Didier Ovono had saved an initial effort from Balboa. The streets were soon packed with cars tooting their horns in celebration.

After Côte d’Ivoire’s draw against Mali, Kolo Touré seemed surprisingly bullish. He spoke of the character in the team and how comfortable he felt playing in a back three behind Eric Bailly and Wilfried Kanon who, at 20 and 21 respectively, became emblematic of the rejuvenation of this Ivorian team. Their youth, the fact they hadn’t been battered by repeated failure, he said, gave them an optimism that energised the rest of the squad. Needing to win their final group game against Cameroon to be sure of a place in the quarter-final, Côte d’Ivoire finally produced a performance worthy of potential champions, Max Gradel getting the only goal eight minutes before half-time. Cameroon, having looked so bright in qualifying, were flat, only sparking into life after Clinton N’jié came off the bench in the second half – which only served to infuriate the Cameroonian press who had been calling for his inclusion from the start of the tournament.

A 15th-minute penalty from Kevin Constant gave Guinea the lead in the other game in the group. Seydou Keita missed from the spot soon after, but Mali did level shortly after half-time from a back-post Modibo Maïga header. A 1-1 draw meant qualification went down to the drawing of lots.

Dozens of journalists clustered round the lift shaft at the end of the lobby of the Malabo Hilton. For security reasons, two of the three lifts were blocked off with litter bins. In the presidential suite on the fourth floor, a representative of the Guinean and Malian parties each reached into a glass bowl and took a green ball, one marked with a two and one with a three. Aboubakar Baba Diarra of Mali took hold of a ball first, then Amara Dabo, the financial director at the Guinean sports ministry, grabbed his. Guinea were through.

The word surged through the lobby. Everybody, suddenly, was on phones, on microphones, on Twitter: it’s Guinea. The one working lift came down. Dabo, wearing a white Hackett shirt with one red sleeve, one navy, emerged, beaming, and jogged the length of the lobby before he eventually stopped to give a delighted interview. “The god of fortune smiled on us,” he said, then broke off to hug a man in an orange and yellow striped shirt and dance with him. He was soon speaking excitedly on two phones at once. Before long he was overwhelmed, standing in a daze, patting sweat from his brow with a folded handkerchief. The lift doors opened again and a CAF official carried out the bowl, returning it to the kitchen, presumably to resume its role in the breakfast buffet.

Finally, out came the Malian delegation, one official weeping, another saying it was “the cruellest way to lose”. “Today is a very important day for our country,” said Damani Dore, Guinea’s sports minister. “It shows when you work hard, and work together, good things can happen. The whole of Africa has come together to fight the Ebola epidemic, including our brothers in Mali. They are a brother country.”

Initially the quarter-finals had been scheduled to take place across the four venues, but safety concerns over Equatorial Guinea playing in the tiny stadium in Ebebiyin meant the games ended up being played as double-headers in Bata and Malabo. In some quarters that was portrayed as scandalous assistance to the hosts, but in reality it was probably the only safe option.

Accommodation in Bata was still a problem, but I had no great desire to go back to Chang’s, so I ended up spending the first night in an apartment about 10 minutes walk from the stadium. It was not a good decision. The place stank of sour milk and urine, there was graffiti on the walls and, as well as four British journalists, there were a number of local kids staying in the place, who played video games loudly at all hours. When I woke up the following morning, after a fevered and unpleasant sleep during which mosquitos had made a banquet of my left arm, it turned out there was no power and no water, at which I left, resolving to walk around the city begging and throwing money around until I found a hotel. It turned out that, after the Burkina Faso team had left, there’d been spaces in the Hotel de Federaciones, in the stadium grounds. 90,000XFA (£100) for a shower and air-conditioning, with enticing clouds of garlic billowing from the kitchen, seemed like the greatest bargain any man had ever struck. 

That was perhaps the hottest, most humid day of a hot and humid tournament. In the press-box, everybody looked wrung out, sweat patches unavoidable. The first half of Congo v DR Congo was understandably half-paced and cautious. Eight minutes into the second, though, Yannick Bolasie struck the bar and the game suddenly took off. Two minutes later Férébory Doré jabbed in a free-kick from the left and, against the run of play, Congo had the lead. Cédric Makiadi smacked a free-kick off the bar, then a defensive error let in Doré again. His initial effort was saved, but Bifouma followed up to make it 2-0. In nine minutes DR Congo had hit the bar twice but had gone 2-0 down. They needed a quick response and they got it: three minutes after Bifouma’s goal, Bolasie cut the ball back and Dieumerci Mbokani, whose strength had unsettled Congo throughout, made it 2-1. Jeremy Bokila, having hit a simple chance straight at the keeper, seized on the much harder chance the rebound presented to level with 15 minutes remaining. With the substitute Neeskens Kebano pulling the strings, DR Congo took control. Joel Kimwaki headed in a Kebano free-kick to make it 3-2 with nine minutes remaining and then Mbokani sealed a 4-2 win from Kebano’s through-ball in injury-time. It had been an astonishing second half but that, it turned out, was only the hors d’oeuvres.

Where can you begin with the second quarter-final? The first half was offensively awful, a game that seemed made up almost entirely of the ball being tossed about so free-kicks could be taken. Tunisia committed 19 fouls in the first half and Equatorial Guinea four, but the most serious incident came when Sipo, the Equatoguinean full-back, spat at Wahbi Khazri. As the second half went on, the foul-rate went down, but behaviour became worse. Both sides at one point seemed to be playing for penalties, while if the Mauritian referee Rajindraparsad Seechurn, who had come to resemble a hapless supply teacher being largely ignored by a troublesome class, had been as strict as he perhaps should have been, three or four Tunisians could have been sent off for dissent or bad challenges. Ahmed Akaichi, in particular, was fortunate to escape a red card for a reckless lunge at the Equatorial Guinea goalkeeper Felipe Ovono, who perhaps did him a favour by reacting as preposterously as he did.

20 minutes from time, from nothing, Tunisia took the lead, Akaichi sweeping in a cross from the right – after which, of course, their time-wasting became even worse. Equatorial Guinea seemed helpless in the face of it, too naive, too lacking genuine quality, to do anything about it. But then Emilio Nsue ran onto a pass from Iban Edu and drew a fine save from Aymen Mathlouthi and the mood in the stadium changed from resignation to something more optimistic. Deep in injury-time, Ivan Bolado turned in the box near Hamza Mathlouthi and went down. Seechurn pointed to the spot. Replays soon confirmed what had seemed instinctively true: it was never a penalty. Georges Leekens, Tunisia’s Belgian coach, later called the decision a disgrace and compared it to the loss of a family member. There’s little doubt that history will remember the penalty as a scandal but you could at least see why Seechurn might have given it; there was a clumsy movement from Mathlouthi. 

The call went up immediately that the game had been fixed, that this was Equatorial Guinea’s payback for agreeing to stage the tournament. Perhaps it was, but had Seechurn really been fixing the game, surely he wouldn’t have left it so late; he had, after all, had plenty of opportunities to dismiss Tunisians earlier in the game. My personal suspicion is that he simply tired of Tunisia’s gamesmanship, his temper got the better of him and he snapped. Balboa, under enormous pressure, swept in the penalty. 

Tunisia’s discipline deserted them. Still, had they played properly, they would probably have won, but they were too far down the route of skulduggery for that. They had taken a game they should have won and, by cheating and spoiling, had created an environment in which it was suddenly, unexpectedly, possible they could lose. Balboa, a slow-moving, skilful winger, had the game of his life and, 11 minutes into extra-time, Seechurn decided he had been baulked by Aymen Abdennour. The Tunisians protested wildly, barging Seechurn sufficiently that the free-kick ended up being taken about five yards behind where the offence had occurred. No matter: Balboa whipped it into the top corner, a goal marred only by the fact that a green laser-pen had played over the face of Aymen Mathlouthi as he waited on his goal-line.

The game from then on was a farce, Equatorial Guinea time-wasting, Tunisia spoiling for a fight. Seechurn gave two minutes injury-time at the end of the second half, but it was taken up in its entirety by a scrap between the two benches as the Equatoguineans held onto the ball to prevent Tunisia taking a throw. Esteban Becker, the short, dapper, excitable Argentinian manager of Equatorial Guinea, made a point of standing in the corner of his technical area as close to the Tunisian bench as possible, a magnificently provocative gesture, remaining within the laws by such a tiny margin that he may as well have been flicking V-signs. In the end, it seemed Seechurn had just given up. As soon as the whistle went, he was surrounded by Tunisians; one aimed a kick at him and others threw punches before stewards and police waded in, protecting Seechurn as he scuttled off down the tunnel. When the Tunisians were finally persuaded to leave, bottles were thrown from the stand, the players returning fire. Disgracefully, Sport5, who control the television feed, cut away from the incidents on the pitch meaning there is probably no footage of the clashes. That Tunisia had been hard done by was impossible to dispute; finding sympathy for them given their general behaviour rather harder. It wasn’t a game from which anybody emerged with their reputation enhanced. Tunisia were asked to apologise for their allegations that the officials had been biased; when they refused they were banned from the 2017 tournament. Seechurn, meanwhile, was suspended from refereeing for six months.

Not that anybody in Bata cared. Nobody slept that night. The airport the following morning was full of the undead, clad in red shirts and wandering around with glazed eyes and booze on their breath. Most taxi drivers seemed hammered. I shared a terrifying ride to the airport with the British journalist Taimour Lay. When he handed over his phone showing his electronic ticket at the Punto Azul desk, a manager grabbed it and in his drunken clumsiness managed to “archive” the email which, with no wifi in the terminal, immediately became inaccessible. Half an hour of arguing later, Taimour ended up sitting behind the check-in desk as he searched the system for his booking reference.

Back in Malabo things were calmer. Guinea wasted the opportunity the drawing of lots had given them, barely turning up and losing 3-0 to Ghana. Ivory Coast then withstood intense pressure from Algeria to win 3-1 despite having only 40% possession, Wilfried Bony scoring with two excellent headers before Gervinho wrapped up the win from a counter led by Junior Tallo. Renard, who had clearly been irritated by being asked to cover up his lucky white shirt – 15 games unbeaten at that point – with a pink bib, was almost purring afterwards. He knew how significant it was that Algeria, whom he described as the best side in the tournament, were out and that his side had shown the sort of discipline and determination that had characterised his Zambia. 

And that, perhaps, was the advantage of taking charge of Côte d’Ivoire when he did: with only four members of the 2006 squad remaining – the Tourés, the left-back Siaka Tiene and the reserve goalkeeper Boubacar Barry – this was the first tournament in a decade when the “golden” tag hadn’t been used; that sense of reduced expectations legitimised a more pragmatic response. Although Côte d’Ivoire arguably still had the best squad at the tournament, there was less need for them to assert their goldenness. That said, caution had been François Zahoui’s preferred approach in 2012 as well, when the Ivorians went through the whole tournament without conceding a goal; had Didier Drogba not missed a penalty in the final, it would have brought success and Renard might have been remembered as nothing more than the coach who inspired plucky Zambia to play above themselves before greater talent told in the end.

With the exception of December, when he was habitually excellent, Yaya Touré’s season has consisted of long patches of indifferent form punctuated by brilliant goals. It was much the same in the Cup of Nations. He hadn’t played badly, but he had played lethargically when, 20 minutes into the semi-final against DR Congo, the ball broke to him just outside the box. He struck it ferociously hard and, even though it was nowhere near the corner, Robert Kidiaba had no chance. Mbokania equalised from the penalty spot three minutes later, but the Ivorian menace on the break always looked likely to be too much. Gabriel Zakuani, who had been hit by a medical truck while sitting on a stretcher in the quarter-final, brilliantly nodded a Gervinho header against his own bar and clear after 40 minutes, but two minutes later Bolasie squandered possession and Bony laid in Gervinho to make it 2-1. Sylvain Gbohouo, Barry’s successor and a significant upgrade, made a couple of decent saves in the second half before Kanon forced in a half-cleared corner to seal the Ivorians’ passage to a third final in nine years, there to face Ghana.

When Equatorial Guinea went out, the hosts’ interest ended. Fewer than 1000 fans turned up for the third-place play-off, where there was a notably enhanced security presence, including grenade-toting Angolan riot police. DR Congo won it on penalties, prompting Kidiaba into another of his idiosyncratic celebrations, bunny-hopping around on his backside.

In Bata, the stadium was around a third full for the final. There were perhaps 2,500 orange-clad Ivorians, and maybe 800 Ghanaians – understandably keeping a low profile – but even the free distribution of tickets didn’t bring out the locals. Most of the discussion that day was about whether Asamoah Gyan would start, but a couple of hours before kick-off there came startling injury news. Gbohouo was out with a thigh strain which meant Boubacar Barry would start in goal for Côte d’Ivoire. For almost a decade he had been the weak link in the Ivorian side and now, just as they approached the end of the quest, here he was again.

As the journalist Sam Crocker suggested, could it be that Barry didn’t really exist? Although he was in the squad, he didn’t play in 2006 but then became a regular as the realisation set in that the golden squad may end up winning nothing. Once it was accepted that that generation was gone and that we were in a post-golden age of Ivorian football, Barry disappeared, only to reappear just before the final when thoughts once again turned to possible glory: was he simply a physical manifestation of Ivorian neurosis? After all, does anybody really spend eight years at Lokeren?

It was as though he’d never been away. Within 20 minutes Barry had fumbled a cross and scuffed a clearance straight to Kwesi Appiah who was too startled to take advantage. With his mournful face and untucked shirt, Barry doesn’t look like a footballer; his demeanour is that of a sorrowful clown, a Buster Keaton figure, spreading panic and chaos wherever he goes. 

But, somehow, he clung on. Christian Atsu, later named player of the tournament, hit the post, as did Dede Ayew, in a fractious first half in which Gyan and Serey Die should both have been sent off. Ghana had the better of it, but Barry and Côte d’Ivoire battled through to penalties. 

Gervinho and Gyan were substituted with a couple of minutes remaining, two players so racked by the trauma of penalties past that they couldn’t bear the thought of having to take another one. Three years ago, Gervinho was asked to take Côte d’Ivoire’s eighth kick in the shoot-out. He was so reluctant that Kolo Touré volunteered instead, only for the coach François Zahoui to insist Gervinho should take it. He refused, and so Touré, having already begun the tense approach to the penalty spot, had to walk forward again and was rattled enough to miss. Rainford Kalaba then missed, at which Gervinho had to go next and, inevitably, put his kick way over the bar. His sense of guilt was profound, so much so that he refused to watch this shoot-out, instead taking a chair and placing it next to the Ivorian bench, facing away from the action.

Barry, suddenly, was centre stage. Wakaso Mubarak scored. Wilfried Bony hit the bar. Jordan Ayew scored. Junior Tallow missed the target. Ghana led 2-0. But then Barry saved from Afriyie Acquah, Serge Aurer scored, Frank Acheampong missed and Seydou Doumbia thumped in to make it 2-2 after four kicks each.

Barry went down with cramp repeatedly, something that many assumed was feigned and designed to increase the pressure on the Ghanaian takers by making them wait. Maybe it was, or maybe he was simply so worked up he suffered some psychosomatic muscle tension. Ghana’s players seemed more worried by his constant talking, although it turned out he was simply praying. There was certainly gamesmanship involved as Dede Ayew prepared to take his kick, as Barry pointed first one way, then the other (which in itself suggested his haplessness, given the whole aim of indicating one side of the goal is supposedly to make the taker think you know which way he’s going). Ayew scored and then screamed in fury at Barry, who immediately backed down and apologised. 

That was 3-2. Yaya Touré levelled. Everybody was scoring. 4-3. 4-4. 5-4. Then Kolo Touré: given his agonies after missing in Libreville, no neutral wanted him to miss, and he didn’t: 5-5. 6-5. 6-6. 7-6. Bailly, a one pace run up, a majestic penalty into the top corner: 7-7. The narrative suddenly had become clear: the press-box buzzed with the realisation of what was unfolding. Barry was going to score the winner: the clown was going to become the king. John Boye scored: 8-7. Serey Die scored: 8-8.

And so to the goalkeepers. Razak Braimah’s kick was low to Barry’s left. He lunged, got hands to it and pushed it away. He wandered off, as though unaware he was next. He collapsed again with supposed cramp, only increasing the length of time he had to think about the responsibility he faced: by then, Barry seemed so confused he was playing mind-games with himself. He staggered to his feet, shambled to place the ball on the spot. What did it feel like at that moment, he was asked afterwards, to know that with one kick he could bring to an end a decade of near-misses? “I know I am not big in stature or talent,” he said, “but I remembered my mother loves me.”

Barry scored.

His cramp disappeared. He set off on a crazy run around the stadium. Gervinho, eventually, left his chair. Renard, the first man to win the tournament with two different nations, removed the lucky white shirt and cavorted topless with his players. Barry was the unlikeliest, the most implausible of heroes. Even Yaya Touré, emotionally shattered as he spoke to the media afterwards, seemed shocked. “He has shown,” Touré said, “the importance of solidarity.” Which perhaps meant simply that a reserve could step in and perform a useful role, but sounded an awful lot as though he was saying: we put up with him for 10 years but now he’s done this.

And that, to the delight of CAF, is how this tournament will end up principally being remembered. Not for the rushed preparations, the Seechurn controversy or the violence of the semi-final, but for Côte d’Ivoire winning at last and the improbable redemption of Boubacar Barry.