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African Cup returns to exotic Gabon, but with air of unease

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JOHANNESBURG (AP) With an air of unease hanging over the tournament, the African Cup of Nations returns to Gabon for the second time in five years.

Opposition parties in the oil-rich central African nation have stated their intention to use African soccer’s biggest show as an opportunity to express their grievances against Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who retained power in a tense election last August that led to about 100 deaths on the streets, according to opposition claims.

That gives African soccer organizers, who chose to go back to former co-host Gabon as a replacement for Libya, even more to contend with alongside shaky infrastructure and two largely untested new stadiums.

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Libreville, the capital city of palm tree-lined Atlantic Ocean beaches and French colonial villas, and Franceville, deep inland in the jungle and the last stop on the railway line that cuts across the country, staged games when Gabon co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea in 2012. Now, Gabon gets the 16-team, 23-day tournament all to itself, bringing in two new venues that have barely seen any kind of soccer before, let alone a top international championship involving European league superstars.

Oyem, a town in the far north surrounded by rubber plantations, will be home to defending champion Ivory Coast for the group stage. Hopefully for Manchester United defender Eric Bailly and teammates, they’ll be in one of only a few hotels listed with the luxury of hot water.

Port-Gentil, the southern center of Gabon’s oil industry, is the second new city. Both have stadiums that were being built right up to deadline and not many have set eyes on the finished, or possibly unfinished, products.

The African Cup always has vibrant color, fans painted head to toe and in an array of wacky outfits, and competing countries you’re unlikely to ever see at the World Cup, even when it’s expanded: Guinea-Bissau qualified this year, its first appearance at a major tournament and the first time it’s really come anywhere close to the big time.

But the African championship is also an event that flirts with calamity. Two years ago at the tournament in nearby Equatorial Guinea, there were brawls between players on the field and riots in the stands when security forces waded in among supporters wielding batons and an army helicopter hovered so dangerously low in the stadium that its rotors whipped up debris and scattered the spectators.

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This year, observers wonder how the Gabonese security forces will react if there are angry protests against Bongo, who succeeded his father as president and whose family has ruled Gabon since the 1960s.

In Africa, there are other problems to contend with, too: In 2012, Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan contracted malaria, luckily a mild strain, in Franceville. He recovered and played a couple of days later.

This is a soccer event like no other, and comes around more often than the others, with the Confederation of African Football still bucking the trend of other major tournaments and staging its showpiece every two years, not every four.

Among the title contenders over the next three weeks – kickoff is on Saturday and the final is on Feb. 5 – Ivory Coast is striving for the rare achievement of back-to-back African titles after the team finally ended a long drought two years ago. There are two significant absences for the Ivorians this time, though, with powerful midfielder Yaya Toure, its driving force last time, retired from international soccer and victorious coach Herve Renard now in charge of group opponent Morocco.

Algeria and Senegal produced eye-catching performances in qualifying, with those teams spearheaded by Premier League talents Riyad Mahrez of English champion Leicester and Sadio Mane of Liverpool, respectively. Ghana has lost two finals and three semifinals in the last five tournaments and will continue its increasingly desperate search for a long-awaited first title since 1982, and, it hopes, an end to its African Cup misery.

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Egypt, the record seven-time champion, is back after failing to qualify at all for the last three cups. The last time Egypt qualified it won a third straight title, but its story is one of the best reminders that kings, or Pharaohs in this case, can easily fall off their thrones in the tumultuous world of African soccer.

Similarly, paupers can become princes. Like Zambia in 2012, unexpectedly becoming champion in Libreville nearly 20 years after a plane crash in that city tragically wiped out its entire team.

This year, Guinea-Bissau will have second- and third-division players from Portugal and Romania when it takes on host Gabon and Germany-based star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the opening game.

Also, Uganda is back for the first time since losing the 1978 final. When Uganda last played at the African Cup, Pele had only just retired and Diego Maradona was a 17-year-old upstart.

Follow Gerald Imray on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

MLS Snapshot: Jozy double downs Dynamo, Toronto wins 2-0

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The game in 100 words (or less): Toronto FC had too much firepower for defensively challenged Houston, and the hosts carved up the Dynamo for a 2-0 win north of the border. Giovinco was creative and flashy if not sharp, and Jozy Altidore was the benefactor as the American bagged both goals. After an early spell of Houston possession off the opening whistle, Toronto dominated from start to finish, with the midfield bossing the game.

Three moments that mattered

16′ – Raheem Edwards on the ball out wide, he burst into the box and – seeing Giovinco draw 2 defenders in an offside position – he cut back for Altidore who finished cooly from the spot. Too easy for the opener.

32′– Jozy doubled his lead as he played an absolutely brilliant one-two with Giovinco. The Italian popped it over the top as Altidore slipped through the line, and the USMNT star had the simplest of finishes.

85′ – Houston looked to get back into things by pouring men forward, but to no avail. The closest they came was off a corner as Alex ripped off a shot that sailed over the bar.

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Man of the match: Victor Vazquez/Marco Delgado

Goalscorers: Jozy Altidore (16′, 32′)

Juventus bumped by Atalanta at the death

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Juventus is still in firm control of the Serie A title race, but they were dealt a slight setback as Atalanta secured a 2-2 draw with a dramatic 89th minute equalizer in Bergamo.

Dani Alves had given Juventus the lead in the 83rd minute on a header after a brilliant far-post cross by Miralem Pjanic, but Remo Freuler answered late as he grabbed a point.

The goal came on a fortunate bounce as Pjanic and substitute Stephen Lichtensteiner got tangled up on the ball and failed to clear, and the ball squirted to Freuler who suddenly found himself free in front of Gianluigi Buffon. The Juventus keeper came off his line to smother the chance, but he failed to completely collect, and the ball again popped free. Freuler followed up the loose ball, and with a trio of Juventus defenders flying in, the 25-year-old Swiss attacker knocked it in.

The draw was deserving for Atalanta, who had controlled the game for much of the first half, and went ahead just seconds before the break on a goal by Andrea Conti. Atalanta outshot Juventus 7-4 in the first half, 3-1 on shots on target. Juventus took over control in the second half, and got back on level terms just five minutes after the break as Juventus loanee Leonardo Spinazzola put one in his own net.

Alves’ goal put Juventus in front, but that lead only lasted six minutes. Juventus goes nine points clear at the top of the Serie A table with the draw, but Roma has the chance to cut that to six if they can beat Lazio at home on Sunday.

MLS Week 8: Litmus tests across the board

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Week 8 in MLS action could teach fans a lot about clubs with plenty to prove.

With questions still abound regarding teams like NYCFC, New England, Seattle, Portland, and New York Red Bulls, all those teams have a chance to make statements regarding their potential strength this season.

[ MORE: Week 8 MLS Power Rankings ]

In addition, struggling teams such as Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Montreal all have opportunities for much-needed points against arguably weaker opposition.

Let’s take a look at the weekend slate chronologically:

Toronto FC vs. Houston Dynamo
7:30 p.m. ET Friday

Toronto got a pair from Giovinco last time out, and sitting near the bottom of the crowded East mid-tier, they need points fast to avoid finding themselves in a hole behind the top of the table. There’s goals in this one, with Houston defensively challenged and Cubo Torres on fire to start the year.

Montreal Impact vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
3:00 p.m. ET Saturday

An all-Canadian clash actually serves as a vitally important match for both clubs. With each side near the bottom of their conference standings, they both need a result badly to jump-start the campaign. A draw does nobody any good here moving forward.

Orlando City vs. Colorado Rapids
4:00 p.m. ET Saturday

The Lions are one of 2017’s surprises, and Cyle Larin is on an absolute tear. Unfortunately, so far, anyone who shuts down Larin shuts down Orlando City. That said, good luck to Colorado shutting down an early MLS Golden Boot challenger.

Cyle Larin has 6 goals in 6 games this season (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images).

NY Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

New York has seen bumps on the early-season road, but overall remains a strong Supporter’s Shield contender. They face a big test against another strong Eastern Conference side, and a win here would make it three straight, all over good competition. Chicago is reeling after its defeat to Toronto, out-shot 9-1, but has another chance to pick up a road win before heading back home.

Columbus Crew vs. NYCFC
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Columbus has been poor on the road, but they return home to Mapfre Stadium to take on a strong NYCFC side. This game could potentially teach us a lot about whoever comes out on top, as both look to build separation from the rest of the pack in the East. Both have lost two of three, but both still appear strong up front, and three points in this game could prove to be a marquee win to point to later in the season.

Minnesota United vs. San Jose Earthquakes
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

Minnesota United, owners of one of the worst starts to the season, has shown signs of life. Can they keep it going against another team struggling for points?

FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

This is a marquee matchup, and with FC Dallas unbeaten so far, represents a huge test but also a huge opportunity for Portland to announce itself as a true top contender in the West. They’re top of the table, but have played at least one more game than most teams just below them. Can the Timbers find a way through the strong Dallas D?

Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake
8:30 p.m. ET Saturday

A big rivalry game with big table implications, Sporting KC has the unfortunate luck of catching RSL after hiring Mike Petke and not before. This should be a fun one.

Seattle Sounders vs. New England Revolution
10:00 p.m. ET Saturday

We still don’t know exactly what New England is. For every step forward they’ve taken one back, and for every setback they’ve had they’ve found a way through. This is a fantastic test. There are plenty of excuses for a potential loss with the team going cross-country to face one of the league’s best attacks, but a result could be a true statement.

LA Galaxy vs. Philadelphia Union
10:30 p.m. ET Saturday

With Philadelphia struggling and now traveling a long way, this should be a chance for the Galaxy to turn things around. Should be.

Atlanta United vs. D.C. United
3:00 p.m. ET Sunday

Atlanta is back home for the first time in over a month. They have slipped a bit since the torrid start, but still appear a dangerous club. D.C. will have its work cut out.

Asian FIFA executive pleads guilty to bribery charges

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A guilty plea was entered early Friday by senior Asian Federation (AFC) official Richard Lai to bribery charges, leading FIFA to suspend the 55-year-old indefinitely.

Lai has served as the head of the Guam FA since 2001, and is a member of the FIFA audit and compliance committee. He was also formerly a member of the AFC executive committee, and currently sits on the AFC marketing committee. Lai is a United States citizen.

The guilty plea confirms more than $1 million in bribes accepted by Lai, including those from Kuwaiti officials looking to increase their influence over FIFA voters in the confederation. Two unnamed AFC executives, including one Kuwaiti, were also named as co-conspirators.

“One of the functions the defendant Richard Lai performed for Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 in exchange for the funds they sent him was to advise them on who was supporting which candidates in AFC and FIFA matters, including elections, and who Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 should recruit to support their chosen candidates,” a Department of Justice document published on Friday said.

That wording seems to indirectly implicate Qatari executive Mohamed bin Hammam, who was banned for life by FIFA in 2011 for bribery.

“I would like to thank the American authorities for their continued efforts to stamp out corruption from football,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a statement following the plea. “I am happy to confirm once again, that FIFA will provide whatever assistance is needed by the U.S. and any other authorities around the world.”

Lai has also been provisionally suspended by the AFC.