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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

CCL: Lodeiro from 45; Royer’s diving header — SEA, RBNY lead (video)

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After 45 minutes of their respective CONCACAF Champions League knockout-round quests, things are going unnervingly well for the Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls.

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If you’ve watched Major League Soccer teams try, try and try again — only to eventually fail in spectacular fashion — in CCL over the years, you might say things are going a little too well.

There’s still another 45 minutes to be played on Thursday — plus the return legs next week — but both the Sounders and Red Bulls hold 1-0 halftime leads, and the vitally important away goals which come with it. Nicolas Lodeiro’s 45-yard, first-time lob of the Santa Tecla (El Salvador) goalkeeper in the 15th minute has already been eternally etched into the memories of Sounders fans.

Just 15 minutes later, Daniel Royer perfectly executed the diving header and got on the end of Bradley Wright-Phillips’ curling ball into the box to Jesse Marsch’s side ahead of Honduran side CD Olimpia.

Villarreal DF Semedo charged with attempted murder

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MADRID (AP) A Spanish judge has charged Villarreal defender Ruben Semedo with attempted murder and ordered him to be temporarily detained without bail.

Court officials in Lliria say on Thursday the Portuguese player is also charged with assault, robbery, illegal detention, and illegal possession of firearms.

Semedo testified before a judge on Thursday, and left the court in handcuffs.

The 23-year-old Semedo was detained early Tuesday, accused of tying up, assaulting and threatening another man last week. Authorities say he and two other men allegedly held the victim captive while they robbed his apartment.

Semedo’s agents told Spanish media the player denies any wrongdoing.

Villarreal on Tuesday said it was investigating Semedo and would take appropriate disciplinary action.

Villarreal signed Semedo from Sporting Lisbon last summer for a reported fee of $17 million.

Wenger: Arsenal “complacent, had no ideas” in Ostersunds loss

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Perhaps Sunday’s League Cup final had already reached the forefront of their minds, but Arsene Wenger admonished his players, whom he said were “complacent, not focused” and “had no ideas” for much of Thursday’s Europa League defeat, at home, to Swedish side Ostersunds.

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The Gunners advanced to the round of 16 on the back of their 3-0 first-leg victory last week, but Wenger was understandably displeased by the effort he saw and expressed such feelings in no uncertain terms, before quickly easing up and praising the fact they were able to pull back a goal against the current fifth-place team from Sweden — quotes from the BBC:

“We were not at the races in the first half,” said Wenger, who saw his side booed off at half-time and full-time. I think in the second half it was much better and we should have scored a few goals.

“In the first half, we were in trouble and in danger because we were complacent, not focused and were open every time we lost the ball. We had no ideas with the ball and that’s why we were in trouble.

“We responded very well because we did the job to qualify, but that’s what we have to take from the night and that’s all.”

With Arsenal now trailing fourth-place Chelsea by eight points (and seven back of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur), winning the Europa League might just be the Gunners’ last chance at qualifying for next season’s Champions League.

Batshuayi racially abused by Atalanta fans

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Borussia Dortmund striker Michy Batshuayi says he was subject to racist chants from Atalanta fans during a Europa League game in Italy.

The Belgium international, on loan from Chelsea, tweeted:

Dortmund advanced to the round of 16 by drawing 1-1 to beat Atalanta 4-3 on aggregate on Thursday.

The game was played at Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia because Atalanta’s home stadium is unsuitable for UEFA games.

There have been several incidents of racism at Serie A matches this season.