CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Equatorial Guinea agreed on Friday to step in as last-minute hosts of the 2015 African Nations Cup finals, replacing Morocco, who were stripped of the tournament having asked for it to be postponed over fears of the spread of the Ebola virus.
That leaves one of Africa’s smallest countries with just two months to prepare for the continent’s showpiece sporting event.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) took just three days to find an alternative host after refusing Morocco’s request for a postponement on Tuesday.
Morocco feared travelling fans could spread the deadly virus that has claimed more than 5,000 lives in west Africa.
Equatorial Guinea president Teodoro Obiang agreed to host the event after talks on Friday with CAF president Issa Hayatou in Malabo, the governing body said in a statement.
Having expelled Equatorial Guinea from the tournament’s preliminaries for using an ineligible player, CAF will now bend their rules to allow the home country to take part in the 16-team field.
The tournament will stay on the scheduled dates of Jan. 17-Feb. 8 and be played at four venues — Ebebiyin, Mongomo, Bata and the capital Malabo.
The latter two were used in 2012 when Equatorial Guinea co-hosted the finals with neighbours Gabon.
Two years ago, Africa’s only Spanish speaking country struggled with the logistics of hosting just eight teams and now face the daunting task of being ready for double that number.
CAF’s options were limited after it decided to go ahead with the event in January rather than grant Morocco a postponement.
Angola and Gabon were also cited as possible alternatives but ruled themselves out of the race, while there was speculation 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar could be chosen, giving rise to the bizarre prospect of Africa’s championship being played in Asia.
Equatorial Guinea’s oil and natural gas wealth means they can foot the estimated $40-million bill for hosting the tournament — a prerequisite that considerably narrowed down CAF’s options.
The governing body began searching for an alternative one month ago when Morocco first gave notice of their desire to postpone the event to June or January next year.
CAF characterised Morocco’s concerns as alarmist, were steadfast in their refusal to change the dates and gambled on finding an alternative for the event which accounts for the vast majority of their income.
Equatorial Guinea has had no outbreaks of Ebola, the deadly hemorrhagic fever, since it erupted in March and with limited facilities, it is likely to attract just a handful of travelling fans, severely reducing any threat.
Equatorial Guinea reached the quarter-finals of the last tournament they co-hosted with Gabon in 2012. They finished second in their pool after victories over Senegal and Libya in their only previous finals appearance.
The qualifiers for the 2015 Nations Cup conclude next Wednesday and the draw for the tournament will be held in Malabo on Dec. 3, CAF said.
Additional reporting by Nick Said; Editing by Toby Davis