African Cup teams trying to focus on quarters

GERALD IMRAY AP Sports Writer Published:

FRANCEVILLE, Gabon (AP) -- The remaining teams at the African Cup of Nations were trying to focus on the quarterfinals on Thursday, a day after the sport was left reeling by mass deaths at a game in Egypt.

Gabon coach Gernot Rohr said it was "very sad, very bad" after at least 74 people were killed in violent clashes between rival supporters at a league match on Wednesday.

Goalkeeper Didier Ovono added it was "not normal" that people should die in a stadium while Africa was celebrating its colorful continental showpiece.

Co-host Gabon plays Mali, Ghana plays Tunisia, Ivory Coast faces Equatorial Guinea and Zambia takes on Sudan in the quarterfinals this weekend, enticing matchups involving top-ranked teams alongside hopeful -- and so far successful -- underdogs.

But the celebrations will be put on hold when all four quarterfinals are preceded by a minute's silence in honor of the football fans who died when they were beaten, stabbed and crushed against a wall after a game in Port Said.

"We are sad because while we are in the middle of playing in the most beautiful festival of African football, there are people dying in a stadium," Ovono said. "I'm truly sad for the Egyptian people. Football should be a party, not somewhere for settling scores."

Rohr added: "It is not normal that players are attacked and that people must die in the stadium. I think it is very, very sad, very bad for football."

Ivory Coast coach Francois Zahoui called it "a tragedy" and "a great pity."

"We are there to give joy and spread enthusiasm to the people and if around the stadium there is only death and sadness, then we feel bad," Zahoui said.

Even after what FIFA President Sepp Blatter described as "a black day for football" and CAF President Issa Hayatou saying the game in Africa was "in a state of mourning," the African Cup will continue.

Zambia and Sudan open the knockout stages in Bata, Equatorial Guinea on Saturday, followed by Ivory Coast-Equatorial Guinea. On Sunday it's Gabon-Mali and Ghana-Tunisia.

The Zambians have been inspired at this tournament by memories of their own tragedy, the 1993 plane crash off the coast of the Gabonese capital Libreville -- venue for the Feb. 12 final -- where 18 members of the national team died.

Sudan, meanwhile, qualified for the quarterfinals for the first time in 42 years when it ended a run of 11 games at the African Cup without a win.

Equatorial Guinea will undoubtedly rely on its underdog status, and a surge of home support at Estadio de Malabo in the capital, to carry it to what would be a stunning upset over the Ivorians.

"They have experienced players but I don't know whether the pressure will affect them," Equatorial Guinea coach Gilson Paulo said.

Zahoui's Ivory Coast has yet to hit top form despite winning all three of its group games without conceding a goal, and the star-peppered squad is likely to be too good for the home team as it sets its sights on the final.

"It's against the host country on their home pitch. We will expect to suffer but we want to win," Zahoui said.

Gabon's attempt to get past Mali and into the semifinals could produce a classic with Rohr's buoyant team -- with presidential backing -- riding high after surprisingly finishing top of Group C with victories over Morocco and Tunisia.

"What does Gabon need to beat Mali? Mental strength, heart and lots and lots of hard work," goalkeeper Ovono said as the Gabonese got ready to unleash their free-flowing style on Mali's defensively disciplined lineup at a packed Stade de l'Amitie in Libreville.

Ghana, like Ivory Coast, has yet to find its best form but still progressed comfortably from the group stage.

Sami Trabelsi's well-organized Tunisia, however, will be the biggest test yet to the Black Stars' title challenge when they meet in Franceville to decide the last semifinalist.

"I think Tunisia has the quality to beat any opponent. We don't think about the name of the teams," Trabelsi said.

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Associated Press writer Mark Walsh in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, and APTN videojournalist Andrew Drake in Libreville contributed to this report.