As far as the football is concerned, South Africa, it seems, is exactly as we left it following the 2010 World Cup. From an atmospheric standpoint, however, this Africa Cup of Nations couldn’t be more different.

As the host nation South Africa opened the 2013 installment of the international calendar’s most overplayed competition with a match against Cape Verde—the tournament debutants that just happen to be the top-ranked side in Group A according to the latest FIFA list.

Perhaps it was the absence of a truly high-profile opponent; perhaps it was the weather. But Johannesburg’s Soccer City was far from full as the opening ceremonies commenced, and even at kickoff the stadium that saw Spain defeat the Netherlands in the last World Cup final was peppered with empty seats.

If nothing else, a sense of gloom surrounding this edition of Bafana Bafana might have had something to do with the lack of enthusiasm, nevermind that South Africa went on to win the last Cup of Nations they hosted. Unfortunately, the football being played on Day One only served to further depress the mood, and in that the memories of 2010 weren’t at all difficult to conjure up.

Surely a goal would have livened things, but while South Africa retained the majority of possession it was Cape Verde who looked the likelier side to score. Platini came close on the quarter-hour, and midway through the second half Heldon’s header was saved well by South Africa goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune.

Then, at the death, a chance for the hosts. South Africa captain Bongani Khumalo found himself in decent space following a corner and looked to have a clear attempt at goal as he squared himself to meet the cross, but his botched effort saw the ball hit his shoulder instead of his head and subsequently fly over the bar.

An unmemorable 0-0 draw, and a match that Angola and Morocco did their best to mimic in Saturday’s second contest.


The entertainers

Ghana laid down their credentials as a tournament co-favourite when they scored on either side of the break in Sunday’s first match to take a 2-0 lead on Congo DR, who were making their first Cup of Nations appearance since 2006. But a quick response from the outside of Trésor Mputu’s boot just three minutes later revived Congolese spirits, and in the 68th minute Dieumerci Mbokani converted from the spot after having had his shirt pulled in the area.

Goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba did the rest as Congo DR fought to a draw, and at the final whistle his bum-bouncing, body-swishing celebration provided an appropriate conclusion to the most entertaining match of the tournament so far.

History tells us that Congo DR were one of Africa’s first football powerhouses—continental champions in 1968 (when they beat Ghana in the final in Addis Ababa) and again in 1974, the same year that, as Zaire, they became the first African side to participate in a World Cup finals. A third-place finish on penalties following a thrilling 4-4 draw with Burkina Faso in 2006 represents their best result since, and in each of 2008, 2010 and 2012 they failed to qualify for the tournament proper.

But the appointment of manager Claude Le Roy—a Frenchman with an impressive CV in African football—kickstarted the return to respectability in 2011. That November they hammered Swaziland 8-2 over two legs in the first round of 2014 World Cup qualifying, and after two second round matches in a difficult group with Cameroon, Libya and Togo they’re still in the mix to get to Brazil in 17 months.

In qualifying for this Cup of Nations they dispatched Seychelles to the tune of 7-0 and then ousted 2012 co-hosts Equatorial Guinea 5-2 on aggregate. Mbokani scored five goals over the four matches, and his very presence in the team—along with that of West Bromwich Albion midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu—is testament to Le Roy’s appeal.

It was the 64-year-old who convinced both players to return from self-imposed international isolation, and the pair will be central to whatever Congo DR accomplish in South Africa. Which, judging from their opening match, could be significant.


The politics

The intersection of football and current events is well-visited, especially when it comes to the Africa Cup of Nations.

In 2010 the tournament went on despite a terrorist attack on the Togolese team convoy that left three people dead; in 2011 Libya qualified for the competition despite considerable civil strife and went on to represent the country with pride in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea the following January. On Sunday Mali faced Niger in Port Elizabeth as conflict between its army, supported by France, and Islamic insurgents from the North intensified.

Canada, too, is involved in operations in Mali. Last week a C-17 military transport plane was dispatched to Bamako to aid the French mission, and over the weekend the Canadian embassy in the capital was evacuated. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has expressed concern regarding “an entire terrorist region in the middle of Africa,” and on Monday a Human Rights Watch paper reported evidence of ethnic reprisals committed by the Malian army. The International Criminal Court is already investigating several allegations of war crimes.

Amidst all this, Mali’s national football team opened its Cup of Nations campaign.

“I feel the players and the back-room staff want to fight to give a bit of happiness to people who have to deal with a political situation and a war ravaging the north of the country for several months now, remarked manager Patrice Carteron in an interview with AFP.

Team captain Seydou Keita’s pre-match comments were perhaps more appropriate: “We only know how to win, and perhaps this match will bring us three points,” he said. “Today, though, Mali is going through a tough time, so it is about much more than getting the three points.”

It’s important that the Mali-Niger match was played, if for no other reason than the platform of international football provides a venue for discussing a situation that needs to be talked about. But Keita’s first sentence was bang on. The conditions back home are out of the players’ hands. All they can do—all they know how to do—is play football.