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Soccer’s Newest Power: Equatorial Guinea? – posted by

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Hosting a major international soccer tournament brings a country a bunch of perks—prestige, home-field advantage, the chance to make some money. But for the sorry soccer countries that have been bidding for tournaments lately, the biggest benefit is the most basic: They get to play.

The latest example of this is the Africa Cup of Nations, Africa’s continental soccer tournament, which is being held in Equatorial Guinea (population 668,000—roughly the size of Memphis, Tenn.) and Gabon (1.6 million). The former is ranked 151st in the world; the latter is 91st. Neither has ever qualified for the World Cup; Equatorial Guinea has never even played in the Cup of Nations before.

But as co-hosts, both automatically qualified for the tournament. Result: Both have thrived in the group stage and reached the knockout round. Gabon actually won its group. Although Equatorial Guinea is unlikely to go further—it faces Ivory Coast next—host countries have traditionally done well in the Cup of Nations, winning 11 of 27 times.

There is always huge pressure on the host of a major tournament, something South Africa couldn’t handle when it failed to advance past the group stage of the 2010 World Cup. Still, other mediocre hosts are lining up to take their shot. Ukraine (ranked 54th) and Poland (68th) will co-host Euro 2012 this summer, and Qatar (97th)—which has never been in the World Cup—is assured of playing in 2022, when it hosts the event.

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