Delight, pride and gratitude

Isidore Mvouba seized Issa Hayatou's right hand and gave it a firm shake, before offering a heartfelt thank-you to the President of the African Football Confederation (CAF) and FIFA vice-president: "It's simply fantastic, and extremely important for our country."

The Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo was visibly moved by the occasion. As part of the FIFA development project 'Win in Africa with Africa', launched by FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter , each of FIFA's 53 African member associations will receive a premium-quality artificial turf pitch. The first of the new pitches was unveiled in the Republic of the Congo on 18 January 2007.

Pointe Noire, the country's second biggest city with 900,000 inhabitants and the nation's economic hub courtesy of the local oil industry, was enveloped in overpowering tropical heat. Even the locals were sweating profusely. Shirts became soaking wet in a matter of minutes, and breathing was more a question of gasping for air.

However, despite the blistering conditions, the scene at the Stade Municipal was anything but lethargic. Music and dance groups strutted their stuff, accompanied by typical African rhythms emanating from a massive loudspeaker stack. At the gates of the compact arena, thousands of curious onlookers strained their necks for a better glimpse of the colourful goings-on.

A festival mood gripped Pointe Noire as an entire city celebrated FIFA, CAF, the government and the occasion. VIP guests drove up in their hundreds, some in suits and ties, others in colourful and magnificent robes. It could almost have been an Oscar ceremony as the VIPs followed a red carpet route to their seats in a temporary stand erected at the stadium main entrance. A huge crowd of onlookers jostled for position behind the security fence, as guests from near and far were greeted with rounds of applause, cries of encouragement and bursts of song.

The Prime Minister was accompanied by senior members of the government including the Minister for Sport, joined by diplomats representing Angola, Togo and the People's Republic of China: it was a Chinese company that constructed the stadium. Issa Hayatou was joined by senior CAF officials together with representatives of world football's governing body. FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter was unable to attend the ceremony personally in the central African state, as he was already committed to attending the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) Congress in Papua New Guinea.

Joyful scenes
The Republic of the Congo has a tragic recent history of war and civil unrest, and remains severely affected by poverty and corruption. However, foreign visitors on 18 January came away with a powerful impression of joie de vivre, passion, hospitality, warmth and gratitude.

Standing next to Hayatou, Mvouba officially declared the stadium and its artificial turf pitch open for business with the symbolic cutting of a ribbon. At that moment, the ground was already host to 13,600 spectators in festive mood, occupying red, green and yellow bucket seats - the colours of the Congolese flag. The neat and tidy arena, completed right on time for the CAF African Youth Championship finals, was packed to capacity. The first hopefuls turned up some three hours ahead of the opening ceremony, and this on a working Thursday in punishing heat.

"See for yourselves what the world governing body has done here," the Prime Minister declared. "Please, convey my heartfelt greetings to the FIFA President, and pass on my sincerest thanks to him. This artificial turf pitch will allow scores of youth, amateur and international players to practice their favourite sport on a first-class surface. But it is not only the players who are delighted and honoured, it is the fans, the city and the entire nation." Congolese Football Association President Antoine Ibovi was equally moved, saying he had seldom seen his fellow-countrymen so happy and proud.

Torrential rain
The mood of celebration prompted by the new stadium and the artificial turf was strong enough to survive the monsoon-like rain which fell on Pointe Noire three days later.

The first match at the U-20 tournament in the coastal city almost had to be postponed, with everyone involved forced to endure a 40-minute delay before the day's scheduled match programme (Nigeria-Zambia and Cameroon-Egypt) could get underway. Given the huge volume of rainwater, a natural grass pitch would surely have been unplayable.

The people of Pointe Noire remained in excellent spirits despite the downpour, as thousands flocked to the stadium once more, some hopping and dancing with exuberance on the colourful plastic seats while they enjoyed the action out on the field.

Info - Republic of the Congo
The Republic of the Congo - not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the south-west - covers 342,000 square kilometres in central Africa and is home to 3.9 million people.

The capital city Brazzaville has a population of 1.1 million, while close to 900,000 call Pointe Noire their home. Ninety-eight per cent of the population is drawn from the Bantu people. The nation declared independence from France on 15 August 1960.

Despite substantial oil deposits (90 per cent of export revenue is derived from the oil trade), tropical rain forests covering more than 57 percent of the country and favourable agricultural conditions, the country's economy continues to be marred by mass unemployment, low standards of governance and administration, corruption, significant foreign debt, and extreme dependence on imported food.

The Republic of the Congo rates as one of the poorest countries in the world. According to German news weekly Der Spiegel, a majority of inhabitants are forced to get by on daily earnings equating to approximately €1.50.

Three civil wars between 1997 and 2003 claimed untold thousands of lives. Exact figures are not known, but knowledgeable sources put the number of deaths at up to 300,000. Infrastructure damage has been estimated at €2-3 billion.

The President is the head of state and of the government, and is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Denis Sassou-Nguesso began a second term of office in 1997.

The Congolese have rarely made world football headlines. The national team, referred to as Les Diables Rouge (The Red Devils) by their fans, won the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1972, but have yet to qualify for a major FIFA tournament. The association was established in 1962 and became a FIFA member two years later. The Republic of the Congo currently lie 89th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking , a significant improvement on April 1996 when they languished back in 139th place.