Toronto, Canada – By Henrique Almeida
LUANDA (Reuters) - Angolans flocked to a stadium in Luanda for the opening game of the African Nations Cup they hope will restore some national pride after a deadly gun attack that overshadowed the start of Africa's top soccer tournament.
Angola and Mali kicked off the soccer game at 1900 GMT after an opening ceremony featuring a fireworks display that lit up a 50,000-seat stadium whose rims bend like the horns of the black sable antelope -- the nation's national symbol.
South African President Jacob Zuma, whose nation will host the World Cup in June, attended the opening game where tens of thousands of Angolan fans dressed in the colors of the Angolan national flag -- red and black -- cheered for their team.
Both teams held a minute of silence for members of the Togo team who were killed in Angola's northern province of Cabinda by gunmen the government said were separatist insurgents.
The Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) has vowed to carry out more attacks but authorities have beefed up security.
"This is a group of people that have little or no coordination. We have increased security to make sure this does not happen again," said Antonio Bento Bembe, an Angolan minister in charge of Cabinda affairs who was once a FLEC leader.
Togo will return home and not compete in the tournament, captain Emmanuel Adebayor said on Sunday, although a spokesman for the squad later said a final decision had not been made.
But the mood among sports fans earlier on Sunday was high, as people made their way through the boiling heat along a 10-km (six-mile) stretch of road festooned with flags and banners with slogans reading 'Proud to be Angolan and 'Go Angola'.
"This is a day to remember. The whole world is watching and we know the tournament will be a success," said Landira Silva, 22, as she stood at the entrance to the stadium.
Angola's national team may have little chance of winning the tournament against African soccer heavyweights like Ghana and the Ivory Coast. But its government and people have said they hope the country will improve its image abroad after emerging from a brutal three-decade-long civil war in 2002.
"I'm betting Angola beats Mali 3-1," said Joao Sousa, as he zig-zagged his way through the crowd to the main gate of the stadium. "I'm sure we will win."
The championship, which ends on Jan 31, is one of the biggest sporting events in Africa and watched by millions.
(Reporting by Henrique Almeida; Editing by Dominic Evans)