Sports

Congo sports minister bids to end strike at African Cup

Workers level the grass at the Stade de l'Amitie, ahead of the opening ceremony and group A soccer matches between Gabon and Guinea Bissau at the Africa Nations Cup in Libreville, Gabon, Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Workers level the grass at the Stade de l'Amitie, ahead of the opening ceremony and group A soccer matches between Gabon and Guinea Bissau at the Africa Nations Cup in Libreville, Gabon, Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

LIBREVILLE, Gabon — Congo's sports minister led a delegation of 100 officials to the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament in Gabon on Saturday to resolve a player strike two days ahead of the team's first game.

Sports minister Willy Bakonga was called into action after Congo's squad, which includes England-based players Youssouf Mulumbu and Dieudonne Mbokani, boycotted a training session on Friday in a dispute over unpaid bonuses.

Bakonga told Congolese radio before he flew to Gabon that he had time to solve the problems, with the team's first game against Morocco on Monday. He said he expected to arrive at the team's base in the far northern town of Oyem on Saturday.

"We have all the time possible," Bakonga said. "When we arrive we will talk with them (the players), we will be together. So there is no problem since the bonuses are already there. We'll give them to them."

The money to pay the 23 players had been provided by the government, Bakonga said.

Mulumbu, the team captain, suggested on Twitter that the players were unhappy but would still play on Monday.

"Some situations are deplorable (but) this said on January 16 we will proudly defend our flag," Mulumbu wrote in French on his official Twitter page.

A video also was posted on social media showing the squad standing together in a group and expressing their unhappiness.

The strike will be embarrassing for Congo Football Association president Constant Omari, a FIFA Council member and key aide to longtime African soccer boss Issa Hayatou.

Congo is the fourth team to encounter problems over money in the buildup to the African Cup.

Guinea-Bissau and Zimbabwe players protested over their payments for the tournament before being placated. Uganda's team, which is making a return to the Cup of Nations for the first time in 39 years, made a plea to its government for money to fund its trip. The government gave it more money and Ugandan lawmakers also each agreed to take a pay cut of $138 this month to raise an extra $60,000 for the squad.

Disputes over money are common in African soccer but were given global attention when three teams at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil had to scramble to avoid player walkouts:

— Ghana's soccer federation flew around $3 million in cash over to Brazil on a military plane to ensure players would take part. Brazilian TV pictures showed players celebrating as they were handed the bundles of cash, which the federation borrowed from the government and eventually paid back four months later.

— Ahead of the same tournament, Cameroon's squad stayed in a hotel at home and refused to board a plane to Brazil until they received better bonuses.

— And Nigeria's squad refused to attend a training session in Brazil until they were paid, a situation that was sorted out when then Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan put in a personal telephone call to the players in Brazil to assure them they would get their money.

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Associated Press writer Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo, contributed to this report.

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Follow Gerald Imray on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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