Josh Clarke1 Comment

2012: THE YEAR OF THE BABY PANTHER?

Josh Clarke1 Comment

Ahead of the African Cup of Nations, and the Olympic games, could this be a special year for a group of young hopefuls?

Since 2006, this calendar year has long been a marked one for Gabonese football. However, when awarded the co-hosting of the 2012 African Cup of Nations, the nation’s footballing authorities probably had little inkling that the occasion would be sandwiched by events as historically significant. By virtue of their success in December’s CAF U-23 Championship, Gabon also gained the right to compete at the 2012 Olympics. The two provide maiden continental glory and first time attendance at a global football event respectively.

Gabon headed to Morocco for the CAF’s inaugural U-23 Championship vastly unfancied to trouble the continent’s more established powers. This was an assumption no doubt fuelled by the way in which they scraped past Mali in qualifying, courtesy of an extra-time winner after a dowdy 0-0 affair over two legs. Yet such frugality punctuated by opportunism provided a blueprint for the campaign that saw the Baby Panthers continually defy expectation.

Gabon’s start to the life in Group B was far from ideal, losing 1-0 to Egypt in their opener before salvaging a point after a late equaliser against South Africa. The death knell was near rung after they were 1-0 down at half-time to Cote D’Ivoire in the group decider, yet three second half strikes sealed victory and subsequent progression.

Emergence from the group stages was built upon the foundation robust defence tempered with effective counter-attacking, a strategy that also served Gabon admirably in the latter stages. Deja-vu struck in the semi’s with Senegal’s wounding 112th minute strike ruled out just before Bordeaux’s Andre Biyogho Poko nodded home a last minute corner to take Gabon to the final - as well as secure summer flights to London.

The final, against hosts and pre-tournament favourites Morocco, was forecast as no less of an epic mismatch. Though, La Liga outfit Getafe’s decision to recall central midfielder and joint tournament top-scorer Abdelaziz Barrada made the task somewhat easier. Seemingly unwilling to deviate too far from established protocol, Gabon went down to an early opener, though answered back twice before half-time through Landri Obiang Oriang and Allen Nono. The resultant 2-1 win assured Gabon of their first ever continental title at any age group.

In the immediate aftermath of such unprecedented success it comes as little surprise that national team coach Gernot Rohr plans to utilise the younger generation at the ACN. “I will name a list of 30 players in the next few days and I think we will have 8-9 of the young,” said Rohr. “This was a historic event because it marked Gabon’s first title in Africa. It may be a young competition but it was at U23 level, so this could be a good sign for football in Gabon. These young players need a little time to become big players but I think they have a lot of good qualities – especially with their mentality. It’s a big pleasure for me to work with young players and a young team is always able to do some good things.”

The veteran German’s willingness to utilise youth is no new occurrence. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, French club St. Etienne’s 22-year old striker, has already scored five times in 19 senior appearances and also impressed in the recent 2-0 defeat to Brazil. Having netted six this term for the Ligue 1 club, Aubameyang was denied permission to represent the Baby Panthers in Morocco. Biyogo Pogo also features under Rohr, alongside a smattering of Gabonese-based U-23 players that have been selected in months past.

Quite aside from the logic of utilising the members of a squad that has recently tasted success in an ACN shorn of some of its traditional powerhouses (such as reigning champions Egypt, Nigeria, Cameroon and World Cup hosts South Africa) exposure at that level would undoubtedly prove invaluable experience to the youngsters ahead of London 2012. Even more so bearing in mind the tournament is in Gabon’s own backyard.

African football has a rich heritage in the Mens’ Olympic tournament. Both Nigeria and Cameroon have won gold in the past, with Nigeria also talking silver at Beijing 2008. This is a trend that looks viable to continue, at least mathematically, as Senegal’s qualification will ensure that one quarter of the teams in the competition will hail from Africa. For Gabonese football to prolong the considerable impact they have made of late, Rohr could do worse than provide as many Baby Panthers as possible with senior experience sandwiched between prior and potential U-23 success.

You can follow Josh on Twitter @joshkclarke

IBWM is open to everyone to share their stories. If you'd like to submit an article on any topic, please contact us.