GABON AND HIGH EXPECTATIONS

Perhaps the thing that Gabonese football has been mentioned for most in recent years is its national team’s respectable FIFA World Ranking although not for the reasons you might think. The upcoming African Cup of Nations could change all that…

In September 2007 Gabon languished in the rather embarrassingly low position of 110 in FIFA’s Official World Rankings. A change in fortunes in recent years for the small, oil-rich West African country however, has seen Les Panthères surge up the rankings, peaking at an incredibly respectable 30th position in July 2009 – half way through their fantastic 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign. However, failure to qualify for the tournament in South Africa followed by an absence of competitive matches has seen the Black Panthers fall back slightly and at present they occupy 59th place. The country’s meteoric rise into the top 30 teams on the international stage did not go unnoticed yet rather than receiving praise for their incredible feat, instead the name of Gabon has been rather crudely used as a benchmark for larger, underachieving footballing nations in determining just how far their national team has fallen.

The phrase “below the likes of Gabon” has become synonymous with underachieving nations of significant footballing pedigree over the last few years. Indeed it is easy to see why. The country of Gabon is not well known by those outside of Africa, except for in France, of which Gabon is a former colony. The country’s football team is even less well known, having never qualified for a FIFA World Cup and with only four African Cup of Nations finals appearances to their name. Their relative obscurity and lack of noteworthy footballing history is enough to prompt responses of “Who?!” and “you must be kidding” when supporters of nations such as the British trio of Northern Ireland (65th), Scotland (66th) and Wales (115) are informed that their team is statistically worse than a small African country with a population of just 1.5 million. 

The Fédération Gabonaise de Football (FEGAFOOT) was founded in 1962 and became FIFA affiliated in 1966 before joining CAF the following year. It wasn’t until 1994 however that the Panthers managed to qualify for the African Cup of Nations, held in Tunisia. They were unsurprisingly beaten convincingly by African powerhouses Nigeria and Egypt and finished last in their 3-team group with 0 points and a goal difference of -7. Two years later in South Africa, with the competition expanded to 16 teams, Gabon’s fortunes changed for the better. Nigeria, due to be in Gabon’s group again, withdrew from the competition at short notice and Guinea, offered the Super Eagles’ place, declined, meaning that Gabon would again compete with just two teams in the group stage. A narrow loss to Liberia was followed by a 2-0 win over Zaire and Gabon progressed to the quarterfinals on goal difference, where they lost on penalties to Tunisia after a commendable 1-1 draw.  

After finishing bottom of their group in 2000, the Azingo Nationale suffered a ten-year drought that saw them fail to qualify for the Cup of Nations whilst poor form saw them slip to a record-low world ranking of 125 in April 2003. Perhaps the fact that Gabon changed coaches six times between 2000 and 2003 explains why. Even the high-profile appointment of Brazilian legend Jairzinho in 2003 failed to produce managerial stability. The 1970 wing-wizard lasted just 2 years, despite inspiring the team to some decent results, including a 1-1 draw with Nigeria on home soil in 2004. Gabon finished the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign with some positives to draw on, but parted company with Jairzinho nonetheless. A brief spell in charge for Raphaël Nzamba-Nzamba followed before accomplished manager Alain Giresse – part of the victorious French Euro ’84 team – took the helm in 2006.  

Giresse proceeded to instil a tactical discipline into the Gabonese team that had been missing previously. Performances and - more importantly - results steadily began to improve under the former Bordeaux stalwart although he was undoubtedly helped by the influx of a new generation of players, fresh with experience from some of Europe’s biggest domestic leagues available at his disposal. The country’s most famous player Daniel Cousin (Rangers & Hull), defender Bruno Ecuele Manga, winger Eric Mouloungui and striker Stéphane N'Guéma all had experience in France’s Le Championnat. Giresse handed the previously uncommitted Cousin the captain’s armband and created a youthful team combining those with European experience with the best of the local talent from an improving domestic league. The results were radical - the country’s world ranking shot up from 110th to 30th in the space of just under two years.  

Giresse’s side played with pace and directness, attacking teams down the flanks, and, most importantly, they played without fear. In the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, the Panthers beat the Black Stars of Ghana, took three points off Togo and were victorious against Morocco, both home and away. At one point, Gabon looked favourites to top their group ahead of a disorganised Cameroon side. However, under the newly appointed Paul Le Guen the two sides met twice within a week in Septmber 2009 due to the postponement of the first game as a result of the death of Gabon’s President Omar Bongo three months earlier. The rejuvenated Indomitable Lions struggled to match the perseverance of their Gabonese counterparts before eventually overcoming Giresse’s side in both matches to send them to South Africa. Gabon, although missing out on a first FIFA World Cup appearance, finished second in their group, qualifying for the 2010 African Cup of Nations in the process.  

The successful world cup qualifying campaign raised the profile of players in the Gabonese squad and moves to Europe and France in particular followed for several of them. The campaign also saw the introduction of further young talent – this time in the form of the Aubameyang brothers. Brought up by their father Pierre, who worked as a scout for AC Milan - himself capped 80 times by Gabon - Willy and Pierre-Emerick both came through the Milan youth system and while Willy now plies his trade for Kilmarnock in the Scottish Premier League, his younger sibling Pierre-Emerick is still on the books of Milan, having spent the last three seasons on loan in France. Alain Giresse, along with Pierre Snr persuaded both to represent the country of their father’s birth – a decision not taken lightly by Pierre-Emerick who had played for France at under-21 level and courted interest from the Italian FA.  

With both Aubameyangs in the squad, Gabon travelled to Angola in January 2010 to participate in the 27th African Cup of Nations. Although the team failed to progress from the group stages on goals scored, they achieved the most famous victory in Les Panthères’ history, defeating neighbours Cameroon 1-0 in their opening game with the goal scored by captain and talisman Daniel Cousin. After going into the tournament with high hopes, Gabon returned home disappointed at their failure to reach the quarterfinals. As a result of failing to meet the high standards that Giresse himself had set, the Frenchman was sacked following the tournament.  

His replacement was soon announced - former Girondins de Bordeaux player and manager, the German Gernot Rohr. Rohr will have no problem in qualifying the Panthers for the upcoming African Cup of Nations in 2012 as Gabon are co-hosting the tournament with neighbours Equatorial Guinea. His predecessor’s fantastic work has, however, given him a problem. Expectations are now extremely high in the host nation – following the sacking of Giresse, Placide Engandzas, the President of FEGAFOOT, stated that he was looking for a coach “capable of achieving the aims we have set ourselves, to win the African Cup of Nations here in 2012.”  

The recent announcement of a kit-deal with PUMA and the exposure gained by hosting the Cup of Nations should help to increase the profile of the little West African country and whilst winning the Cup of Nations on home soil may prove beyond Les Panthères, it is not implausible that come the end of January Gabon may no longer be a source of ridicule in world football and will hopefully be recognised for what they have achieved, not what they haven’t.

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