The Status Quo
With a population of just over 2 million, when it comes to competing at a sport as global as football Gabon are at a disadvantage before even a ball has been kicked. Yet they have made remarkable strides in recent years, mainly thanks to the combined work of Alain Giresse, coach between 2006 and 2010, his successor Gernot Rohr, Under-23 coach Claude Albert Mbouronot and a promising group of players. They narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and qualified for the 2010 African Cup of Nations, rising to a peak position of 30th in the FIFA rankings. As co-hosts of the 2012 African Cup of Nations, Les Panthères would continue their great strides, bowing out of the tournament in the quarter-finals undefeated after losing on penalties to Mali. Those strides were replicated in 2011 as Gabon won the first edition of the CAF U-23 Championship, which ensured automatic qualification for the Olympics.
How do they play?
Claude Albert Mbouronot likes his side to play an attractive, lively brand of football. Gabon struggle to control games and take the game to the opposition, however, so they prefer to absorb pressure before hitting teams on the counter particularly down the wings – the inclusion Charly Moussono as one of the over-aged players underlines the emphasis on width. The counter-attacking at the U-23 CAF nations was based on long balls to their bustling forwards but with the introduction of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into the team and Andre Bigoyo Poko, a good passer of the ball, pulling out through injury, we may see Gabon counter-attacking more conventionally through the utilisation of Aubameyang’s pace.
AubameNeymar, AubameGoals, AubameNang, call him what you like. In Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, with his ethereal, mythical style and marketability, Gabon have a player who could take the tournament by storm, especially when one adds substance to that style. The 23-year-old was one of the stars of the Cup of Nations as he carried the weight of Gabonese expectations on his young shoulders, providing the remorselessness needed in the vicinity of the net, and his neck-breaking pace proving to be constant source of fear for defenders whether he was deployed as the lone striker or on the right-wing, or both in some games. He also enjoyed a breakout season for St Etienne last season scoring 18 goals in all competitions.
One to watch
In Bruno Ecuele Manga they have, in my humble opinion, a defender that is tailor-made for the Premiership with his backs-to-the-wall defending, aerial dominance and astonishingly resolute body. English clubs may very well like what they see if Gabon are relatively successful at this tournament. Allen Nono could be the yin to Aubameyang’s yang.
Nine of the eighteen in the squad ply their trade domestically in Gabon so the fear is that naiveté may creep in. Their inability to take the game to the opposition may only see Gabon go so far.
How Gabon fare will depend on whether they deploy Aubameyang to spearhead the attack or on the right wing, and how successful sides are at stopping him – no easy feat, as with his plate of neck-breaking pace comes with a side order of brains. None of the teams they’ll be facing in the group stages – Mexico, South Korea and Switzerland – are ‘big’ footballing nations insofar that they’ll intimidate them so they have a good chance of reaching their target of progression to the knockout stage.