Dark horse alert! When Gabon triumphed in the CAF U-23 championship in 2011, showing commendable resilience to overcome hosts Morocco in the final, there were whispers that the seeds for a golden generation had been planted.
The audibility of those whispers grew after an encouraging 2012 Africa Cup of Nations campaign as hosts, narrowly exiting on penalties to Mali in the quarter final.
A drab showing at London Olympics followed by failure to qualify for AFCON 2013, however, saw those whispers muted. After the underwhelming tenure of Paulo Duarte, where the upheaval saw star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang skedaddle into exile, the appointment of former Portuguese international Jorge Costa has seen a revival in Gabon’s fortunes, resuscitating the mojo that brought a feel-good factor to the country in 2011 and early 2012.
One of four teams unbeaten during qualification, Gabon certainly had stiff enough tests to show their mettle. They qualified as group winners after beating both Angola and Burkina Faso at home and displayed great resolve to snatch draws on the away legs.
Their qualifying campaign, promising talent, relative obscurity and low pressure back home makes them bona-fide dark horses. The players are either hitting the sweet-spot of their careers or brimming with youthful vigour. At the time of writing, 13 of the 20 outfield players named in the squad are 23 years of age or under (six of the 13 were part of Gabon’s Afcon U-23 triumph) and no outfield player in the squad is over 27 years of age.
With an inviting passage to the semi-finals, Gabon may not have a better chance to prove themselves to the continent as a country of genuinely promising footballing pedigree.
Les Pantheres deploy a 4-3-3 formation with a fluid attacking trio of Aubameyang, Malick Evouna and Frederic Bulot, with Aubameyang and Evouna taking turns to spearhead the attack. With no genuine target man and technically adept midfielders such as Levy Madinda and Andre Biyogo-Poko to call upon, Gabon keep the ball on the floor and tend to play it into the quick-thinking pair of Evouna and Aubameyang, who have the sixth sense to bamboozle defenders with their fraternal understanding. Much of their danger comes from the speed down the flanks.
Pace – It is found across the board in this athletic Gabon side, but it is best captured by the speedster strikeforce of Aubameyang and Evouna, who bring it in bulk in the attacking third. As Angola and Burkina Faso found out, Gabon’s pace makes them particularly devastating on the break. It took less than 15 seconds for them to retrieve the ball deep in their own half until the net was bulging in the other end.
Raw talent – The only proven talent at the highest level is Aubameyang and perhaps Bruno Manga. Bar that, there is a lot of talent in this team, but much of it is raw or untested. The eagerness of youth may bring out the best in them, but also the worst in some of them – and this is where well-drilled sides may capitalise.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – Three years ago, Aubameyang was the outstanding young player at Afcon 2012. Belying his years and international inexperience, he shouldered the expectations of the host country, using his dynamism to send defences into disarray on the flanks and, if that didn’t work, centrally. He will need to be at his inspirational, intrepid best again if Gabon are to take advantage of an inviting passage to the semi-finals.
The Hipster Choice
Didier Ibrahim N’Dong – With a peroxided, immaculately shaped high-top fade mohawk acting as a visual aid, your eyes won’t miss one of Africa’s most promising midfielders. Powerful enough to patrol the area between the midfield and defence with utmost class, as well as possessing the lung power to make box-to-box surges, Ndong is the driving force behind this team.
Jorge Costa – A sub-standard beginning into his coaching career saw the former Portugal international move to Gabon out of necessity rather than need, but his tough discipline has suited this promising Gabon team. He is one of Africa’s highest paid coaches and the Gabon FA won’t be afraid to fire him if the team underperform.
Quarter-finalists – Have the capability of going on a Burkina Faso-esque run. Whether they do or not will depend on the performance of their young players in the big matches.