For an otherwise unremarkable nation which only gained independence from France in 1960, it is fair to say Gabon, or les Panthères as their national football team is known, are having the time of their lives. The absence of perennial heavyweights Nigeria and Cameroon alongside Morocco and Senegal’s early exits opened the door of opportunity for a ‘lesser’ nation to steal a march and light up the 28th edition of Africa’s greatest football tournament.
This opening is something Gabon, the FIFA-ranked 91 co-hosts have seized with both hands, putting in three electrifying displays to set up a quarter final match on February 5th against another unfashionable side, Mali. With the raucous Liberville crowd cheering on every pass their heroes complete, few would bet against les Panthères remarkable run continuing as the tournament enters its later stages.
Until this tournament, Gabonese football could perhaps be summed up best with the question: “what if?” In June 2009, after an unremarkable football pedigree since gaining independence, Gabon found themselves in the unlikely position of leading Cameroon in a World Cup qualifying group by five points. With the indomitable lions in disarray, most of Africa anticipated a first-ever World Cup appearance for les Panthères at the expense of Cameroon, a nation quickly losing its title as continental heavyweights.
However, fate intervened with the tragic death of Gabonese president Omar Bongo and the fixture was postponed until September. While the West-African state mourned, Cameroon galvanised under the stewardship of Paul le Guen and when the two sides faced off some three months later, Le Guen’s indomitable lions were a whole different animal, mauling Gabon home and away to seize top spot and a place at South Africa. While it is worth mentioning that Gabon did gain a small measure of revenge over Cameroon in the 2010 African Nations, the bigger opportunity passed the minnows by and they entered this tournament on home soil ranked 91st in the world.
Watch highlights of Gabon’s 3-2 victory over Morocco here.
Considering this disappointment, their performance over the past two weeks has been nothing short of astonishing. Orchestrated by the mercurial talents of St Etienne’s Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, les Panthères opened their tournament by brushing aside minnows Niger in front of 40,000 Gabonese in the capital of Libreville. This win was expected, but what has happened since has been off the Richter scale and has shook African football to its foundations. In arguably the game of the tournament so far, Gabon triumphed 3-2 against the atlas lions of Morocco. After goals by ex-Hull striker Daniel Cousin and another Aubameyang strike had seen Gabon lead 2-1 going into injury time, the party in the stands seemed premature as Morocco were awarded a dubious penalty to tie the contest and keep their own hopes alive.
Remarkably, this was not an end to the scoring. In the eighth minute of additional time, up stepped Bruno Mbanangoyé Zita – a relative nobody plying his trade in Belarus for Dinamo Minsk – to sweep home a world-class freekick to send Libreville into raptures and book Gabon’s quarter final berth. With the Atlas lions eliminated, perhaps the image of the tournament was the larger-than-life president Ali Bongo (son of the deceased Omar Bongo) jiving alongside the players in the home dressing room while his people invaded the pitch above ground.
After another strike from the highly impressive Neymar-doppelgänger Aubameyang in Franceville dispatched Tunisia to seal top spot (and more importantly, a return to Libreville for the quarter finals), Gabon are a side oozing confidence and playing like champions-elect. At last could this be the year les Panthères finally conquer the “what if?” moment of 2009 which has cursed their national team ever since and gain their place amongst Africa’s elite.
On current form, few would bet against it.