Expectation is building in Gabon as the country continues its preparations for co-hosting the 2012 CAF African Cup of Nations. Through his monthly progress reports, Gabonese Football Association President Placide Engandzas has been keeping the fans appraised of developments, though the fact is they can barely wait for next January, when the big event finally gets under way.
Coached by Gernot Rohr, who took over from French legend Alain Giresse in February last year, the Black Panthers have six warm-up matches ahead of them, including a date this Friday with joint-hosts Equatorial Guinea in Cannes, and appetising run-outs against Brazil and Morocco next month.
The Franco-German tactician claims he is 80% of the way to putting his squad together, though with the continental finals only a matter of weeks away and the team still going through a transitional phase, question marks remain about Gabon’s ability to mix it with Africa’s finest.
One man hoping to calm the fraying nerves of the home fans is striker Eric Mouloungui. “It’s a new team with a lot of young and inexperienced players,” said the Nice forward in conversation with FIFA.com. “Obviously there’s uncertainty, but I don’t see any point in creating unnecessary pressure.”
That pressure has grown since the Black Panthers made a frustrating first-round exit at the 2010 African Cup of Nations in Angola, with a recent 1-0 win over Niger doing little to silence the doubters in the run-up to next year’s date with destiny.
“That tournament is the only one some of us have played in, which needs to be remembered,” said Mouloungui by way of mitigation. “We’ve got many new players who don’t have any international experience at all, and they’re not used to playing qualifying games or big competitions. No one knows how they’re going to react.
“There’s uncertainty there, and with the changes the new coach has made we’ve had to learn things all over again,” continued the 25-year-old, whose place in the Gabonese front line is undisputed. “Obviously the coach is expecting more from the boys who play in Europe, me more than anyone, and I’ve got to lead the way.”
Rohr’s squad for this week’s game against Henri Michel’s Nzalang Nacional contains four men who play their club football in France’s Ligue 1, with a further nine running out in the Gabonese championship, which kicks off this very weekend. Missing from the list, however, is former Hull City and Glasgow Rangers forward Daniel Cousin, who is currently unattached and has subsequently been discarded by Rohr.
If we get off on the wrong foot, the mood will change. And with the team we’ve got we need to avoid that.
“Players like Daniel or Stephane Nguema still have the chance to come back home, play for a couple of months, and get themselves back in the frame for the African Cup of Nations,” said Rohr. “It goes without saying that it’s a big shop window for African internationals. Daniel’s taking his time to think it over.”
A hard taskmaster, Rohr has also dispensed with the services of national team captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the star striker’s punishment for skipping the last get-together.
President Engandzas has been talking about “making progress” in his monthly bulletins, a process Mouloungui believes his side can continue when the time for talking stops.
“Expectation among the fans is high, and we’re going to tap into that passion when the tournament starts,” he said. “The first objective is to get through the first round and build our confidence. Then, with the fans behind us, anything is possible in the knockout rounds. There have been some surprises in the qualifiers and we’ve seen a few big teams fall by the wayside. That gives us hope.”
The Black Panthers will need to make a solid start at next year’s finals if they are to push into the last eight and beyond. “That’s essential if we want to stop negative pressure from building,” acknowledged Mouloungui. “If we get off on the wrong foot, the mood will change. And with the team we’ve got we need to avoid that.
“We have to fight as one for the same objective and with everyone doing their bit,” he concluded, setting out the Gabonese battleplan. The older players will bring their experience to the table, and the younger ones their enthusiasm.”