One of the first persons to enter the change-room after Gabon's opening 2-0 win against Niger at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations was the country's State President Ali Bongo Ondimba. "He came into the dressing room after the match and congratulated the players and danced with them," the Panthers' German-Franco coach Gernot Rohr explained.
Gabon, who are co-hosting the ongoing showpiece of African football with Equatorial Guinea, are facing the wounded Atlas Lions of Morocco in their next match on Friday in a game the North Africans can simply not afford to lose after tasting defeat in their opener against Tunisia. Rohr is aware that his side is facing one of the pre-tournament favourites. "They have wonderful players in their team that play in big leagues, and we don't have that,” he admitted. “But we have confidence now, and I think my team has a very, very big motivation to win this game even against the big players."
He is confident that his players will not suffer from any big-game nerves as they already had to deal with the pressure of playing their first match in front of home supporters. "They have coped very well. Each of the players has his own way of dealing with the pressure. Some listen to music, another might speak to his wife, while a third one would look at pictures of his children. The main thing is that each player has his own way of dealing with the stress,” he said.
An experienced campaigner
Rohr joined Bayern Munich as a 19-year-old and spent two and a half seasons at the club, without establishing himself, then spent three seasons with Waldhof Mannheim and Kickers Offenbach, before moving to France to join Bordeaux for a long stretch. He said after his career, he is well used to dealing with pressure. "I have a bit of experience with this kind of thing. If you have been in a European Cup final, or even two, then you know how to go into these big matches.”
It is an opportunity to use home advantage to advance beyond the quarter-final stages for the first time.
The success that was denied the defender-cum-midfielder in his native Germany, was his in France, where he became one of the league's star players. In 12 seasons with Bordeaux, he won three league championships as well as two cups. He moved straight into coaching when he retired from active football in 1989, first being involved with the Bordeaux youth teams, before taking charge of the senior side on an interim basis on three different occasions. His last time was highlighted by taking the team to the UEFA Cup final, where they lost to his old club Bayern Munich. He has since been involved with a number of clubs, including Young Boys Berne, Red Bull Salzburg, Nantes and Etoile Sportive du Sahel. In 2010 he was appointed to take over Gabon from his former Bordeaux team-mate Alain Giresse.
High expectations, high rewards
Rohr is aware that as co-hosts, much is expected from the side, especially after Gabon’s convincing opening victory during which they could have easily won by more than the 2-0 scoreline. “Spectators can become euphoric very fast, and it is important that the team remains rooted to the ground,” he said. “I am quite satisfied that we did not win by three or four goals as everybody would have thought that we will become champions. But those who know me will realize that I will make sure the players stay grounded.”
The 58-year-old, whose great uncle Oskar was a German international who also played professionally in France, is aware how important the tournament is to the Gabonese. "It is the first time that such a big sporting competition is being held in the country. It is an opportunity to use home advantage to advance beyond the quarter-final stages for the first time. Furthermore, the structures are being improved, so it is really important not only for football, but actually for the whole country."
For his part, Rohr says that he is not spending any time on pondering his future. "I have a contract with the federation until the end of the competition and then we will see what happens." However, if Gabon advance to the last four of the competition, two things are bound to happen: Rohr will be celebrated and receive cult-like status in the country, and President Ali Bongo Ondimba will be spending some more time in the change-room dancing.