A country known for producing stellar football players without ever really achieving team laurels, Gabon's international reputation is on the climb. Their appearance at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 will be their debut at a global event and it comes because of their first international championship. Winners of the CAF U-23 Championship, Gabon also co-hosted this year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations where they came within touch distance of reaching their first continental semi-final.
Drawn into a tricky group with Mexico, Korea Republic and Switzerland, the Olympic debutants will face no easy task once they hit London, but the Young Panthers have nothing to lose as they look to continue a hot streak that has seen their senior team climb the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking all the way up to sixth place in Africa. Their impressive performances at the Cup of Nations were related to the success of the U-23 team and are conversely also sure to improve the side's chances at the Olympics.
Although it is still not confirmed whether 22-year-old starlet Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang - co-top scorer at the African finals - will be on the Olympic squad, the likes of Andre Biyogho Poko, Levy Clement Madinda and Remy Ebanega gained valuable and sustained experience on the pitch in January. “We played our first big tournament and gained a lot of experience from it,” said Bordeaux defender Poko, who started all four of Gabon’s matches. “The AFCON and those good results will help me and the others a lot at the Olympic Games in London.”
Likewise, the approaching place in the Olympiad has kept activity and spirits high since. “We are going to play the Olympic Games for the first time, after bringing home the first trophy in Gabon history. That makes us very proud, but it is not the end of the story,” said coach Claude-Albert Mbourounot. “It will be a moment of great pride to see the Gabon flag floating in London and to hear our national anthem at those Games. Playing attractive, lively and spectacular football will be our aim.”
Unlikely glory in Morocco
The U-23 African finals were always going to be hotly contested, with just eight teams fighting it out for three sure berths in London. Gabon were considered outsiders behind continental mainstays Egypt, Nigeria, Tunisia and hosts Morocco, and they started out slowly. In fact, they had to wait 170 minutes for a goal until Diderot Lengoulama's header earned a draw with South Africa.
“We fought hard and played with our hearts,” said Mbourounot about the performance that then saw them come from behind to beat Côte d'Ivoire and reach the last four. Once into that rarefied air, they upset the form book even more, topping Senegal after extra time and then stunning the ambitious hosts in the final just three days later. It was an unexpected and joyous glory for the Panthers.
And indeed, the team is bursting with excitement to show the world what they can do. “The Olympics are the biggest tournament after the World Cup, so this is a great reward for us for working hard and showing good team spirit,” said winger Alexander N'Doumbou, who is currently at Orleans on loan from Marseille. “The feeling between the players during the tournament in Morocco was excellent, so I sincerely hope that we can keep this spirit. We all play football to win trophies. The U-23 Championship was our first, but I hope it won’t be the last.”
Mbourounot is no doubt wary of such elevated expectations. “We will be in the right conditions to perform well, but let us not forget that it is our first appearance at the Olympic Games, and that we do not really know the level of this tournament. We are still struggling to improve our mix between speed and skills. A good team must have both, and we lack pace some of the time.”
But Mbourounot knows that if his team show the determination that served them so well in Morocco, they could get within shouting distance of a medal, which would cap an amazing year for Gabonese football. “We consider ourselves as ambassadors of Gabonese football and of African football. A good result would be to go past the first round and be among the last eight,” he said before reinforcing that the Gabon experiment is not done. “We now have a great generation younger than 23 years old, and they could continue to bring us good results for the next decade.”