Gabon is a country of under 1.7 million inhabitants. To put that into perspective, it is 20 times less than Algeria, 40 times less than Egypt and 100 times less than Nigeria. Yet despite having one of the slowest population growth rates in Africa, the country has produced a string of talented footballers and its national team has frequently managed to compete with the continent’s footballing powers.

The Gabonese national team made a slow start to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifiers, with a draw at home to Morocco, and are now facing an awkward second fixture away in Mali. One of the team’s mainstays, Merlin Tandjigora, looked back at that opening draw against Morocco with FIFA.com.

“It must be said that we came up against a good Morocco team,” he explained. “They kept it tight at the back, played on the counter-attack and tried to make the most of any small spaces. It enabled them to come away with a good result.”

The Gabonese will have the opportunity to make up for lost ground in their second fixture, against Mali on 12 November. “It’s going to be a very difficult match,” warned Tandjigora. “Mali lost away to Côte d'Ivoire, but they’re a good team. It’s never easy playing away from home.”

Despite only drawing at home to the Atlas Lions, Gabon still have every chance of qualifying for the World Cup. “We haven’t got off to the best of starts in the qualifiers,” admitted Tandjigora, “but we haven’t given up hope yet of making it to Russia 2018. Having dropped points at home, we have to win them back in our away matches, as that’s what counts at the end of the day.”

In Gabon, everyone’s dreaming about our first appearance at a World Cup, but the road is long and fraught with danger. Right now, we need to leave the dreams to one side and focus on our game.

Gabon midfielder Merlin Tandjigora

The midfielder makes Côte d'Ivoire the favourites for the group, but he is by no means admitting defeat yet. “It’s normal to think that Côte d'Ivoire have the best chance of qualifying,” he acknowledged. “Les Eléphants are the African champions, and they have one of the continent’s best teams. But we’re not going to lie down. We’ll fight to the end, because we’ve got a strong team too.

“In Gabon, everyone’s dreaming about our first appearance at a World Cup,” he added, “but the road is long and fraught with danger. Right now, we need to leave the dreams to one side and focus on our game.”

Dreaming of the FIFA Confederations Cup
The draw for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2017 saw the Gabonese placed in a group alongside Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau, who will be competing at the tournament for the first time in their history. “The countries that have qualified for the African Cup of Nations are all quality sides,” insisted Tandjigora. “We’re the host nation, and we mustn’t underestimate any team we come up against. We’ll give it everything we’ve got to go as far as possible in the tournament.”

Gabon will host the Africa Cup of Nations between 14 January and 5 February 2017, and expectations are high that this team, led by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, will end the country’s wait for a first title. The Gabonese have already organised the tournament once, in 2012, but on that occasion suffered the heartbreak of being knocked out on penalties in the quarter-finals against Mali.

“We have to do better than in 2012 and 2015,” concluded the midfielder. “We were the hosts in 2012 and were knocked out in the last-eight. Our aim for 2017 is to go further and, why not, to win the competition. Representing Africa at the Confederations Cup in 2017 would be wonderful for the whole of Gabon.”