- Gabon will face Egypt, Libya and Angola in Qatar 2022 qualifying
- Coach Patrice Neveu is confident they can spring a surprise
- He discusses Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Patrice Neveu is one of the most experienced coaches in world football. Thirty-one years ago, the Frenchman embarked on a coaching career that has had some incredible twists and turns. He was in charge at Chinese club Zhuhai Anping when SARS hit the country in 2003; he was at the helm of the Haitian national team during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, when he had to quarantine at a hotel for several days; and he is currently living through the COVID-19 pandemic in the Gabonese capital Libreville.
While most French expats living in Gabon opted to be flown home, Neveu decided to stay in Libreville, refusing to return to France. In an interview with FIFA.com, he said: "It makes sense to stay in the country where I work as a coach, so that I can be close to the football federation and officials there. I also need to remain close to the Gabonese people and local players so that we can maintain our group spirit.
"In order to improve results and raise the level of any football team, you must have a strong group ethos. For that reason, I thought it wasn’t a good idea to return to France during the difficult period that Gabon and the whole world are going through because of the COVID-19 pandemic."
Asked about the natural disasters and viruses that he has survived during his coaching career, Neveu said: “When Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti, I tried to show perseverance and courage in front of the players to maintain good morale among the squad, especially since I was coach of the national team.
"Although I realised the gravity of each of these situations, I have never been confused about my obligations. In China, the situation was very serious, but perhaps the nature of my work allows me to face these difficult situations as would a ship’s captain."
Tough group and Egypt waiting
After the pandemic brought the game to a halt worldwide, football has been gradually returning in recent months. The African qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ and the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Cameroon 2022 are set to resume in a few months’ time. As always, the qualifying games will showcase some fierce rivalries between national teams, as well as the much-anticipated duel between Egyptian megastar Mohamed Salah and Gabon’s own Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Asked about his team’s specific goals, Neveu said: "Our first target is to make the 2022 AFCON in Cameroon. Everyone in Gabon was disappointed to miss out on the most recent edition of the tournament, so a return is a must for us.”
Les Pantheres have been drawn in a group that features Egypt, Libya and Angola. “Egypt are favourites in this section because they’re more experienced and have high-quality players such as Mohamed Salah," said Neveu. "However, I think our team can spring a surprise. We have to believe in our ability to finish top of the group and make the play-off round. We’re going to have a tough game in Egypt, but we can get a positive result there.
“We have some top-level players too, and when we focus on team work, we can get good results, despite our squad lacking some strength in depth, both in terms of the quantity and quality of our back-up players."
Aubameyang a true leader
When football fans think of Gabon, Arsenal’s star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang immediately comes to mind. So how important is his role in the national team?
"When I arrived, he was a little hesitant about committing to the national team for many reasons," explained Neveu. "I talked to him and he agreed to stay. He’s the captain and a great goalscorer, and he proves this year after year. He does a lot of great things for Arsenal, and so the people of Gabon expect a lot more from him in the national team. My role is to create the optimal conditions for him to best serve the group.
"He’s a superstar, but when he joins up with the national team, he treats everyone as his friends. I won’t deny that he has stipulated some requirements for the national team, especially at an organisational level. I hope he can do for us what he does for Arsenal and help us in the upcoming Africa Cup and World Cup qualifiers. As a coach, I’m very happy to work with a great player like him."
11 countries in 30 years
Patrice Neveu is one very few coaches to have worked in 11 different countries. He loves to travel and undertake new adventures and has coached in France, Niger, Morocco, Tunisia, China PR, Guinea, Egypt, Congo DR, Mauritania, Haiti and Gabon since starting out during the 1989/90 season.
Asked about distinctiveness of each region, he said: "Football is the most popular sport in the world, but it differs from one part to another. For example, when you coach in China, you have to quickly get used to the traditions there, and the most important thing is to make sure that your technical and tactical instructions come across to the players.
"I love the African mentality very much and understand it well. My European upbringing has helped me understand Africans. You might experience some different behaviour but that tends to be tied in with their culture. You really have to know the difference between coaching in Europe and in Africa, and coaches have to take a step back in order to adapt and get positive results."