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Friday, August 19, 2022

Gabon carry weight of a nation

Gabon coach Gernot Rohr

Gabon carry a growing burden of expectation into their opening African Nations Cup match but are expected to escape unscathed against debutants Niger in Libreville on Monday.

Instead, a comfortable win in the first game at the tournament for the co-hosts might add to the frenzy that has been swelling since Gabon produced a surprise victory at under-23 level at the recent African Olympic qualifiers in Morocco.

That unexpected triumph, which will see them participate in the men’s football tournament at the London Olympics, has been a timely boost and suddenly elevated Gabon from competent hosts to dangerous team with an outside chance at the Nations Cup.

Five of the under-23 squad members are in the mix for the Nations Cup and under-23 coach Louis has been added to the team’s coaching staff.

Most importantly the Olympic success has come as a major psychological boost for a country with limited Nations Cup experience. They were quarter-finalists just once before, in South Africa in 1996.

On the negative side, this will be Gabon first competitive international since they were eliminated at the 2010 Nations Cup finals in Angola. As co-hosts of the 2012 event, they did not have to compete in the qualifiers and have therefore had to do with a diet of friendly matches over the last 24 months, never the best measure of their potential.

Niger compete for the first time at this level, fortunate to have qualified because of the folly of South Africa in the qualifiers.

Niger did win all their preliminary matches at home but lost on the road and are palpably out of their depth.

Their biggest fear, expressed already by coaches and players alike, is not to embarrass themselves at the tournament. They have been handed a tough group, first against the hosts and then having to face the powerful north African duo of Morocco and Tunisia

“We are firmly determined to play an excellent tournament. We want to have a Nations Cup where we leave a good impression,” said the French coach Rolland Courbis, brought in as an advisor to the team.

 “We have a squad that is capable of doing well here. It’s also good experience for players who have World Cup qualifiers coming up later this year. I have seen a lot of progress from them already.”

But Niger are expected to play not much more than a supporting role in their three Group C matches.

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