Prior to kickoff, Gabonese fans trickled into the Libreville fan park by the expansive beachfront almost bang in the centre of the capital city.
Enthusiasm for the Panthers was less than energetic. As a matter of fact, when asked, many of those sauntering into the park were happy to say they would like Gabon eliminated.
The why is no secret. “Afcon is a waste of money,” says Gabonese Scheena Donia. “Almost every area of the economy is on strike. People are starving. Protesters are arrested for no reason.
“Teachers, oil companies, lawyers, you name it. The whole country is mad at Bongo but he is trying to show something else on camera.”
The couple of hundred fans who have turned up to watch the game mostly express the same sentiment.
“If Gabon are eliminated today, it is good,” says Didier, a cab driver for Sogatra, the official cab company which has ‘We Are Gabon’ as their motto. “We have not been paid for three months, so we are on strike.”
But then the national anthem bellows out of the huge outdoor speakers and there is a complete change. The Gabonese stand up as one and belt it out with a passion that totally belies their sentiments of a few minutes before.
When the game kicks off, that passion is as clear to see as the few Cameroonians who have also made their way to the fan park. Every ball was kicked along with the players, every misplaced pass was met with groans, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s last-minute hit off the upright was followed by collective soul-destroying screams of horror.
This was Gabonese people being unrepentantly patriotic, supporting their team even when they did not want to, even in spite of their government.
Within minutes of the final whistle, one which confirmed Gabon’s elimination, bowed heads immediately perked up, and sadness was followed by delayed-reaction celebrations.
It is an emotional conflict that the people of Gabon will no longer have to endure, saying they can now face their government’s profligacy with more animation.
“He had planned to make [us] forget with this Afcon but Gabon is not ancient Roma. Those games are not enough. We want justice,” says Laurence Ndong.
The Panthers’ elimination will mean more support for the opposition’s call for boycott of the stadiums, at least one of which remains uncompleted.
Housing projects for the people have been left abandoned in Port-Gentil and sit side by side with the magnificent structure that is the stadium there.
Decorated barriers line the route to the stadiums, masking poor development, and sometimes impoverished structures.
Most of the population question why the government must spend so much in hosting a football tournament, when that money could have done a lot more for their lives.
At least now, they will no longer have the emotional conflict of rooting for their team while rooting against them.
By Colin Udoh
@ColinUdoh on Twitter