Nickname: The Panthers
Previous appearances: 6 (1994, 1996, 2000, 2010, 2012, 2015)
Best finish: Quarterfinals (2012)
Who are they ?
One of Africa’s lower-tier sides, the Panthers, driven mostly by the star appeal of Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, used the occasion of being co-hosts of the 2012 tournament to impose themselves on the continent’s consciousness as they romped to a quarterfinal finish. But a failure to qualify for the next tournament, or get past the group stages of the one after, showed that that progress may have been ephemeral. Which is why they will want to make a statement this time.
Poor results in World Cup qualifying led to the dismissal of previous coach Jorge Costa and former Real Madrid and Spain coach Jose Antonio Camacho installed in his stead in December. Camacho, whose last coaching job was in 2013 in China, will have to find a way to navigate his team past fallen giants Cameroon and 2013 finalists Burkina Faso. In 2012, they were driven by passionately partisan home support all the way to the quarterfinals, and there is no reason to think that will not be the case again.
Route to Qualification
Gabon qualified as hosts, although they did play in qualifying Group I along with Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Sudan, drawing at home to the Elephants, beating Sudan home and away, and splitting six points down the middle with Sierra Leone. Those results were classed as friendlies by CAF. Since their last game against Sudan, a 2-1 win on the road, they’ve lost 2-1 to Cameroon and drawn 1-1 at home to Comoros. Yes, Comoros! Not good signs …
Definition of Success
There was collective heartbreak in 2012 when the team lost on penalties to Mali after coasting through their group with a 100 percent record and without so much as conceding a goal. This time they open with a winnable game against Guinea-Bissau, then follow with Burkina Faso whom they have already beaten twice before. While they might advance again this time, the route to the semifinal is not quite so easy. One of Algeria, Tunisia or Senegal lie in wait in the first knockout stage. Fans will expect at least a semifinal place, but the quarters will be a more realistic target.
Eliminated by Mali at home in 2012 when they had a seemingly clear run at the Final, Aubameyang and co will be raring to have another go at the Les Aigles. Trouble is, both sides would have to reach the semifinals for that to even have a chance of happening.
Top Three players
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, striker, Borussia Dortmund
Without a doubt their best and most dangerous player. The reigning African Player of the Year is has been Dortmund’s top scorer two seasons in a row and was Bundesliga Player of the Year last season. He has scored 20 goals so far this season for his club and three for Gabon. His breakaway speed, skill on the turn and lethal finishing is among the Panthers’ biggest weaponry.
Didier N’Dong, midfielder, Sunderland
Dubbed ‘the new Michael Essien’ when he joined Sunderland for a club record £13.6m in the summer, N’Dong immediately broke into the Black Cats starting line-up, providing energy and zest to their midfield
Mario Lemina, midfielder, Juventus
A box-to-box midfielder who has won the Serie A title and Coppa Italia with Juventus, the 23-year-old represented France at cadet level but pinned his international allegiance to Gabon.
Who brings the African league flavour?
The Gabonese squad is mostly peppered with Europe and Asia-based stars, but 24-year-old Mbingui, who represented the country at the 2012 Olympics in Rio, will bring some North African entertainment, if not gamesmanship. The midfielder turns out for MC El Eulma in Algeria after spending a brief spell with Raja Casablanca.
How far will they go?
Quarterfinals is the most realistic bet. There is just too much firepower waiting for them on the other side of the group stages.
By Colin Udoh
@ColinUdoh on Twitter