LIBREVILLE – Africa Cup of Nations co-hosts Gabon finally get their 2012 campaign underway in Libreville on Monday night, and they will be targeting three points against debutants Niger. The Group C match takes place at the Stade d’Angondje, kick-off 18h00.
The Panthers will carry a huge burden of expectation from their supporters, but could be inspired by the example set by counterparts Equatorial Guinea, who claimed a 1-0 win over Libya in front of fanatic home support on the tournament’s opening night.
A similar result for Gabon would add to the buoyant mood surrounding the country’s football, this after their U-23 team secured a place at the 2012 Summer Olympics thanks to a strong showing in the final qualification tournament late last year.
Five players from the U-23s are part of Gabon’s squad at the 2012 AFCON and coach Gernot Rohr will be hoping that their confidence rubs off on the rest of the team.
The one worry for the Panthers is that this match will be their first competitive international since the group stages of the 2010 Nations Cup finals in Angola. Since then, they have played only friendlies in preparation for this tournament.
As for Niger, they were fortunate first-time qualifiers thanks to South Africa’s inability to grasp CAF’s rules when it comes to tie-breaking in the preliminary group stages, and are expected to be the whipping boys of Group C.
That the West Africans have even qualified for the 2012 finals – from a qualification group that also included reigning AFCON champions Egypt – is a huge triumph in itself. Yet, with no expectation or pressure on them, Niger will have complete freedom to express themselves.
Spoiling the co-hosts’ party is not beyond them, so Gabon will have to work hard for the three points as they aim for the quarterfinals for the first time since 1996.
The Gabon v Niger match will be followed at 21h00 by the second Group C match between North African rivals Morocco and Tunisia.