Gabon take part in their first Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final since 1996 on Sunday, when the competition co-hosts face Mali. Having reached this first knockout stage with three wins from three in a tricky Group C, the Panthers go into the match with momentum on their side.
Remaining in Gabon and, more specifically, the capital Libreville, is a significant boost to the home side. While both quarter-finals in Gabon’s section of the draw are played in Gabon – Tunisia meet Ghana in Franceville in the other – the semi-finals are split between Gabon and co-hosts Equatorial Guinea. But by topping their group Gabon kept themselves on course for a semi-final in Libreville, adding another chance to take advantage of the furious partisan crowd.
Speaking prior to the first match of the tournament Gabon Coach Gernot Rohr revealed his belief that the home support would be vital not only in the opening fixture, but later in the tournament too. Rohr said: “The fans are our No 1 player and we lay our hopes on them. We have to make use of this support as we’re not just looking for our opener but to go far in the tournament.” So it has proven for Rohr, as his side enter the latter stages still relying on the passionate backing of the local fans.
Equally as important, however, will be the goals of Aubemayang. Aubemayang, joint-second-highest scorer in the tournament overall is Gabon’s top scorer with three, and the only Gabonese to find the net more than once so far. A product of the Milan youth set-up but never playing a senior game for the Italian giants, Aubemayang instead made his name in France, first on loan at Dijon and then later Monaco, Lille and current club Saint-Etienne. Having switched permanently to Les Verts in December 2011, Aubemayang is again establishing himself as a player to watch, having threatened to leave his promise unfulfilled as he wandered around France without a permanent home.
Not only has Aubemayang scored often, but he has scored at important times, a quality not possessed by all strikers. Aubemayang netted Gabon’s opening goal of the tournament, settling any home side nerves, equalised against Morocco and set the table for that dramatic 3-2 comeback victory, and bagged the only goal in the top-of-the-table-clinching 1-0 triumph over Tunisia. That sort of timing and ability to rise to the occasion speaks of a player not only technically capable, but also mentally strong. If Gabon are to go past the quarter-finals and beyond, Aubemayang and the fans will have equally important roles to play.