Gabon matches co-host’s winning start

2012-01-24 09:47

Gabon matched Equatorial Guinea’s spirited start at the Africa Cup

of Nations after a pulsating atmosphere at Stade de l’Amitie carried the co-host

to a 2-0 win over Niger in front of its football-mad president.

Ali Bongo and the First Lady, Sylvia – wearing a team shirt –

celebrated like fans in the stadium’s VIP section as “The Panthers” outclassed

tournament debutant in the first match in Gabon.

Gabon controlled their match from start to finish, with first-half

goals from Aubameyang and Stephane Nguema capping the dominance as it was roared

on by rowdy supporters.

Morocco then fell to a surprise defeat – as Senegal did on the

opening day against Zambia – after missing a bunch of chances to go down 2-1 to

north African rival Tunisia, which held on under late pressure after conceding

an 86th-minute goal.

Every top team is now aware of the danger of the underdogs at

Africa’s showpiece.

Not least highly-rated Ghana, which takes on another first-timer in

Botswana when Group D kicks off today in Franceville.

At Libreville, President Bongo jumped out of his seat to celebrate

and hug his smiling wife when Stephane scored to seal the victory that put Gabon

top of Group C.

Gabon had opened its biggest sporting moment with a brief opening

ceremony at the new stadium, but the atmosphere fizzled when the home team

appeared on the pitch at the packed 40 000-seat venue.

Sylvia Bongo had replaced her chic suit for the ceremony with a

shirt bearing No 9 of star striker Aubameyang, and the Saint-Etienne forward

repaid the first lady’s faith with Gabon’s opener.

Roared on by the yellow, green and blue crowd, Aubameyang swept in

a second goal with Niger failing to match the intensity of the home team.

“We had to concentrate on the team and not on the crowd,” Niger

coach Harouna Doula said, conceding the atmosphere had made a big


“It was always going to be pretty difficult against the host


Despite his team’s impressive start – and an underwhelming show

from Morocco, Gabon coach Gernot Rohr called for calm with the buoyant co-host

and its excited supporters now targeting upsets against the north African


“What’s important for us now is the future,” Rohr said. “We’ve

taken a step today. We have two more important steps to take in order to

qualify. The pressure was strong and we managed it very well.”

Arsenal striker Marouane Chamakh and Youssouf Hadji produced the

worst of a string of misses for coach Eric Gerets’ Morocco, which was tipped to

go far in the competition and possibly challenge favourite Ivory Coast and the

Ghanaians for the title.

But Gerets’ team was at times careless and undone by a youthful

Tunisian outfit which capitalised on its chances through Saber Khalifa and a

high-quality second-half goal by substitute Youssef Msakni.

Morocco captain Houssine Kharja pulled one back late – sparking a

goalmouth scuffle – but he hit a last-minute shot agonisingly over to leave

Morocco trailing Tunisia and Gabon ahead of a meeting with the co-host on


“This shows each match is difficult. We can have a lot of surprises

in the tournament,” a stern-looking Gerets said.

“It seems our game against Gabon will be a big game. The best

lesson to my players should be: Don’t forget your head. Sometimes it was only

the heart that was playing.”

Amid reports of not being happy with its remote hotel in Gabon’s

south-east city of Franceville, Ghana is under pressure to keep its focus

against minnows Botswana when the final group gets underway.

The team has already been warned not to be complacent by the

country’s vice-president, John Dramani Mahama – another politician closely

following Africa’s football showpiece.

Ghana has a full squad to pick from with the exception of suspended

defender Isaac Vorsah, meaning striker Asamoah Gyan could return from the

hamstring injury that had threatened his participation in the tournament.

Guinea and an injury-hit Mali, meanwhile, will be the final two

teams to play in the tournament, meeting in today’s second match at Stade de


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