Didier Ovono could not have wished for any more on his 29th birthday: three valuable points, a stress-free afternoon for the experienced goalkeeper and an almighty party in the capital Libreville.
The Gabon captain told us before the tournament that the Africa Cup of Nations co-hosts would feel like they were “playing with 12 men” in front of their passionate fans – and anybody who witnessed the scenes at the Stade de l’Amitie during the opener against Niger will understand what he meant.
The atmosphere was deafening from the moment Samuel Eto’o delivered a pre-match message about raising awareness of AIDS through to the referee’s final whistle. Roared on by 40,000 fans, the Panthers dominated, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Stephane Nguema scoring in the first half before Gernot Rohr’s team took their foot off the gas, settling for a 2-0 win.
Ovono led the celebrations, throwing his gloves in to the stands and orchestrating some slick dance moves. The Le Mans goalkeeper enjoys a party, and there is a fair chance the celebrating will have continued for a few more hours, but he will not have gone overboard.
Ovono knows he and his Gabon team-mates have a wonderful opportunity to make history if they play their cards right over the next fortnight.
Gabon are unquestionably a strong team. Probably not the strongest in the competition but with the considerable advantage of playing on home soil, they are certainly capable of going beyond the quarter-finals for the first time. The positive energy generated by African fans has a habit of rubbing off on the players – 11 out of the 27 Nations Cups have been won by hosts – and there is a belief this Gabon side has enough quality to reap the benefits this time.
Former France great Alain Giresse established a powerful spine during his time as coach, and 14 of the players that he selected for Angola 2010 have been recalled this time. The current trainer Gernot Rohr has strengthened the team by adding some exceptional young talents.
Remy Ebenega starred in Gabon’s impressive victory at the African Under-23 Championship in November, and looked an ideal foil for man-mountain Bruno Ecuele Manga in central defence against Niger. Teenagers Levy Madinda and Andre Biyogo Poko injected energy and skill in midfield, while Aubameyang’s slick running is almost as stylish as his Mohican haircut.
Gabon also possess that rare but precious commodity: a top quality, reliable goalkeeper. True, Ovono was a spectator for much of the Niger game, yet when he was called upon late on he showed his class, pushing Moussa Maazou’s header out with calm authority.
Ovono seems totally unflustered by the pressure-cooker environment created by the raucous Gabonese fans. Whether Gabon’s opponents can remain as cool is another question entirely.