This wasn’t the way Didier Ovono had planned it. From the moment it was announced that Gabon would co-host the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, the goalkeeper – like so many of his countrymen – had been dreaming of lifting the trophy amid frenzied scenes at the Stade de l’Amitie.
In Ovono’s premonitions, the final was going to be against Alain Giresse’s Mali. The Le Mans custodian told us before the tournament that he would love to cross paths with Giresse, his mentor, the man he describes as his spiritual father, in the showpiece on February 12.
The trouble is the former France midfielder, who coached Gabon for four years before taking the Mali job, hadn’t read Ovono’s script.
Mali only finished second in their section and so met Group C winners Gabon in Sunday’s quarter-final. Most experts expected Gabon to progress to their first-ever semi-final – and for about 75 minutes they looked vastly superior to a defensive and disjointed Mali. Eric Mouloungui gave Gabon the lead and both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Daniel Cousin struck posts.
As the Gabonese supporters danced joyfully in the stands it was difficult not to buy in to this sense of invincibility that had imbedded itself in Gernot Rohr’s team over the past fortnight. The Panthers, surely, were going to win their fourth straight game and thoughts were already turning towards a mouth-watering clash with Ivory Coast on Wednesday. Gabon’s time had come. Or so it seemed.
Football has a habit of crushing dreams and it was about to bring Gabon back to earth with a thud.
With Giresse of all people – one of Gabon’s favourite sons – pulling the strings on the sidelines, Mali began at last to pose a threat. Tension started to fill the Libreville air. Modibo Maiga twice broke free and rifled in shots, and on both occasions Ovono – a spectator until then – made sharp saves.
Proudly wearing the captain’s armband, Ovono cut an assured figure. In the 84th minute, however, the moment all Gabon had been dreading arrived. Mali substitute Cheikh Diabate turned and shot from close range, Ovono got plenty on the ball but couldn’t prevent it spinning over the line.
The carnival atmosphere became one of fear and uncertainty. Gabon lost their way. Mali held on for penalties. Aubameyang, probably the tournament’s best player, missed his. Ovono flung himself at every spot kick and every time he got close. But they were simply too well struck – all five of them.
Gabon’s magical adventure had come to a premature and improbable end. It was hard to believe. The better team had somehow lost. It was a terrible reminder that nothing can be taken for granted in this sport. For Ovono, it was just a mightily cruel way to shatter a footballer’s ultimate dream.