Aubameyang to galvanise local fans, lead Gabon in crunch Cameroon clash
GABON -- Usually the early elimination of the home team at the African Nations Cup leaves the tournament bereft. Attendance plummets, the passionate interest of the populace is subdued and the competition continues almost as if in a vacuum.
When Tunisia went out early in 1994, the army was brought in to fill the stadium, with soldiers in brown-class uniforms making up a bizarre backdrop to the games.
African fans cannot travel the way Europe's feverish follow their continental championship and empty stadia has always been the curse of the Nations Cup. Usually, though, there is always a crowd for the home side, so organisers and neutrals secretly will them on in the hopes of pumping more energy into the event.
Equatorial Guinea's small population got so swept up two years ago as their side improbably advanced to the semifinals that defeat in the last four set off an unprecedented riot at the Malabo Stadium, their frustration at refereeing decisions spilling over into unseemly scenes.
But if Gabon go out on Sunday -- they must get a result against Cameroon to stay alive -- it would hardly seem to matter. Last weekend's opening ceremony and game did not fill the Stade l'Amitie in Libreville and after Gabon were held to a 1-1 draw by Guinea Bissau, there was even less interest in their second game.
The match against Burkina Faso on Wednesday hardly seemed to raise any temperature in the capital and the stadium was half empty. A claim of 29,000 attendees in a 40,000-capacity stadium seemed inflated, but even if this was the case, most were Cameroonians from across the border willing on their side in the second game of the double-header attraction.
Gabon, admittedly, has a small population of some 1.5 million and one of the lowest population densities of any country in Africa. But the lethargy and impassivity at this tournament touch a new Nations Cup low.
Expatriates of Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cameroon who have relocated to Gabon have dominated crowds at the tournament as they get a rare chance to see their own national teams in action in Libreville, Franceville and Port Gentil.
That has, at least, engendered some excitement and means there is still every chance we will have a roaring finale on Feb. 5, especially if Cameroon, Senegal or Mali were to advance that far.
But that would come at the expense of Gabon. The last home country to win the tournament was Egypt in 2006 and of the past 30 editions, only 11 have delivered a home triumph.
Sunday's crucial Group A game between Gabon and Cameroon is a derby, but past clashes have largely been lopsided. Gabon did famously beat Cameroon to top place in their qualifying group for the 1994 finals, though, thereby ensuring they went to their first Nations Cup finals.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's father, Pierre Aubame, was the captain then and ironically more than two decades later it is his son who caries the talismanic qualities Gabon need to catapult above the Indomitable Lions. The Borussia Dortmund striker has netted twice in the tournament but made no other real contribution otherwise. A telling impact is needed to galvanise the locals behind the tournament.
Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.