Three reasons for Gabon's African Nations Cup humiliation on home soil
GABON -- On Sunday night, Gabon became the first host nation to exit the group stage of the African Nations Cup since Tunisia back in 1994, after drawing 0-0 with Cameroon. Here are three reasons why the team captained by Borussia Dortmund star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fell flat.
Aubameyang was lethargic
It might sound harsh to expect more from a striker who scored two goals in three group games and is, indisputably, a level above most of his teammates, but there was a nagging sense that Aubameyang could have done more.
Never mind the early miss from point-blank range against Cameroon that could have changed the complexion of Gabon's entire campaign: the Dortmund striker never seemed involved enough in general play and showed little of the leadership by example that a team of this stature requires.
Aubameyang's immediate reaction to Gabon's exit, walking straight off the pitch and kicking a ball away in frustration, spoke more of disappointment than a poor attitude but perhaps there were other lingering issues.
After the game he appeared to criticise Gabon's preparation for the tournament, saying: "We didn't start on the right date, we started later; we didn't have time to prepare properly."
Even so, you felt that Aubameyang, who generally stayed high up the pitch despite a lack of reliable service, could have involved himself more in play and dug deeper to help his teammates get on the ball when things were tough. Not every captain is the loud, authoritative type but Aubameyang might have made himself more visible.
Gabon were lethargic and he was unable to raise their tempo; a tap-in against Guinea-Bissau and a penalty against Burkina Faso were the minimum that could have been expected from the country's talisman.
Gabon's team was not good enough
Aubameyang might not have shone but Gabon's exit showed they were not strong enough as a team. In particular, they suffered from the lack of a central midfielder who could put his foot on the ball. Juventus's Mario Lemina tried to provide that in their first game, the 1-1 draw with Guinea-Bissau, but his radar was off that day and perhaps not helped by the poor pitch inside Stade de L'Amitie.
Lemina then succumbed to a back injury and was ruled out of the tournament and, in his absence, Gabon seemed to abandon any pretense at constructing patient attacks. Balls were too often hit long for Aubameyang to chase fruitlessly; nobody except impressive Strasbourg winger Denis Bouanga, who hit the post at the death against Cameroon, showed anything like the guile required to prise opponents open in a tight group.
It was difficult, throughout their short-lived campaign, to discern exactly what Gabon's style of play was -- while Cameroon and Burkina Faso, the two qualifiers from Group A, often looked compact and fluent.
At the back they were prone to errors, notably when Johann Obiang was beaten to a long ball by Prejuce Nakoulma of Burkina Faso -- resulting in a costly goal. There was also the last-gasp lapse against Guinea-Bissau that allowed the minnows a surprise equaliser. Had Gabon held on to their lead in the tournament's opening game, they would now be looking forward to a quarterfinal; instead, Jose Antonio Camacho's side showed from the start that they lacked the quality to be decisive on this stage.
There was little appetite among the home support
The swathes of empty seats when Bouanga hit the upright on Sunday evening -- with Didier N'dong denied superbly by Cameroon goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa on the rebound -- said enough.
Gabon's future in their home Nations Cup was in the balance but, rather than roar their team on from the stands, the local supporters filed from Stade de L'Amitie in their droves as the clock ticked down.
As a snapshot of the apathy that has largely surrounded this tournament -- for well-documented reasons -- in Gabon, it was hard to beat. Despite the marketing efforts of the local organising committee there has been little genuine fervour for the Panthers' campaign; many bars elsewhere in the country were far from packed out for a decisive clash with local rivals on Sunday night and those who did watch hardly cut desolate figures after Gabon's exit.
It does make a difference: in Equatorial Guinea two years ago, the home crowd in Bata made the kind of noise that inspires opponents and officials, baying their team to a surprise quarterfinal victory over Tunisia in controversial circumstances.
Host countries often over-perform by riding the way of patriotism and euphoria that accompanies a major tournament; Gabon, though, has had other issues on its mind and has never really looked as if it had the appetite to fully get behind its footballers.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.