Football failures mirror Gabon’s sorry state

The image of striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, descending alone from the field after Gabon was knocked out of AFCON 2017 game, tells the whole story of Gabon's malaise.

Gabriel Bouys (AFP/Getty Images).

Sometimes, a photo from a football match can reflect a lot more than just the game itself. Sometimes, a photo (above) from a football match can reflect huge and complicated processes of a country.

This year’s African Cup of Nations is now over, with Cameroon taking the title after a victory over Egypt in the final. The lasting moment of this tournament, however, took place on Sunday, 22 January, when, after another draw (their third in a row), the hosts Gabon were eliminated. They became the fourth team ever to host the tournament and not qualify from the group stage, and the first to do so since Tunisia in 1994.

Local fans abandoned the team minutes before the final whistle, when the score from the other group match showed that Burkina Faso lead Guinea-Bissau 2-0, and it was clear that Gabon would not continue in the competition. Some of the players were crying, some were laying silent, and only Pierre-Emeric Aubameyang (Gabon’s best player contracted to German club Borussia Dortmund) walked alone, quietly and without talking to anyone, straight to dressing room.

There are professional explanations for the failure of Gabon. Some say that Aubameyang did not take on enough beyond scoring. Others say that the squad of Gabon (ranked 134 in the world) is just not good enough. Some blame the new coach. But the story of Gabon in this championship is actually a lot bigger. It is film material. To understand it, one needs to keep track of the characteristics of the state of Gabon, and the political and social role and context of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.

Gabon is home to only 1.5 million people. It is one of Africa’s largest oil exporters. Yet, about one-third of the population lives in extreme poverty. Since independence from France in 1960, three presidents ruled Gabon, two of them from the same family: the Bongos. When the first president, Leon M’Ba, died in 1967, he was succeeded by his deputy, Omar Bongo. The latter ruled for more than four decades, and maintained close bonds with France, under a very simple formula, Francafrique. Francafrique is a well-known concept in post-colonial African politics. The local ruler receives military and political support, and in return he spoils the colonial master with good business opportunities in the host country. Crude oil and minerals like candy. France maintains this kind of relationship with various leaders in the continent.

Relations between France and Gabon changed in 2009 when Omar Bongo died in a hospital in Barcelona, Spain, and his son, Ali Bongo, won an election to succeed him. Ali did not automatically give the French all the treats they wanted, and actually cooled relations with them. Ali had new partners: the Chinese. Chinese and Gabonese relations have grown from the millennium, but a series of transactions and agreements with Ali Bongo gained the Asian country a stronger foothold in the oil empire. France, in return, decided that it would demand an international investigation by the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank, regarding corruption in the country.

One year ago, Aubameyang won the African Player of the Year award. He was the first Gabonese player to do so. Aubameyang, Dortmund’s biggest star and an idol in Gabon, dedicated his award to his family and friends, the Gabonese people, and, crucially, the President, Ali Bongo. This statement was not for nothing. In August 2016, the country held presidential elections, and the first time in years, Bongo faced a very strong opposition candidate, Jean Ping.

Ping, a Gabonese diplomat who had served in both Omar and Ali Bongo’s cabinet, lost the elections by a small margin according to the official count. He claimed that he won the election and that the election was rigged and corrupt. Ping’s supporters took to the streets. Riots and clashes between opposition supporters and the police lit the capital, where 1,000 people were arrested and another five were killed. Things got out of hand and the authorities shut down the internet in the capital, Libreville. Eventually the police took control, and Ali Bongo remained as President.

Despite Ping’s appeals and the resignation of ministers and MPs, Ali has not vacated the chair. Instead, he launched massive infrastructure projects, including four giant football stadiums ahead of this year’s African Cup of Nations. The stadiums, built by the Chinese, are very impressive from the outside, but do not make sense for a modest football nation like Gabon. It won’t be able to fill them once the tournament is over. One of these stadiums, in Port Gentil, is next to an abandoned residential project planned for those left homeless by its construction. ESPN FC described it as “resembling the haunted, concrete shells of a ghost village.” In general, the investment in this AFCON has been astounding – around USD4 billion. Meanwhile, many Gabonese lack the basics, such as electricity, water and shelter.

As AFCON began, opposition activists launched a major campaign against the tournament. Black and red posters of the players were hung around Libreville and Franceville, with the tagline, “You are not the team of the Gabonese people but the team of the dictator.” A hashtag was launched for the protest, #CAN17WeCANnot. In many games along the tournament, the stadiums were half empty, as many of the locals refused to attend the matches. The atmosphere at majority of the matches was silent and depressing.

If that was not enough, in December last year, the Spaniard Antonio Camacho was signed as a coach of the national team. The announcement came from Ali Bongo’s office. At first, it was said Camacho’s contract was worth USD2 million per year, but after protests it was claimed to be about USD800,000 per year for the entire team staff. The arrival of the Spaniard raised more criticism when it was discovered that his last job was as coach of the Chinese national team.

The conditions for Gabon’s tournament were set: Under the eyes of a nervous ruler, with the pressure of the new coach and a staff, a lone mega star with everything on his shoulders, and a lot of political tension inside the dressing room.

It was clear from the first game that Gabon is not at the level of the other teams who qualified for AFCON. The draws with Guinea-Bissau, and later with Burkina Faso raised the level of stress in the host country to new heights. “It is clear that the political situation has affected our preparations for this championship,” said goalkeeper Didier Ovono in a press conference before the last group game with Cameroon. “We started badly. Something is happening here, and it’s not a simple situation,” he concluded.

And there lies the failure of Gabon’s AFCON campaign. The political situation in the country had a large influence on what happened to the team during the tournament, especially in terms of the relationships between the players. Unlike Aubameyang, not all players support the president. According to reports, clashes between supporters of Ali Bongo (led by Aubameyang) and opposition supporters (reportedly goalkeeper Didier Ovono and Mario Lamina) tore the dressing room apart. Moreover, the Panthers, as the national team is known, did not enjoy the support of the home crowd. The fans were as divided as the players.

The image of Aubameyang, descending alone from the field, tells the whole story.

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