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GABONFootball is full of 'what ifs', but few have as much reason as Gabon to ponder what might have been.
What if president Omar Bongo, who had ruled the country for 42 years, hadn't died shortly before a World Cup qualifier against Cameroon in June 2009? Gabon had won their first two fixtures and led a Cameroon team in disarray, as the Otto Pfister reign came to an end, by five points. A home win in Libreville would have given them an all but insurmountable lead.
But Bongo's death caused the game to be postponed, and by the time they reconvened the following September, Cameroon had regrouped under Paul Le Guen. In the space of four days, Cameroon beat Gabon home and away; suddenly the lead was gone and it was the Indomitable Lions rather than the Panthers who made it to South Africa.
Gabon gained some measure of revenge by beating Cameroon at the Cup of Nations in Angola – a match in which Didier Ovono established himself as probably the best goalkeeper in Africa – but it was a success on which they were unable to build. A draw against Tunisia and defeat to Zambia left them level on points with Cameroon and Zambia. They celebrated on the pitch in Benguela but, like South Africa last year, they had misunderstood how the head-to-head system worked and were knocked out on goals scored.
Although their best performance in the Cup of Nations was reaching the quarter-finals in 1996, Gabon has the feel of an emerging football nation, and on home soil the expectation will be of a place in the semis at the very least.
This is a squad with players from clubs in countries as varied as Tunisia, Belarus and Hungary, but it's notable that 11 of the squad play their domestic football at home in Gabon.
Manager Alain Giresse was replaced by German Gernot Rohr in 2010, but he's maintained a similar approach. Gabon don't score many but they don't concede many either, thanks in no small part to goalkeeper Ovono and combative centre-back Bruno Manga, whose robustness has seen him become an effective replacement for Laurent Koscielny at Lorient. And while a friendly defeat to Gambia in June caused a few ripples of anxiety, Gabon have beaten Niger and Equatorial Guinea since then, as well as putting in solid performances in defeats to Ghana and Brazil.
Coach Gernot RohrThe defender played 350 games for Bordeaux before managing them over three stints, including to a UEFA Cup final. Since then he has wandered through a number of French second division teams, as well as Young Boys of Bern, and he lasted only five months in his last job at Nantes before taking over at Gabon in February 2010.
Key player Bruno MangaManga was spotted by Bordeaux scouts, but never played for les Girondins. He impressed sufficiently at Angers, though, to earn a move to Lorient and become a regular at international level.
Key game vs Tunisia, Franceville, Jan 31If Gabon don't take six points against Niger and Morocco, this match could be edgy. It's the only game in this tightest of groups to be played outside the capital, and a runners-up spot will likely mean a quarter-final with Ghana.
Samuel Eto'o predicts... They will feel a lot of support from the home fans as a host nation, but they will also feel pressure from that. Gabon will need to create a surprise to beat one of the two big teams in their group if they are to progress.
TUNISIATalk about changing of the guard. Of the sides who have won the last nine tournaments, Tunisia are the only one to have qualified this time. Even they squeaked through behind Botswana, getting the win they needed against Togo on the final day.
Tunisia were the first African side to win a World Cup finals match (against Mexico in 1978), and have reached four World Cups. They won the Cup of Nations at home in 2004, and lifted the CHAN – the tournament restricted to players from their home country's domestic league – in Sudan last year, giving them a welcome retort to those who criticised their policy of naturalising Brazilians for much of the last decade.
But these are turbulent times, with seven changes of coach since 2008, and Tunisia seem to be struggling to find an identity now the glory years of 2002-06 are over. Although they hammered both Chad and Mali last year, they also lost to Oman and Algeria. Inconsistency rules.
Coach Sami TrabelsiOnce a rangy centre-back for CS Sfaxien in Tunisia, Trabelsi (below, left) won 52 caps for the team he now manages. The 43-year-old played at the 1998 World Cup and coached the Tunisian Olympic side. He took over as full national coach after Ammar Souayah quit following last year's uprising.
Key player Karim HagguiA tall, rugged central defender, Haggui was the youngest member of the squad that won the Cup of Nations in 2004, and is now the most experienced member in terms of caps won. He moved to Europe with Strasbourg in 2006 and, after three years at Bayer Leverkusen, is now at Hannover 96.
Samuel Eto'o predicts... So well organised, they will rightly have high hopes. They shouldn't have many troubles getting through this group.
MOROCCOThey held their nerve to qualify on the final day by beating Tanzania 3-1, but the result that really counted for Morocco was a 4-0 hammering of neighbours and rivals Algeria in June last year. It suggested Eric Gerets' approach was beginning to pay off.
Friendly results have been mixed, though, and there was a frustrating lack of cohesion to their play in Marrakech last November, both in the 1-0 defeat to Uganda and the 1-1 draw with Cameroon. Gerets' style is most effective when he has his players for a protracted period, though, so tournament football should suit this Morocco side.
Coach Eric GeretsAs a manager, the 57-year-old Belgian has won league titles in Holland, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and his home country.
Key player Marouane ChamakhThe Arsenal forward was just 20 when his goals inspired the Lions of the Atlas to the 2004 final. While he's struggled lately to get regular football for the Gunners, he offers the physical threat to make the most of the Morocco midfield's technical quality.
Samuel Eto'o predicts... Having only conceded twice in getting here, they will be a force in this group.
NIGERTalk about an odd way to qualify: Niger ended their campaign with a 3-0 defeat to what was effectively an Egypt under-23 side, but as South Africa mistakenly played for a draw against Sierra Leone and finished lower on head-to-heads, it was enough.
Niger actually lost three of their six games, but nonetheless they've qualified for the first time. Given their federation admitted it might have been unable to afford to send them to Angola had they qualified in 2010, it is quite an achievement – particularly after being grouped with Egypt and South Africa.
Coach Harouna Doula GabdeGabde makes a point of thanking God for their success, but it may have more to do with his intense, hard-pressing 4-4-2.
Key player Kassaly Daouda The goalkeeper, one of three players in the squad from Cameroonian club Coton Sport, has won over 50 caps and had a brief loan spell at Rapid Bucharest.
Samuel Eto'o predicts... Unlikely qualifiers to the tournament, they will find it tough to progress here.
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Group A: Senegal, Zambia, Equatorial Guinea & LibyaGroup B: Ivory Coast, Angola, Sudan & Burkina FasoGroup D: Ghana, Mali, Guinea & Botswana
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