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Didier Ovono, goalkeeper for Le Mans and Gabon, speaks to FourFourTwo ahead of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, co-hosted by his country.
Gabon are hosting the Nations Cup for the first time. What is the atmosphere like in the country?
The excitement in Gabon has really grown – we can feel it. We played a friendly match against Burkina Faso in Bitam, in the north of the country, and there were so many people in the stadium. I think the whole village came to watch us and to wish us well. The pressure is rising but it’s a very exciting time for Gabon.
How are you feeling personally?
I am going to have the opportunity to captain my country at a Nations Cup. And what’s more, we are going to be playing in front of our own fans. To play for the hosts in a competition like this, and to wear the armband, is truly a great honour. I’ll give everything I have got to make the people happy and proud of the team.
Gabon haven’t made it past the first round at a Nations Cup since 1996. Is it time to buck that trend?
I think so. The supporters are starting to believe we could do something really special. This time we are at home, and we’ll be playing in full stadiums. So why not try to go even further than the quarter-finals this time and give our people some real joy?
Can we say that reaching the semi-finals is your objective?
No. When you are the host nation you have to set out with the aim of going all the way to the final. Of course, there are some teams competing who are ranked higher than us by FIFA. We are not the favourites, but the host nation always has an outside chance. It’s going to be like playing with 12 men because the supporters will give us wings.
There’s no reason why we can’t dream of being in the last four. Then we’ll see. It’s a knockout competition from the quarter-finals onwards, so anything can happen. There can be surprises.
You’ve been pooled with Niger, Morocco and Tunisia. What do you think of the draw and which opponent are you most wary of?
This may be surprising but I’d say I’m most wary of Niger, because they really don’t have anything to lose. They have a cavalier approach and always try to score goals. We beat them 1-0 in a friendly but it won’t be easy to contain them. Don’t forget they knocked out Egypt in qualifying, so they are a good side. [Ed: Nonetheless, Gabon beat Niger 2-0 in their first match of the 2012 tournament.]
In a way, I’m more concerned about them than Morocco and Tunisia. We know what the North African sides are like. They play good technical passing football. But we can also get the ball down and pass.
Morocco look strong on paper. Are they the group favourites?
Morocco is a great footballing nation. We beat them home and away in the (2010) World Cup qualifying campaign but that was before Eric Gerets became their manager. They are becoming a top nation once more under Gerets. They’re definitely stronger now than two years ago, but we haven’t got any weaker either. We have an excellent generation of players who are reaching maturity together.
There is certainly continuity in the Gabon squad, with 14 players retained from the 2010 Nations Cup. You must know each other extremely well now?
Most of us have been together since the Under-20 tournament in 2003. This generation has been on an exciting journey together, evolving from youngsters to established professionals.
I have a really strong relationship with some of my team-mates. Some of the guys came to my wedding, and we go on holiday together. We’re not just team-mates. A lot of us have known each other since the ages of eight or nine. I’ve experienced everything with them. They’re like family.
It’s an exciting moment for this generation. We understand why we didn’t go further in Angola two years ago, and we’ll make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again.
Why didn’t you manage to get past the group stage in 2010?
We were eliminated because we thought about the situation too much. We had four points after two games so we were in a strong position. But we started making calculations, trying to work out what we needed to go through. We ended up losing everything at the last moment.
Your club Le Mans are struggling in the French second tier at the moment and you haven’t played much this season. What is going on exactly?
The situation has got a bit complicated. I had a good season with Le Mans in Ligue 1 (in 2009/10) and then stayed with them last season after we were relegated. We were almost promoted straight away but narrowly missed out. Then there were several Ligue 1 clubs that wanted to sign me in the summer, but Le Mans didn’t want to let me go.
My current deal runs out in the summer and I have turned down several offers to extend the contract. I want to have the final say over my next move. I have a family now and responsibilities. I want to be able to choose which club and which city we are going to live in next. Unfortunately the club wasn’t happy and the coach decided to leave me out. That’s why Giorgi Makaridze has been playing more than me in the league.
You are just the latest in a long line of African players to have succeeded at Le Mans. Didier Drogba, Stephane Sessegnon and Romaric have all played there in the past...
Daniel Cousin and Gervinho too. That’s why I joined Le Mans. They have very strong links with Africa and they treat their players well. The president [Henri Legarda] likes African players and has developed a strong network in Africa. They are very good at finding talent.
What do you miss about Africa?
I miss my family more than anything. I am lucky now because my wife and daughter are with me all the time. It wasn’t easy at the beginning, though, because I was on my own.
I found the winters really hard. It was so cold! People kept saying "Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it – just put on another jumper." But I couldn’t cope. It was cold, grey and wet all the time.
I used to cry a lot when I was on my own. It took a while but I have got used to it now. The thing I miss most these days is African food!
What do you think of the new Puma shirt?
The shirt is fantastic. It’s tight-fitting, so you feel snug in it. The great thing is that you don’t sweat in it – or if you do sweat you don’t feel it, because your body can really breathe and the sweat seems to disappear. That is very important when you are playing in Africa. If you are soaked in sweat you get weighed down.
We’re also really impressed and proud of the fluorescent image of the panther that appears on the front of the shirt. The design was done by a stylist here in Gabon who found this very clever way of having the panther coming out across the front of the shirt. We’ll wear the shirt with real pride.
Follow Didier Ovono's full African football story at puma.com/football.
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