Sports

Reluctant Leader Aubameyang Tasked with Delivering Peace and Glory to Gabon

As captain and star player for hosts Gabon, there is tremendous focus on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at this year's Africa Cup of Nations. But the 27-year-old is visibly stressed, with the weight of a troubled country resting on his shoulders.

by Barney Cullum
Jan 18 2017, 2:47pm

PA Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Gabon's First Lady was not the only spectator left heartbroken when her favourite player's missed penalty cost the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations co-hosts a place in the semi-finals. However, having chosen to wear a replica Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang canary yellow shirt to the game, it was Sylvia Bongo that the cameras trained their lenses on.

Five years on, Gabon are hosting again and the Bongos are in the media glare once more. You may have read elsewhere about last year's political protests, but likely not in any great detail. Only upon entering Gabon these past few days on one-off sports media visas have journalists been able to do any serious exploration.

The picture is now becoming clearer. Back in 2014, when the President approved a bid to stage the tournament independently for the first time, the economy was growing. "Since then it has stalled," Snella Pambot, a journalist with Gabonese TV network TeleAfrica, tells VICE Sports. Some jobs have been created by the Cup of Nations – notably for a new generation of broadband engineers – but not as many as have been lost during a crash caused by the drop in the price of oil, upon which Gabon's relative prosperity has always relied.

Ironically, the new fibre optic cables Ali Bongo had taken such pride in paved the way for the coordination, via social media, of the large protest in Libreville last year that followed the contested election. "There is no evidence that people were killed in the protests, as has been reported in France, Europe and America," Pambot says, "but it is true that the International Criminal Court are seeking access to the country this year to carry out an enquiry. When you are a small country of only one and a half million people, even a protest of 1,000 people is big, is significant."

President Ali Bongo visits Stade de l'Amitie in Libreville ahead of the tournament's opening ceremony // PA Images

While the tournament may yet leave an economic legacy, the Gabonese public are impatient after two years of treading water. They are sick of waiting for tomorrow. This can be further understood in the context that "independent" Gabon has always been ruled by one Bongo or another. Ali Bongo's father was the world's longest serving President, longer than Robert Mugabe, until his death in 2009 saw power bequeathed.

It would be wrong to say that it feels overly tense on the streets here in capital city Libreville at the moment. Nevertheless, everyone we speak to acknowledges that the country desperately needs something to celebrate – something abstract and joyful – after more than six months of division and restlessness.

Just after half-time in the tournament's opening match on Saturday, contested by the hosts and tiny Guinea-Bissau, the moment appeared to have arrived. Aubameyang, the Panthers' most agile player, stretched a knee just high enough to deflect a looping ball into the path of a teammate. The Borussia Dortmund striker, the fastest player in Africa, then peeled away to the back post and accelerated over a few quick strides to tap home the opening goal from a driven cross-shot.

READ MORE: How the African Cup of Nations Became a Propaganda Tool

Cue vuvuzela delirium and dancing from Bongo supporters and opponents alike. It was wonderful and joyous. In a stadium overlooking lush rainforest to the east and pink and yellow rooftops to the west, Gabon felt happy, united and beautiful.

It was not to last. To this reporter's eyes, Guinea-Bissau were the better of two limited sides and it was no surprise when Gabon conceded a last-minute equaliser. Cheers turned to jeers. Aubameyang has gone to ground since. The 27-year-old is visibly stressed, refusing all media duties and fearing his home soil adventure could end prematurely again – and with more outcry than last time.

In Germany, the Bundesliga player of the year is known as a smiley, upbeat personality. But here in Gabon, the task of lifting a team and country crying out for a hero seems beyond him. Detached in training sessions, the former AC Milan striker spends most of the time sat in a dugout checking his phone. He has been retweeting his Opta stats but the country expect more than they witnessed on Saturday and he will be the prime scapegoat in the event of early elimination.

Gabon's players celebrate their goal in the opening game // PA Images

Back at the team's dull Nomad Hotel – an out-of-towner backing on to a supermarket – Aubameyang takes his phone off the hook, holes up in his room and only surfaces for occasional business meetings with a t-shirt designer and a headphone entrepreneur. He seems unhappy except when visited by his brother and wholly uncomfortable with his status as talisman.

We ask Gabon's vice-captain – the Cardiff City centre-back Bruno Manga – how his skipper is coping with leading the national side of what the world knows to be a troubled country.

"There are too many political problems at the moment," Manga concedes, speaking softly and sounding burdened himself. "Although the country seems calm, the environment is very different to 2012. On top of the fact some people do not like the President, we also feel the expectation from the public this time is that they want us to reach the semi-finals or final. If we were to do that, it would be the first time in our history."

READ MORE: The Bizarre Tragedy of Zaire's World Cup Debut

Although the central African nation's ranking is skewed by the fact that hosts play few competitive games in the run up to tournaments, being the lowest-ranked side in the competition can do little to foster hope among the squad.

"The side are not enjoying being the host nation," the camp's official translator tells VICE Sports. "We can only enjoy it when we start winning." The next opportunity is Wednesday (18 January), when the Panthers take on Burkina Faso's Stallions. While a defeat would not eliminate Gabon, it would almost certainly mean they would be left needing to defeat four-time African champions Cameroon to extend their run at a tournament in which so much is invested.

Photo by Barney Cullum

"Football, like no other sport, can create a spirit of unity, equality and inclusion," President Bongo said on the eve of the tournament. For now, for Aubameyang and the Gabon team, football is proving spirt-sapping. We are filing this from the Cameroon team hotel, where the Indomitable Lions have just returned from training. They are singing happily, freely, to a track by popular Ivorian girl group Espoir 2000, music laid on by the staff to greet their arrival. They are proudly welcomed by veterans like Roger Milla, Geremi and Patrick M'Boma, who through their experience are taking all the pressure off what is another young squad. The contrast between the camps is stark. You cannot help but wish Gabon well for Wednesday.

@bdocullum