LIBREVILLE, Gabon (AP) - One of the hottest strikers in Europe, and with a point to prove to his home fans, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will lead host team Gabon’s hopes in the opening game of the African Cup of Nations on Saturday.
Gabon’s opponent is the biggest underdog the championship has seen in years. Guinea-Bissau is playing in its first African Cup - its first major tournament of any kind - and gets the chance to spoil the party for Aubameyang and 40,000 Gabonese fans in Libreville.
Some things to know ahead of the first day of action at the African Cup:
AUBAMEYANG SEEKS REDEMPTION
Aubameyang, the Borussia Dortmund striker and leading scorer in the Bundesliga, has wrongs to right when he returns to the Stade de l’Amitie in the Gabonese capital. His last act here in the Cup of Nations was to have his penalty saved in a shootout in the quarterfinals in 2012, the decisive miss that saw Gabon eliminated from the tournament it was co-hosting. That was a crushing blow to Gabon’s fans, and to the country’s First Lady, who wore an Aubameyang shirt with his No. 9 on the back that day. Fast forward five years and Aubameyang has become one of Europe’s hottest attacking properties, and apparently the subject of serious interest from Real Madrid. He’s undoubtedly still the home team’s talisman and has added motivation this year.
WILD DOGS, HUGE UNDERDOGS
Nicknamed the Wild Dogs, Guinea-Bissau is a huge underdog. No one is giving the team from a former Portuguese colony with no real soccer pedigree a chance at this tournament but the Wild Dogs’ emergence from the soccer wilderness has been remarkable. Less than a decade ago, Guinea-Bissau couldn’t even put a national team together and didn’t enter qualifying for the African Cup. Now, with a squad made up of players from the lower leagues in Portugal, Guinea-Bissau has the chance to continue the African Cup’s tradition of always throwing up a major surprise or two.
CAMEROON’S LONG WAY BACK
As always with the African Cup, the early rounds will see two group games played back-to-back on the same night at the same stadium. Cameroon vs. Burkina Faso will follow Gabon-Guinea-Bissau at the Stade de l’Amitie on the outskirts of Gabon’s seaside Atlantic Ocean capital. Cameroon faces a long journey back to gaining some respect again. Once the pace-setters of African soccer when it was the continent’s first quarterfinalist at the World Cup in 1990 and a four-time African champion, Cameroon has fallen a long way. It’s lost all six of its games at the last two World Cups, and failed to qualify for two out of the last three African Cups. When it did qualify last time, it limped home without a win. This year’s squad has been decimated after a string of star players decided not to play in Gabon.
POPULAR OR UNPOPULAR PRESIDENT?
Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose wife is the big Aubameyang fan, visited the Stade de l’Amitie on Friday to check up on the final preparations, smiling for cameras in a flowing cream and gold-trimmed robe. The reception the president receives at Saturday’s game will be intriguing. Gabon’s tournament has an undercurrent of unease after Bongo reclaimed power in a disputed election last year that was followed by clashes and deaths on the streets. The opposition has been vocal on social media in its calls for people to use the Cup of Nations to protest. Saturday’s opening games, under tight security anyway, will be watched closely by the security forces.
MONEY PROBLEMS - AGAIN
Disputes between players and their bosses over money are becoming a constant in African soccer. Congo is the latest team to go on strike because it hasn’t been paid, with players boycotting a training session at their base in the remote northern town of Oyem on Friday. Their protest follows Guinea-Bissau and Zimbabwe players threatening to not travel to Gabon unless they were given money promised to them.
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