Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Road to 2010: Gabon Takes Wrong Turn

It was the African Cinderella story. The little country that had never been anywhere and never done much of anything ... was one victory away from seizing control of its group and taking the inside track to qualifying out of its group to South Africa 2010.

But in five days, the fairy tale unraveled for Gabon at the hands of Cameroon, which has an infinitely richer soccer history -- six World Cup appearances, four African championships -- and far more players competing in major European leagues ... and now Gabon has to hope Cameroon will go back to stubbing its toe.

I feel badly for Gabon. Because all 1.5 million people in the little West African country had nearly three full months to daydream about how wonderful it would be to get to the finals ... and then Cameroon came along to return the situation to, well, normalcy.

It was pretty straightforward.

On Saturday, Gabon sat atop Africa Group A with six points and Cameroon was at the bottom with one. If Gabon could win at home, in Libreville, it would have nine points, and Cameroon would be all but done ... and what a nice story for Gabon -- best known in the U.S. as a nature preserve and setting for the most recent installment of the reality television series "Survivor."

But Cameroon, under new coach Paul Le Guen, survived an early Gabonese onslaught and got goals from forward Samuel Eto'o (Inter Milan), three-time African footballer of the year, and midfielder Achille Emana (Real Betis) to win 2-0.

The teams met again today, at Yaounde in Cameroon, and Eto'o scored again, as did midfielder Jean Makoun (Lyon). One of Gabon's few well-known players, forward Daniel Cousin (Hull City) scored in the 90th minute, and the Gabonese had a decent shot or two in extra time ... but couldn't get that precious second goal.

And now Cameroon has zoomed to the top of the Group A standings, and Gabon needs help.

Gabon probably needs to finish with victories next month (home to Morocco) and in Novermber (at Togo) ... and hope Cameroon stumbles, either at home against Togo or at Morocco.

An odd sidelight to this World cup campaign, gone so suddenly wrong for Gabon, is that the death of the country's presodent may have played a role in its demise. The first match with Cameroon was to have been played in Gabon on June 20, but President Omar Bongo died after 42 years of rule, and his state funeral was held on June 19.

Back in June, Cameroon was a confused mess, having lost at Togo and played a scoreless draw at home to Morocco, and if Gabon has been able to play Cameroon back then, before Le Guin came in and revived the Indomitable Lions ... maybe Gabon wins and takes a commanding lead in the group.

Instead, Gabon asked for the match to be pushed back, and it was set for Sept. 5, with the return to Cameroon moved to Sept. 9, and now Gabon is in trouble.

A hard thing, for Gabon. It may be a while before it gets close enough again to a World Cup to taste it.

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