13 November 2009 ~ The possible qualifiers from the African section for the World Cup finals have a familiar look with nearly all having graced the tournament at one point or another during its history. Major names such as Nigeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Cameroon all have a chance to make it, while Ivory Coast and Ghana have already booked their places in the first World Cup to be held in Africa. As the final round of games comes up this weekend, though, there is one unforeseen team on the list of potential 2010 qualifiers.
Gabon go into this weekend with an outside shot of making the finals. They won away to Morocco in their first group game but have since lost twice to rivals Cameroon. They need Cameroon to slip up in Morocco to stand a chance but will come into their game with Togo with nothing to lose. French coach Alain Giresse has worked wonders with a team that has no major stars, Daniel Cousin of Hull City being the only name recognisable to British fans. If they did qualify they would be one of the smallest countries in terms of population to have done so.
Sadly though, the country is not entirely focused on the football this weekend. Earlier in the year, the president Omar Bongo died in Spain after a 41-year reign. Omar's party, PDG, soon announced that his son Ali Bongo would be running for president. This prompted widespread debate with sections of the media questioning whether the new president should come from the old regime. Gabon's oil resources have enriched the elite – and indeed led to their football clubs importing players from elsewhere in Africa – but the country as a whole is mired in poverty.
After a fractious election campaign, Ali Bongo was announced as the country's new president. This led to rioting, with the opposition supporters setting fire to a French consulate and rampaging on a prison, setting inmates free. The opposition leader, André Mba Obame, refused to recognise the result. It was only in the last few weeks that Ali Bongo was able to swear himself in.
The unrest has not stopped there with one of Ali's top aides resigning and six independent newspapers being suspended for criticising the president's regime, all in recent days. The new president has made a point of showing up to the national team's home World Cup qualifiers but his popularity does not seem to have been boosted by the association. Though World Cup qualification would represent a huge achievement for such a poor and small country, it will not be the first thing on the minds of the Gabonese public this week. Sean Bower