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Gabon’s troubled Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign, which ended in failure at the weekend amidst tensions surrounding their star man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, must be a lesson for some of Africa's biggest teams.
As has been the case before, a superstar player has found himself playing in a national team with the kind of players he wouldn’t usually be rubbing shoulders with at international level.
It’s a dynamic that, to one degree or another, has been experienced by all of Africa’s top national sides, with many simultaneously containing players who ply their trade in local leagues, in some of the world’s backwaters, and some of the planet’s top divisions.
It’s a tough dynamic to manage, and while Florent Ibenge, for example, has successfully integrated players from all backgrounds into his Democratic Republic of Congo side, Gabon have consistently failed to achieve the same atmosphere.
The Panthers have many talented players; midfielders Mario Lemina and Didier Ndong would compete for a spot in any of the continent’s squads, even if both have their own troubles, while Bruno Ecuele Manga has been a key contributor for Cardiff City during their return to the Premier League and battle against the drop.
He’d compete for a spot in Nigeria’s defence, for example, and would certainly start for the likes of Ghana, Burkina Faso or Mali.
Andre Poko, Denis Bouanga and Lloyd Palun are all also talented operators who should have had enough to lift Gabon above Burundi, yet this collective have become prisoners to the whims of their star man Aubameyang.
While the striker was originally lauded for his decision to commit to Gabon ahead of France or Spain, his relationship with the local public has waned in recent years.
Tensions with Fegafoot haven’t helped—he was reportedly furious after the decision was taken to axe the coaching staff, including his father Pierre senior, and appoint Jose Antonio Camacho ahead of the 2017 Nations Cup on home soil.
Aubameyang played, but was largely anonymous, with his teammates lacking a Plan B beyond simply attempting to get the ball to their star man.
Egypt, whose collective quality is also dwarfed by a superstar in the form of Mohamed Salah, have also encountered this problem, but at least the Liverpool man has been constantly committed to the cause, with only injury or fatigue keeping him from taking to the field with the Pharaohs.
Gabon haven’t had this luxury, with Auba picking and choosing when he turns up to play for the national side.
He was present against Burundi, yes, but didn’t show up for the victory against South Sudan or the critical defeat by Mali, as Gabon lost crucial points on the road to Egypt.
The build-up to the Burundi meeting was overshadowed by concerns about whether or not Aubameyang would turn up; he missed one flight last Tuesday when it had been anticipated that he would join the camp, having previously stated that he was strongly considering whether or not to retire from the international game altogether.
It represented a disastrous build-up for the Central Africans, and while Aubameyang did ultimately receive a hero’s welcome when he arrived in his homeland, fans turned on him in the aftermath of the draw.
One supporter on Twitter—as noted by The Sun—pointed out that Gabon had won more games without the forward over the last three years than with him.
Indeed, against Burundi, Auba didn’t justify his standing within the squad, aimlessly sending a late free kick in a dangerous position into the goalkeeper’s arms, when a player of his quality, experience and stature really should have done better.
"I want football to become more professional in Gabon,” the forward once told journalists, as per the Express. “It’s what the players deserve.
“That is what is lacking, and it is the reason why I sometimes don’t turn up to play.”
He may have a point, but his handling of the situation is exasperating the problem, rather than assuaging it. Contrast, for example, Aubameyang’s actions with those of Salah, who returned to the field even after criticising the Egyptian FA for their behaviour during the World Cup.618
Fegafoot’s indulgence of Aubameyang tacitly tolerated this non-committal attitude, allowing it to fester, and ultimately undermining the Panthers’ campaign.
Their internal problems must come as a warning to both Ghana and Nigeria.
The former should know better, after their 2014 World Cup campaign was completely overshadowed by frissons within the camp.
Ahead of the tournament, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng were all allowed to return to the fold, despite having stayed away from the team during the qualifying campaign.
Their presence arguably disrupted the camp, with the latter two ultimately expelled during the tournament—one which descended into a farce for the Black Stars—and handed indefinite bans.
It was yet further evidence that superstar egos can have a devastating effect on a national side, distracting a team and undermining unity.
Yet it’s a situation that threatens to repeat itself again for the Black Stars, with the Ayew brothers returning—just in time for the tournament itself—after their latest international exile; the duo only recently returned to the fold after opting out of Ghana's World Cup qualifier against Congo-Brazzaville in September 2017.
That wasn't the first time the pair have taken time off from the national side; they both quit the team in early 2013—aged 23 and 21—amidst intensifying disagreements with the Ghana FA.
They’re talented players, but neither are setting the world alight at club level, and Jordan, in particular, has been the cause of internal strife in the past.
Kwadwo Asamoah, who recently returned from a four-year international absence, now appears to be at logger-heads with the Ghana FA over a dispute about his best position.
Will player power win out again, and should it, in this instance, with Ghana having reached an Afcon final and a semi-final without Kojo in recent years?
After being omitted from Kwesi Appiah's latest @ghanafaofficial squad, @ASAMOAH_GYAN3's hopes of a final Black Stars swansong at the Africa Cup of Nations may be dwindling...https://t.co/0QTffBjFqR pic.twitter.com/I3cx56yOCV— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) August 27, 2018
Asamoah Gyan, Ghana’s record goalscorer and current skipper, is in a similar position. Will he be allowed to return—or even pursued—despite having been a peripheral figure during Kwesi Appiah’s second tenure?
Perhaps, as had been the case with Essien in 2014, the players’ experience, value to the team, and injury record, will be used as excuses to justify their absences, and allow them to return in time for the tournament itself.
For Nigeria, a largely trouble-free build-up to the Nations Cup is in danger of being overshadowed by the ‘will he, won’t he?’ question, this time surrounding captain John Obi Mikel.
Like Ghana, the Super Eagles booked their ticket to the Afcon without Mikel, who hasn’t taken to the field for the national side since the World Cup, when his father was kidnapped, in a traumatic incident for the player.
Obviously, there have been mitigating circumstances, but even now, despite playing regularly with Middlesbrough, Mikel isn’t joining up with his teammates in order to help foster unity and team spirit within the squad, and to build an on-field rapport with newer faces such as Henry Onyekuru, Samuel Kalu and Paul Onuachu.
Nigeria, on the field, will be stronger with Mikel in the heart of the park, but in allowing the Middlesbrough midfielder to prioritise a promotion push ahead of an international, are the Super Eagles in danger of inviting an Aubameyang-sized schism?
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