Libreville, Gabon- Shock qualifiers Guinea-Bissau face hosts Gabon Saturday in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations opener, hoping to continue a Leicester City-like run in the competition.
Traditional underachievers Leicester were the sensational winners of the 2015-2016 English Premier League, giving football minnows across the world belief that nothing is impossible.
The west Africans were dismissed as ‘cannon fodder’ two years ago in an elimination group including former champions Zambia and Congo Brazzaville.
But they finished first with a game to spare after back-to-back victories over Kenya and a thrilling triumph against Zambia in a packed Bissau stadium.
Now, a rusty squad known as the ‘wild dogs’ whose last competitive match was four months ago, must raise their game to an even higher level in their Cup of Nations tournament debut.
“We eliminated former champions Congo and Zambia and can perform even better. The squad will work ceaselessly to achieve good results,” promised coach Baciro Cande.
“My squad comprises 23 proud professional footballers who are thinking only of bringing joy to the people of Guinea-Bissau.
“The best way to achieve that is by winning matches and qualifying for the quarter-finals in our Africa Cup debut.
While virtually all the Guinea-Bissau squad are unknown beyond the borders of the former Portuguese colony, Gabon boast a superstar in striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The 27-year-old Borussia Dortmund goal machine, born in France to a Gabonese father and Spanish mother, has a particular desire to succeed in front of his home crowd.
When Gabon co-hosted the 2012 Cup of Nations with Equatorial Guinea, they were eliminated by Mali in the quarter-finals on penalties.
Only one spot-kick in the shootout was missed and the culprit was Aubameyang, whose father Pierre Aubame once captained the national team known as the Panthers.
The striker wept as he left the Libreville pitch, saying “my people expected more from me. I am so disappointed to have let them down.”
Gabon played competitively only twice last year — failing to score in World Cup draws with Morocco and Mali — leaving Spanish coach Jose-Antonio Camacho a tad apprehensive.
The former Real Madrid and Spain handler took charge only last month after underperforming Portuguese Jorge Costa was axed.
Depleted Cameroon face unpredictable Burkina Faso in the second match of an opening-day Group A double-header at the 40,000-seat Stade de l’Amitie in the Gabon capital.
Eight of the Cameroon preliminary squad withdrew, including Liverpool defender Joel Matip and Schalke striker Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting, saying their club careers took priority.
“We are victims of blackmail,” lamented official Simon Lyonga, accusing European club managers of encouraging players to snub the 23-day African football festival.
When the dust settled, Belgium-born coach Hugo Broos named regular Lorient scorer Benjamin Moukandjo as the new skipper of the Indomitable Lions.
Predicting how the Burkinabe will perform under Portuguese coach Paulo Duarte is a hazardous task.
No-hopers in 2013, they reached the final before losing narrowly to Nigeria. A couple of years later, they performed woefully, bowing out after the first round without a win.