Gernot Rohr enjoyed a long playing career at Bordeaux and has held some plum postings as a coach, but that won?t be enough to win over skeptics in the central African nation of Gabon, where Rohr took over the helm of the national team in early 2010.
Rohr replaced the popular Alain Giresse, who left for Mali, and Gabon supporters have been slow to embrace the 58 year-old native German, notwithstanding his French fluency and affection for the natural wonders of the country.
Appearing relaxed as he reclined and sipped espresso in the lobby of the team hotel, comfortably clad in a blue Gabon training outfit and flip-flops, the spry and sandy-haired Rohr acknowledged that the expectations of the country, co-hosts for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, may be unrealistically high.
The Panthers have never advanced past the quarterfinals of the tournament and were drawn into a tough group that includes North African powers Morocco and Tunisia.
Gabon?s easiest contest may be the group?s opening match on Monday against the Menas of Niger, who are making their first AFCON appearance but stunned three-peat cup-holders Egypt in the qualifying rounds.
?The first game is already a final,? said Rohr.
?We played against them in September in a friendly. They?re a very aggressive team, for me one of the most physical teams. They won against South Africa and they eliminated Egypt. When you have these results you really must say they have a strong team.?
Rohr admitted Gabon can?t afford anything less than three points against Niger.
?Yes, yes, we must win the first game. It would be very, very difficult to play Morocco and Tunisia when you don?t win the first game. Everyone says the most difficult game is Morocco but for me it?s Niger. They have all local players except one, Maazou (striker Moussa Mazzou, currently with Zulte Waregem in Belgium). They?re really one group and have worked together in camp since the beginning of December.?
Forward Daniel Cousin, Gabon?s most celebrated and experienced player, may not be available at the start of the tournament.
?Daniel Cousin didn?t play for five months. He was injured. Now he?s coming back. The first time he started was last Monday (in a tune-up against Sudan). Perhaps he?s missing a little physical condition to start the competition.?
But Rohr touted a couple of his younger players who feature in Gabon?s Olympic team, unexpected winners in the recent Africa U23 championship in Morocco.
?We have some young players who can play a big tournament. Our number 14 Levy Matinda is only nineteen. He?s an attacking midfielder and playmaker. We have our number 15 Biyogo Poko. I brought him to Bordeaux two or three months ago. He?s a defensive midfielder with a big impact on the game.?
Rohr remains sober about the team?s prospects, admitting he?d be pleased to advance to the second round but that keeping his job will depend on more.
?Because we are at home, everyone would dismiss it if we reach the quarterfinals, but it would be a surprise.?
As AFCON fever builds to fever pitch in Libreville, Rohr will be challenged to maintain his equanimity.
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