Aubameyang leads hosts Gabon into Cup of Nations opener

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Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Dortmund celebrating his fourth goal during the German first division Bundesliga football match between Hamburg SV and BVB Borussia Dortmund in Hamburg, northern Germany
German Bundesliga club Dortmund denied on January 4, 2017 a rumor circulating on Internet that the Chinese club of Shanghai SIPG made a record offer for Aubameyang of 150 million euros. / AFP PHOTO / CARMEN JASPERSEN

Gabon lifts the curtain Saturday on the Africa Cup of Nations with the hosts, spearheaded by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, playing minnows Guinea-Bissau in the opening match in Libreville.

The first match in Group A in the 16-team competition, preceded by the opening ceremony, was set to begin at 1600 GMT at the Stade de l’Amitie in the Gabonese capital. It was there that Zambia beat the Ivory Coast on penalties in the 2012 final.

The build-up to the tournament has been marked by political tension and protests are planned to coincide with the start of the event.

Cameroon, four-time winners of the Cup of Nations but troubled by a raft of withdrawals of leading players, and Burkina Faso, the other teams in Group A, meet at the same venue at 1900 GMT.

Gabon are bidding to win the continental title for the first time, 60 years on from the inaugural Cup of Nations, and are pinning their hopes on French-born Borussia Dortmund striker Aubameyang.

“Pierre is one of the best players in the world. Gabon are lucky to have him,” the Panthers’ Spanish coach Jose Antonio Camacho said ahead of the opening match when asked about the importance of the 27-year-old, African player of the year in 2015.

“It will be difficult for Gabon to go far if Aubameyang is not at his best.”

Guinea-Bissau caused a sensation when they qualified for the finals for the first time but while the side known as the ‘wild dogs’ will be desperate to seize their opportunity on the international stage, they could also be forgiven for feeling rather rusty.

After all, Baciro Cande’s team have not played a competitive match in four months.

“Guinea-Bissau have nothing to lose and everything to win. For us it is the opposite,” said Camacho.

Cameroon are one of the most successful teams in the history of the Cup of Nations but have arguably their weakest ever squad this year.

That is after several leading players, notably Liverpool defender Joel Matip and Schalke striker Eric Choupo-Moting, rejected call-ups from coach Hugo Broos to focus on their club careers.

“Times are changing. Before, certain players were happy to come and play for Cameroon,” said the Belgian as he suggested moving the tournament to a different time of year.

“I think the Cup of Nations needs to be played at a different time of the year. It doesn’t come around at a good time.”

Burkina Faso, the 2013 runners-up coached by the Portuguese Paulo Duarte, will hope to take advantage of their opponents’ troubled build-up.

– Bonus row –

Another side enduring a problematic build-up to the tournament are DR Congo, whose players refused to train on Friday because of a row over the payment of bonuses.

“It has been like this for years and years now. We prepare well for our matches and at the end there is always a problem with bonuses,” declared Congolese captain Youssouf Mulumbu in a video posted on Twitter.

“Having said that, on January 16 we will fiercely defend our flag,” he added ahead of the Leopards’ opening game in Group C against Morocco in Oyem on Monday.

Zimbabwe had initially refused to fly to Gabon due to a dispute over bonuses which has now been resolved.

The build-up to this Cup of Nations has been played out to a backdrop of social and political tension in the central African country.

President Ali Bongo’s election win last year is disputed by supporters of rival candidate Jean Ping and an opposition demonstration was planned to take place in Libreville on Saturday, coinciding with the opening games.

The Cup of Nations features 32 matches and runs until February 5, when the final will be played in Libreville.

Games will also be played in Oyem, Port-Gentil and Franceville, where the Algeria of newly-crowned African player of the year Riyad Mahrez meet outsiders Zimbabwe and Tunisia take on Senegal in Group B on Sunday.

Reigning champions Ivory Coast begin their defence of the trophy against Togo in Group C on Monday.

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