JOHANNESBURG, July 21 – No one is more surprised than coach and former French football icon Alain Giresse that Gabon are on track for a place at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.The ‘Panthers’ were within seven minutes of being eliminated from the race in the first qualifying phase and Giresse all but conceded defeat when drawn with Cameroon, Morocco and Togo in the final round.
"I think Cameroon and Morocco will battle it out for top spot in our group and Gabon will be happy if we can make it into the top three," said the man who set the football fields of Europe alight two decades ago.
A top-three finish in a pool completed by shock 2006 World Cup qualifiers Togo would give Gabon a place at the 2010 African Nations Cup in Angola, and many observers felt even that hurdle would prove too steep.
But eight months later Gabon have beaten Morocco away and Togo at home to take a two-point lead with a game in hand and a first appearance at the World Cup for the tiny central African nation is no longer a distant dream.
Home victories over Cameroon in September and Morocco a month later would eliminate the "big two" from the Group A contest, leaving only Togo as potential party poopers.
As diminutive 56-year-old Giresse wakes up some days in tranquil Libreville, his mind must wander back to early last year when he quit after a home loss to Cameroon in the African Nations Championship triggered public and media fury.
An unexpected 2-1 away win for Gabon in the first edition of a competition reserved for home-based footballers raised hopes of a rare success over their neighbours and the country found a 2-0 home defeat difficult to accept.
"The people were not happy with me and there was media criticism without understanding who we were playing against and who we are. The sports minister convinced me to carry on and here we are," explained Giresse.
Gabon have risen 26 places to third on the FIFA African rankings in two years, an amazing achievement for a country with one of the smallest pools of footballers on the continent.
The team that trounced Emmanuel Adebayor-led Togo 3-0 last month included four footballers from France, one each from Belarus, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia and Turkey plus two locals.
Easily the best known current Gabonese footballer, Hull City striker Daniel Cousin, was injured, leaving unknowns Bruno Ecuele, Roguy Meye and Moise Brou to score.
Cousin shared the scepticism of Giresse after the draw: "I think Cameroon will top Group A, but we are capable of finishing second ahead of Morocco and Togo.
"People do not know what good players we have because none of my team-mates play for major European clubs. We take hope from Togo because they are a small team like us that went all the way to the World Cup."
Gabon did not enter the first six qualifying competitions in Africa for the quadrennial World Cup and apart from a 2-1 home win over Nigeria made little impact until this year.
Giresse, who featured for France beside fellow midfield magicians like Michel Platini and Jean Tigana, insists credit for the rise and rise of the ‘Panthers’ is shared.
"The successes belong to all. To the coach who made the best choice of players and tactics and to the players who executed the style of play," said the former Toulouse (twice), PSG, FAR Rabat and Georgia coach.
"I expect my players to always be committed and ready to achieve something big. Then, if they should be beaten by a better team, that is sport. The key issue is to always have the feeling that you gave everything you had."