Veteran Gabon goalkeeper Didier Ovono has called for the country to unite behind the team as they face the prospect of having to beat Cameroon on Sunday to stay in the Africa Cup of Nations.
The Panthers have so far only managed two 1-1 draws against Guinea-Bissau and Burkina Faso, form that has not been good enough to rouse the central African state hit by violence after a contested presidential election last year.
“We have come here to play for Gabon. There will be time after the Africa Cup of Nations to dress the wounds,” 33-year-old Ovono, who plays his club football in Belgium, told AFP on Friday.
There were calls for a boycott of the Cup of Nations by opponents of President Ali Bongo, who was declared the winner of the disputed election at the expense of rival Jean Ping.
Ovono, who played in the Gabon side that lost in the quarter-finals as co-hosts in 2012, says he understands why some in the country of 1.8 million people have wanted to take such action.
“The point of view of the call for a boycott for me is legitimate, but for us footballers at this moment, we need the people of Gabon to be behind us,” he said.
There have been some empty seats at the Stade de l’Amitie, with its capacity of almost 40,000, in each of Gabon’s games thus far as two goals by star man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have not been enough to register a win.
The French-born Borussia Dortmund striker is the figurehead of Jose Antonio Camacho’s side but has yet to open up to the media, something which Ovono defended.
“Pierre is at a point where he needs to be 100 percent focused on his football. He has chosen to stay silent. But he shows out on the field that he is 100 percent with us and that is the most important thing,” said Ovono.
Gabon have been weakened by the losses of both Juventus midfielder Mario Lemina and the full-back Johann Obiang to injuries.
If they win, they will leapfrog current group leaders Cameroon and advance to the last eight, but a defeat would see them become just the fourth of 33 Cup of Nations hosts to be eliminated at the first hurdle.
A draw would leave them hoping for a favourable result in the other group game, but a point will do for their opponents.