Gabon agonisingly exit AFCON as poor pitches draw injuries and criticism

By Samindra Kunti

January 23 – Despite being unbeaten, Gabon became only the fourth hosts in history to exit the Africa Cup of Nations at the group stage – and the first for 23 years – as concerns continue to mount over the state of pitches at Africa’s flagship event.

After a rallying call from Gabon president Ali Bongo, who personally visited the team, the hosts went into the game against Cameroon at the weekend knowing they had to win to guarantee qualification from Group A, but despite a flurry of chances crashed out after three straight draws.

Denis Bouanga was denied a last-gasp winner when his shot crashed back off the post. The rebound sat up perfectly for Didier N’Dong but with the goal at his mercy his effort was pushed over the bar brilliantly by Cameroon goalkeeper Ondoa.

Joining Cameroon in the last eight were Burkina Faso following a 2-0 win over debutants Guinea Bissau but highly fancied Algeria are on the brink of elimination knowing that even a victory over already-qualified Senegal tonight might not be enough to advance to the next round.

Algeria have struggled to replicate the form that saw them reach the knockout phase at the last World Cup and have been through four coaching changes since Brazil.

“In an ideal world, we would have qualified before facing them,” said current coach George Leekens who could soon be on his way out too. “To be frank, this is going to be a very tough match for us to win. We dare not give away soft goals like we did against Tunisia. Unfortunately, we no longer have our destiny in our own hands.”

Meanwhile the condition of pitches at all four venues – in the capital Libreville, Franceville, Oyem and Port Gentil – continue to face criticism following after serious injuries and poor quality.

“There have been up to five injuries at the tournament because of pitches,” Ghana coach Avram Grant, the former Chelsea boss, was quoted as saying after his side reached  the quarter-finals.

Teams playing at Port Gentil on Saturday were not allowed to warm up before a double header for fear of the surface being rendered unfit.  “The pitch is horrendous, it’s really tough to control the ball, to drive with the ball, everything is tough,” said Mali winger Bakary Soko, quoted by Reuters.

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