BENGUELA // In a tournament of largely dreadful goalkeeping, one man has stood out: Didier Ovono of Gabon, who made a string of fine saves in their 1-0 win over Cameroon, and gave another assured display in the 0-0 draw with Tunisia. A draw in today's final game against Zambia will secure their place in the quarter-finals; a win and they will top the group. Ovono is modest about his part in Gabon's rise - "For me, Gabon are not a team where you can think about one player," he said. "We are a group. We are good when we play together. We are not Cameroon with so many individuals" - but there can be no doubt that he is the central figure in Gabon's progress from also-rans to dark-horses to win the Cup of Nations.
Ovono's career path is an intriguing one that took him from Thomas Nkono's goalkeeping school in Barcelona, to El Salvador and the Georgia before he returned to western Europe with the French side Le Mans. At the same time he has been part of a national team who have blossomed together - 12 of this squad played together at under 18 level - and Ovono has high hopes of what Gabon might achieve in two years when they co-host the tournament with Equatorial Guinea.
And if President Bongo hadn't died shortly before a World Cup qualifier against Cameroon in June, forcing its postponement, who knows what success they might already have had? As it was, by the time the re-arranged game was played, Cameroon had regrouped as Paul Le Guen was appointed as coach, and beat Gabon home and away in the space of four days to retake control of their qualifying group. "Where my family was in the country there was a little bit of trouble, and I had to pay a little to get them to Libreville [the country's capital]," Ovono said. "The whole country was shocked. But now I think we lost these two games because of the situation.
"If we had played them the first time we would have won. They had lost against Togo and drawn with Morocco and they were thinking about changing the defence, whereas we had two wins. They could not have beaten us because we had a psychological advantage." The win over Cameroon in their opening game was, without question, about making a point. This is only Gabon's fourth Cup of Nations, but already they have made a significant impression. Much of the credit for their new self-confidence, Ovono insisted, must go to their coach, the former France midfielder Alain Giresse.
"He's good," he said. "He changed Gabon's football, mentally. He came and we started to be professional. He came with new rules and high levels. We have respect for his job, because when you know a guy knows the job you can follow him. Everything is about this respect. "We respect him not for what he was, because before him we had Jairzinho. But with work, he is a professional overseer. He knows how to beat big teams in this tournament."
Before the truly big teams, though, comes Zambia who have, once again, battled hard without great reward in a tough group. "They played good," said Ovono. "They've scored in every match, and we take this team really, really seriously. We must work hard to win this game." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Gabon v Zambia, KO 8pm, Aljazeera Sport + 9 & +10