Gabon's Didier Ovono On Team Spirit, Old Leaders and Having A Laugh

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In the second part of our interview with Le Mans goalkeeper Didier Ovono, the Gabon skipper talks about the excellent camaraderie within the squad, spares a thought for former Panthers coach Alain Giresse, and reveals that current boss Gernot Rohr is actually “a great laugh” despite his reputation!

There is certainly continuity in the Gabon squad, with 14 players retained from the 2010 Nations Cup. You must know each other extremely well now?

Most of us have been together since the Under-20 tournament in 2003. This generation has been on an exciting journey together, evolving from youngsters to established professionals. I have a really strong relationship with some of my team-mates. Some of the guys came to my wedding, and we go on holiday together. We’re not just team-mates. A lot of us have known each other since the ages of eight or nine. I’ve experienced everything with them. They’re like family. It’s an exciting moment for this generation. We understand why we didn’t go further in Angola two years ago, and we’ll make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again.

Why didn’t you go manage to get past the group stage in 2010?

We were eliminated because we thought about the situation too much. We had four points after two games so we were in a strong position. But we started making calculations, trying to work out what we needed to go through. We ended up losing everything at the last moment.

France legend Alain Giresse was in charge in 2010. It was also under his stewardship that Gabon came within a whisker of qualifying for the World Cup. How important a figure was Giresse for you?

He’s (like) my dad. He is the man who made me the player that I am today. I owe so much to Alain Giresse. He made me understand that I have the talent to go a long way, but also made it clear that it would only make it if I worked harder. I’d been in the national team for five years already but when he arrived he made me realise that I hadn’t gone as far as I could. I hadn’t reached my peak. The time we spent together during the World Cup qualifying campaign was phenomenal. We experienced so many great times, so many emotions. We were six points ahead of Cameroon at one point. We came so close to reaching the World Cup.

Do you miss him?

It’s a shame he is no longer with Gabon but we have another very good coach now. I hope we’ll get the chance to meet Giresse at the Nations Cup. If Gabon play his Mali team in the final in Libreville that would be a nice moment! I am still in close contact with him. If I need advice I call him. He plays the role of coach, agent and dad for me.

What’s Gernot Rohr like? He comes across as a more authoritarian figure. You could even say a typical German coach. Is that fair?

(Laughs) He does place a lot of importance on discipline, but that’s a good thing. In the past people have said the Gabon players are talented but too lazy. He makes us work that extra bit harder and he is taking the team forward. He is very demanding coach and expects very high standards from the national team. We are lucky to have him.

But can you have a laugh with him?

Yes, definitely! From the outside he seems like a hard, strict man. But that’s not what he’s like at all. In fact, he’s a great laugh. He’s always ready to share a joke with the boys. He joins in with our training drills and goes running with us. He’s a really good man; very open and always cracking jokes. Sometimes he will slam his hands on the table. If he needs to get a point across he will do that. But away from work he’s a really good person who’s always ready to help me and my family if we have a problem.

Who is the joker in the Panthers’ dressing room?

Cedric Moubamba is a very funny man. He’s good at breaking the ice whenever things get a bit tense. He knows when it’s the right time to make a joke and to get us laughing.

Is the Gabon dressing room a happy place to be in?

Of course. We sing all the time. We sing when we train, we sing on the bus, in the shower, in the hotel… whenever we get the chance to have a sing we take it! It’s a pure joy to be part of this squad. There’s a fantastic atmosphere. We’re like a family and we’re all so proud to have been included in the 23 for the Nations Cup.

What are the fans like in Gabon? How do they differ from French fans?

In France when the team loses the fans go home. They are disappointed but they just go home. In Gabon when the team loses the fans hang around and express their anger. They can get very angry. Sometimes they will go on a demonstration march to try to get their message across to the players. It can be scary and you do feel added pressure. But there won’t be any problems during the Nations Cup because there is a lot of security and we will be playing in very modern stadiums.

It sounds like you’ll be under a lot of pressure. How hard is that for a goalkeeper who knows that any mistake could prove costly?

I’m not worried. I have more than 70 international caps so I’m experienced and used to the pressure of big matches. I have the opportunity to represent Gabon in this big event so I have no choice: I can’t mess things up, I have to play well. My performances have to be perfect. It’s not easy for a goalkeeper to be faultless in every game but that’s what I will aim to do. I’ll stay focused and simply try to enjoy doing the job that I love so much.