Perhaps they are the most surprising participants in the African Nations Championship (CHAN) quarterfinals, but Gabon have been among the continent's best eight teams before. Twice, in fact.
They played in the final eight of the African Nations Cup (ANC) in 1996 and again when they co-hosted the competition in 2012. Gabon had an impressive run in that competition, topping their group after winning all three matches. That included victory over two North African sides with big reputations, Morocco and Tunisia.
A penalty shootout defeat, after they held Mali to a 1-1 draw, was all that separated them from the final four. Their most high-profile player Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed the spot-kick that cost Gabon the match.
Aubameyang is not at CHAN in South Africa -- he plays for Borussia Dortmund and the competition is for locally based players only -- but Gabon are managing all right without him. After kicking off with a draw against Burundi, they beat one of the tournament favourites, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in their second pool match and then produced what will be remembered as one of the performances of the competition to defeat Mauritania 4-2 and secure their spot in the knockouts.
Gabon are headlined by their veteran striker Daniel Cousin, who almost made his presence felt with a goal against Mauritania, but hit the post. Three years ago, Cousin, who is known for his stints with French clubs Le Mans and RC Lens, his year with Glasgow Rangers and two with Hull City, found himself a free agent and went back to his roots. Greek side Larissa offloaded him and Gabonese club FC Sapins agreed he could play for them in order to achieve his aim of representing Gabon in the 2012 ANC.
The Gabonese coach at the time, Gernot Rohr, made it clear he would not consider inactive players for the continental competition so Cousin had to be on the pitch. Sapins even agreed to his clause that if he was approached by a European team, he could leave them. That has not happened yet and Cousins still plays his football in Libreville and for Gabon, where he adds experience up front and in the dressing room.
That he has not yet found the back of the net is not a huge concern because Gabon also have a young pack capable of doing the job. They were on display in the frenetic victory over Mauritania, in which recent call-ups such as 25-year-old Duval N'Zembi and 22-year-old Bonaventure Sokambi were on the score sheet.
Sokambi's two goals in injury time sent Gabon through and underlined how promising he could be to the future of Gabonese football. He also scored the opening goal in the country's CEMAC Cup final (a competition played between Central African nations) last December. Gabon beat the Central African Republic 2-0, with Cousin scoring the second goal to ensure they were thoroughly prepared for the CHAN tournament.
Their victory there included wins over Cameroon and Congo and came shortly after the Gabonese football federation struck gold with sponsorship. The week before the CEMAC Cup final, Airtel Gabon committed two billion Central African francs (the equivalent of US$4.1 million) to support the Gabonese first division over the next three years.
The funding forms just one part of Gabon's ambitions to turn themselves into an influential sporting country. Earlier in 2013, PSG and Bordeaux played the French Super Cup in Gabon and there were claims that was just the start of the country venturing into big international sporting events.
Gabon's president Ali Bongo, who is leading the drive for his country to establish itself on the sporting map, reportedly takes his inspiration from Qatar, where he already has attended one sporting conference in the Middle Eastern country. What he will need to remember is that influential sporting countries are judged on the teams they produce as much as on the bells and whistles. Luckily for him, occasions like Gabon advancing at a competition such as CHAN, as they have done now, will keep that balance in check.