After the laughter comes tears. The star of the show stood emotionless, a mix of resignation and yearning in his eyes. A stadium held its breath. Belief melted into hope.
Seydou Keita paced slowly towards the penalty spot for one last dance with the keeper, ball cradled in his arms. Was there to be one final twist? A reprieve for a country that had embraced its role as co-hosts so joyously?
Not this time. With ice in his veins Keita slotted the penalty low past Didier Ovono. The dream was over.
As the Mali's players darted off wildly in different directions around the pitch to dance, sing and celebrate, the emotion became too much for Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. After a 1-1 draw, extra time and nine well-taken penalties, his was the only miss.
So often the Panthers' saviour, a hesitant run up and shot was saved by Soumbeyla Diakite to send Gabon out. Overwhelmed by the intensity of the moment, Aubameyang burst into tears, inconsolable.
Huddled around him, despondent teammates embraced their number nine. From the Mali bench, the winning coach Alain Giresse, formerly in charge of Gabon, went to offer comforting words to former colleagues. Gradually the stadium emptied out, Libreville no longer the party capital of the world but one plunged into sorrow.
The stadium emptied but Aubameyang remained, unable to leave. In the end his father, Pierre Aubameyang, walked onto the pitch and, in a moment of pure emotion, held his tearful son in his arms. No doubt somewhere amid all the gentle sympathising and consoling, the words of encouragement for his son would also involve passing on his own experiences of such deep disappointment. Aubameyang senior was part of the last Gabon team to make the quarter finals of an Africa Cup of Nations Ã¢ÂÂ in 1996, when they lost on penalties to Tunisia after another 1-1 draw.
The sadness etched on Aubameyang's face in those moments offered stark contrast to the sunglass-wearing, smiling young man who arrived at the stadium a national hero only hours earlier. At AFCON 2012, Aubameyang has been the shining star of a Gabon team that has thrilled its people for two unforgettable weeks.
His three goals, explosive pace and all-action style only further endeared the Saint-Etienne forward to a growing legion of fans. It is no coincidence that, up in the presidential box, the first lady chose to wear the number nine on her Gabon shirt. Market stalls have been selling underwear with 'Aubameyang' emblazoned across the front, enough to put any lady in the mood, presumably. The handsome, stylish, mohawked striker has become the nation's pin-up boy.
Aubameyang has been a revelation here, but when asked whether his growing international profile might not affect the youngster, his club manager Christophe Galtier was unflustered. "Knowing the man, I am not worried at all. He has his head on his shoulders and the good fortune to have a father who had a long and successful career."
Sad as it is in the moment, the miss may well benefit the 22-year-old, formerly on the books at Milan, in the long term. His undoubted skill and trickery offer promise of a real player in the making. "Aubame is confirming all the hopes we have of him," Galtier had previously remarked, and that was certainly the case in Gabon. But there is an element of the complacent and overly flashy about Aubameyang at times.
After all, this is a player who earlier in the season, after a few weeks of outstanding form in France, had the Superman logo shaved into his hair. The crushing disappointment felt here may remind him in future that success can be fleeting and to get too carried away can be dangerous. An exciting career awaits if lessons are learnt in Libreville.
For Gabon, failure to advance past the quarter finals provides a sad end to a tournament they truly graced, offering us all such wonderful entertainment and joy. The 3-2 win over Morocco to seal qualification, by way of a 97th minute Beckham-against-Greece-esque free kick from Bruno Zita Mbanangoye, is already the game of the tournament if not one of the best international matches in years, an incredible denouement to a breathtaking game.
Disappointment will linger for now, but from the flames of their 2012 campaign a phoenix may well yet emerge. Gabon have a young, exciting team with a promising future and can now look to challenge again in 2013 with renewed vigour drawn from rich experience. "We lacked a bit of luck," Gabon coach Gernot Rohr commented. "I want to congratulate my players because they gave everything, and when you give everything you can leave with your head held high."
There are in fact certain similarities with the experiences of Gabon in Libreville and another African team that sprinkled stardust on a competition before exiting painfully at the quarter final stage not so long ago Ã¢ÂÂ Ghana. They dazzled, they stared into the face of history but ultimately they faltered; right down to the moving tears of a star player whose decisive penalty miss terminated the dream. That young team recovered pretty well in the end and are now one game away from a final at this same stadium in Libreville.
Gabon may well look on on Sunday and hope a similarly bright future awaits a group of players who did their country proud.
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