Oyem — Every major soccer tournament has a feature compiled on the 'stars to watch' ahead of kick-off. The buzz and hype of players with big reputations is synonymous with the Africa Cup of Nations.
In the case of Gabon 2017, the obvious choices were Glo-Caf Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez (Algeria), the runner-up Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon) and Africa-based Player of the Year Denis Onyango (Uganda) and the second choice in his category Khama Billiat (Zimbabwe).
The three aforementioned names enjoyed a magnificent 2016 and were naturally expected to draw attention at the 31st edition of Africa's most prestigious soccer competition.
But by Monday night, all three had exited the competition at the first hurdle. Once Uganda conclude the final group game against Mali at Stade Oyem tonight, Cranes will join Algeria, Gabon and Zimbabwe in following the remainder of the tournament on television.
Perhaps the most disappointed star is Aubameyang. The Borussia Dortmund striker shouldered the weight of 1.8 million Gabonese, who were hoping to reach the latter stages of the competition with their country as hosts
Aubameyang himself didn't disappoint with two goals in three matches but he missed a crucial chance against Cameroon in the all-important match that decided the fate of the Panthers.
Gabon were ultimately knocked out despite suffering no defeat at the tournament.
The French-born forward was joined by Mahrez in the exit lounge. Like Aubameyang, Mahrez tallied two goals in three matches but couldn't inspire the Desert Foxes to the quarter finals. The 1990 champions were a shadow of their huge billing; a far cry from their height of 2014 when they stretched eventual Fufa World Cup champions Germany in the second round.
Uganda's Denis Onyango couldn't be faulted for any of the two goals his country conceded in defeats to Ghana and Egypt. He was sent the wrong way but Andre Ayew of Ghana and beaten from close range with a thunderous Abdallah El-Said strike in the Egypt encounter.
He still showcased in world-class reflex abilities with a stunning save from a Christian Atsu shot in Uganda's opening group game.
Zimbabwe's Billiat was poetry in motion in the South African Premier Soccer League and Caf Champions League last season and was viewed by observers as the man likeliest to engineer his team's cinderella run in Gabon. He started the tournament brightly against Algeria in a match where the upright denied him the goal of the tournament. But Zimbabwe bowed out with Billiat failing to find the net for the Southern African country.
The Glo-Caf National Team of the Year Uganda Cranes were meanwhile the first team to be knocked out. Their gutsy effort and commitment on the field was let down a chronic lack of quality in the final third of the field.