Ndong AWOL Against a Backdrop of Indiscipline and Chaos in Gabon
Didier Ndong, sent home in disgrace from Gabon for failing to show up for training yesterday, is the latest in a string of disruptions to the country's preparations for hosting the African Cup of Nations which start in under two months' time.
Ndong himself has something of a reputation, which hasn't fully surfaced yet in England. In his eight Premier League games, the midfielder has picked up three bookings but there has been little hint of the aggression for which he has gained a notoriety in France and in his home country of Gabon.
It was Didier Ndong who ripped off Jérémy Ménez's ear with his studs in a Mike Tyson-esque challenge in the summer. And tags of 'clumsy', 'awkward', 'crazy' and 'aggressive' followed the 22-year old around Ligue 1 before his record-breaking signing for Sunderland.
Until now, the Gabonese Football Federation appear to have closed their ears to various elements of unrest in their national and international game. But, with AFCON2017 looming, and keen to show some conviction - they took action last week and sacked their coach, himself accused of lacking authority, and yesterday they made an example of star midfielder, Didier Ndong, for failing to show up for training.
All of this comes against a backdrop of upheaval in the West African country. Political unrest and clashes between government opposition and police have cast doubt over the hosting of the tournament which is only taking place in Gabon because war in Libya forced it to be moved.
But also, Gabonese football is in a mess. Professional footballers in the country are revolting and plan to go on strike on the 19th November, the opening day of the domestic league. Some players say they have not been paid for nearly a year, and the average delay in receiving wages is said to be seven months.
Domestic players report they do not have the means to buy food for their families and are forced to borrow money to meet their needs. Now is the time to air their plight, because the situation will receive greater press the nearer the Cup of Nations gets.
And so it is that our Didier was 'lost' in the capital, Libreville, this week. But this isn't the whole story. Far from it.
Ndong has grown increasingly frustrated with the methods of his national team. For one thing, an outburst in Gabon's last match against Morocco, upon being substituted, caused waves in his country. Many put it down to his frustration at being played in an unfamiliar attacking role, and then out-wide on the left, and then the right, in successive matches. Ndong escaped punishment at the time, but not so this week.
But more than that, Didier Ndong has been one of the leading protagonists behind unrest within the Gabonese squad. His reasons are fundamental.
He has railed against some of the perceived privileges metered out to Gabon's long-standing 'star' names, such as Borussia Dortmund's Aubameyang, goalkeeper Dider Ovono and Bruno Ecuele Manga of Cardiff.
Ndong was missing from the Gabon side in the summer of 2015 - supposedly 'tired'; but many observers suspected he was staying away for altogether different reasons.
Some suggested it was to express his displeasure at the 'premium income' afforded to some of Gabon's players. Some suggest there is discontent that some players are able to choose whether they would like to compete in friendly matches or not - without risk of sanction; and some even suggest there is a racial divide in the Gabon team - between the 'Metis', traditionally light-skinned descendants of French colonists, and Gabonese nationals born of African ancestors.
There have also been long-standing traces of political involvement in the Gabon national team. Juventus star, Mario Lemina, was unveiled as deigning to wear the jersey of Les Panthères to great fanfare in 2015. Lemina had previously refused the invitation, having represented France in his youth.
Indeed, Lemina's decision to "choose the homeland of his father" was done at a grand event in the presence of the republic's President. Supposedly months of negotiations with influence from those at the highest levels of Gabon politics had convinced him to make his choice. There was also suggestion of a monetary sweetener, to the tune of rumoured tens of thousands of pounds.
Others are suspected to have been persuaded to represent Gabon through similar means - the Aubemeyang brothers and Frédéric Bulot of Standard Liege - for example.
Regardless, with the Africa Cup of Nations just nine weeks away and Saturday's game with Mali the final game before the tournament, what happens next in the case of Didier Ndong will be decisive.
Ndong will likely be expected to offer an apology and perhaps an explanation will be forthcoming to explain his absence. Football in Gabon is a mess - weighed down by the strife in the country, political interference and cliques within the national team. A decent showing at AFCON 2017 will be a miracle, but then the notion of hosting it was more with a firm eye on political propaganda than sporting success.
But, no one in Sunderland will care much about the fortunes of Gabon and their Cup of Nations' hopes. For now, David Moyes has his record-signing back for a full fortnight of training. If Didier Ndong has, on occasion, struggled this season it is no wonder - playing in that midfield alongside those players would be a struggle for anyone.
But, what we should recognise, is that Didier Ndong may well be a footballer who appears to care about the profession in which he plies his trade and the country he represents. Ndong is either a principled young man or a petulant one. Most likely he lies somewhere in the middle.
Going AWOL is hardly the way to prove a point perhaps, but consider the backdrop. This story has a way yet to run.